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From the April, 2004
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Contra Spontaneity by Thomas Howard

Contra Spontaneity

Thomas Howard on Christian Ritual

That looks like a grumpy title. What misanthrope among us is against spontaneity, for heaven’s sake? Isn’t spontaneity the very avatar of freshness, joy, freedom, youth, and—well, spontaneity? Who’s the blackguard (pronounced blaggard, I’m sure you know; it’s like ribald, which everyone pronounces ribald and is really ribbled; just a spontaneous little pedagogical parenthesis here)—anyway, who’s the blackguard who is so dyspeptic that he will begrudge us all the very thing that blows like the spring breeze through the fetid miasma of conventionalism?

Yes. Fie. Or sometimes fie. The above paragraph would say what pops into our minds (spontaneously) upon encountering such an unpromising title. Who will quarrel with the sheer laughter that spontaneity brings in its wake? The whole idea behind Candid Camera has always been the glorious reactions of us mortals upon finding ourselves hailed with bizarre situations. For myself, I’d say that 90 percent of their programs have me apoplectic with laughter.

Or again: What is one of the most splendid things about very small children? Certainly it’s the unsullied freshness of their reactions to new situations; they aren’t jaded yet. Or their remarks. My mother kept a little notebook in which she recorded hundreds of remarks from her six children. She once heard me, for example, say that God chased Adam and Eve out of Mr. McGregor’s garden. That’s what comes of parents’ reading both the Bible and Beatrix Potter to tots. My small son found himself enchanted with the “sunshine crumbs” that danced in a shaft of afternoon sun streaming through the window.

Surprise parties. Unexpected bottles of champagne. Sudden outings to the beach. Unplanned hi-jinks. The stunned silence followed by the explosion of applause and shouting when a soprano has exceeded our wildest hopes in Lucia de Lammermoor.

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Bravo. So why must we have an article entitled “Contra Spontaneity?”

Lurking Spontaneity

Actually, I am plagiarizing myself here. About thirty years ago I wrote an article with this same title for a religious journal. The thing is, I couldn’t think of another title for this one.

In that earlier article, my concern was with various forms of spontaneity that seemed at that time to be lurking, and slowly easing on to center stage, in the world of the Evangelicals. Private spirituality, for example: How did we all “do” our daily prayers? (Actually, the word was “devotions”: If you heard a man say that he “said his prayers,” you knew he was a modernist or some sort of High Episcopalian. C. S. Lewis, for example.) The great thing was to keep our prayers ad hoc.

And how did we