Sunday, 12 February 2017

Agatha Christie and the Latin Mass

The detective/murder story is arguably the most philosophical form of popular fiction. The sleuth, confronted with a set of clues that present themselves as a puzzle that baffles the ordinary man, must use his superior powers of reason, logic and deduction, as well as his insights into human nature - powers of the mind - to expose a hidden truth; it is an inherently intellectual enterprise. The genre is also deeply moral and even theological in as much as it concerns justice and the battle of good against evil. Murder is a primordial sin; the detective represents order, law and civilisation itself. Thou shalt not kill. Every whodunit concerns eternal themes of guilt and justice.

It is a great pity then that, in popular culture, the genre has now degenerated such that the detective is no longer the hero; instead he has been displaced by the forensic scientist, the man in the white coat, who solves the crime using not raw nous but rather the technology of the laboratory. Science has eclipsed philosophy. While the moral dimension remains (usually), it is less a theological quest and more a technocratic problem in which there is little sense of cosmic violation and even less of original sin.

In classic detective stories - those of Agatha Christie, for instance - the reader is always left reflecting on the mortal condition. The crime is solved but human imperfection remains. In the more recent TV crime shows we are left marvelling at the wonders of science instead. Science itself is the focus of such shows. The detectives are shallow and forgettable as characters and the crimes are either banal or unnecessarily perverse. The microscope is the hero.

This is a failing away into a tawdry secularism. In its classical form the genre is deeply religious - which is to say in most Western contexts, Christian. A story like Murder on the Orient Express is morally complex, and is so in a specifically Christian way. The background and assumptions of such a story are those of a Christian society. Not surprisingly, such stories are often decorated with overtly religious motifs and the genre has attracted strongly religious writers, Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries being an example. Christie herself is often cited as a distinctly Christian writer. As she admitted, her early stories took the form of simple Christian morality tales. As she grew in her craft her stories grew in complexity and became more morally nuanced, but there can be no doubt that they are all the product of a Christian moral sensibility.

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Officially, Agatha Christie - touted as the world's most read author following the Bible and Shakespeare - was an Anglican. Her parents baptised her an Anglican as a child and she remained in the Church of England throughout her life. According to their station in British society, they were of the so-called 'High' Church. Her mother, however, had broad spiritual interests and introduced her daughter to both Catholicism and some of the 'occult' traditions, theosophical and orientalist, that were then in fashion, especially among educated ladies. These more esoteric interests are reflected in Agatha's passion for archaeology and archaeological research into ancient and arcane traditions, these matters forming the background to some of her more exotic stories. Her Christianity took shape less in overt churchgoing than in the lifelong practice of reading Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ before going to sleep at night; it was, it is said, her constant bedside reading (a habit she passed on to one of her most famous literary creations, the spinster sleuth Miss Marple.) Her second husband Max Mallowan was a practising Catholic but as a divorcee he - and his wife - were forbidden from taking the sacrament at mass.

Despite this unquestionably Christian and indeed Anglo-Catholic background, it is nevertheless largely an incidental matter by which Agatha Christie's name has become associated with an important aspect of Christian sanctity. Almost by accident, she has become known for efforts to preserve the traditional liturgical legacy of the Catholic Church. It happened thus: In the wake of the deconstructive self-vandalism of the Second Vatican Council and the modernising papacy of Paul VI, especially the introduction of the 'New Order' 'hippie' mass in the vernacular, leading British intellectuals and public figures fought to retain the old Latin or Tridentine liturgy. A petition was presented to the pope urging him to reconsider the scope of his reforms. Here is a list of those who signed it:

Harold Acton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Bayler, Lennox Berkeley, Maurice Bowra, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Nevill Coghill, Cyril Connolly, Colin Davis, Hugh Delray, Robert Exeter, Miles Fitzalan-Howard, Constantine Fitzgibbon, William Glock, Magdalen Gofflin,, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Ian Greenness, Jo Grimond, Harman Grisewood, Colin Hardie, Rupert Hart-Davis, Barbara Hepworth, Auburn Herbert, John Jolliffe, David Jones, Osbert Lancaster, Cecil Day-Lewis, Compton Mackenzie, George Malcolm, Max Mallowan, Alfred Marnau, Yehudi Menuhin, Nancy Mitford, Raymond Mortimer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Iris Murdoch, John Murray, Seán Ó Faoláin, E. J. Oliver, Oxford and Asquith, F. R. Leavis, William Plomer, Kathleen Raine, William Rees-Mogg, Ralph Richardson, John Ripon, Charles Russell, Rivers Scott, Joan Sutherland, Philip Toynbee, Martin Turnell, Bernard Wall, Patrick Wall, E. I. Watkin.

They argued that the outright abolition of the Tridentine rite was ill-considered and impoverishing and that the old rite had a special historical significance for British Catholics, and they requested a disposition from Pope Paul to allow the old rite to be continued among those who preferred it. The modernising pontiff was notoriously impatient with those who wanted to cling to the old forms and who resisted his reforms, but it is reported that when he cast his eye over this petition and came to the name 'Agatha Christie' he stopped and said, "Oh. Agatha Christie!" and relented. The resulting indult (papal permission) that gave (limited) license to continue the Latin mass in England is accordingly known as the Agatha Christie Indult, and the original petition the Agatha Christie Letter, making her name synonymous with the struggle to preserve the traditional rite.

Aside from the undercurrent of Christian morality in her detective stories, and their concern for what are undoubtedly Christian themes, this - unwittingly - is the great contribution Agatha Christie made to the Christian faith. Her reputation, the import of her name on a petition, swayed a pope.

* * *

The story of the Agatha Christie Letter came up in conversation the present author was having with Catholic friends who regularly attend the Latin mass. Although she was not herself a Roman Catholic Dame Agatha (Lady Mallowan) is reported to have regarded the Mass of Paul VI (Novus Ordo) as a desecration and an abomination and an unwarranted deviation from tradition, as did the other non-Catholics who signed the petition. A great many Catholics feel the same. Since it was first introduced in 1969 the 'Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite' promulgated by Paul VI has been subject to withering criticism both within and beyond Catholic ranks.

It is no small matter. Liturgy is the great treasure of the Catholic tradition, just as music and song are the treasures of the Protestant tradition and iconography is the treasure of the Orthodox. No one questions the right of Popes and Councils to make appropriate revisions of the liturgy from time to time, and thus to maintain a living tradition that responds to the needs of changing circumstances, but the Mass of Paul VI was a comprehensive and radical break from tradition, a reform that did far more than revise and adjust: it completely overturned many of the norms of the Tridentine rite and all previous rites before it.

Leaving aside serious questions about its theological validity, it is artistically and aesthetically inferior, lacking in solemnity and devoid of the spiritual depth characteristic of the traditional liturgical forms. This is obvious to even a casual observer with no religious sensitivity at all. The 'new mass' is banal and uninspiring; it trades sanctity and solemnity for the cheap virtues of inclusiveness and accessibility.

Yet the old rites still have a dedicated following and, as the Agatha Christie Letter shows, have had since the time the changes were first made. There are traditionalists, and re-creationists (people not necessarily of the Catholic faith who love the liturgy for its historical and aesthetic qualities) preserving the old forms.

* * * 

Below is a video presentation of an historical re-creation prepared by a Swedish Dominican group of the Latin mass for 4th October 1450, the eighteenth Sunday after pentecost. The introduction in Swedish is as follows:

"Five hundred years ago, the universe seemed much more understandable than it does for us. All of existence was framed by a number of ceremonies and behavioral patterns which were a matter of course for people at the time. And the most important of them was the Holy Mass - that ring of charged words and actions which surround the central mystery in the Christian faith: That Jesus becomes man anew in the creatures of bread and wine. 

"We have reconstructed a High Mass from 500 years ago in an ordinary Swedish parish church, namely in Endre Church, one mile east of Visby in Gotland. We imagined ourselves to be participating in this high mass on an autumn Sunday in the middle of the 15th century. It is local people who are participating in clothes typical for the time, and we have tried as much as possible to reconstruct [something to do with (worship) services] in the Diocese of Linköping at that time - since Gotland belonged to that diocese. 

"The service is conducted in an incomprehensible language, a language incomprehensible to the people: Latin. Because church services at the time were not considered a medium for communicating information, except for silent prayers. Just as one cannot describe what is fascinating about a melody or a sight, one shouldn't be able to understand or describe the central mystery of the universe. The congregation waits for the central moment, when the bread and wine shall be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. 

"The priest was helped by a chorister, perhaps the [experienced?] youth whom [his soul has discovered?] and who with time would be sent to Linköping in order to attend the cathedral school. Songs, mostly from the Bible, were sung by the local cantor. We don't know exactly how the music went in the medieval churches. Maybe Endre Church had a specific order which required a qualified cantor like the one we shall see here. 

"The Sunday service began when the priest sprinkled Holy Water on the congregation. This was to remind them that they had become members of the Christian church through baptism. The Holy Water would drive away all the powers of evil. 

"Let us now place ourselves in the Middle Ages. Let us try to grasp the atmosphere in a normal Swedish parish church, in a time where man still believed himself cast out into an empty, cold existence, when Europe was still unified, and when the central mystery around which everything revolved was that Jesus Christ, had become man, had died, and risen again for all."


Harper McAlpine Black

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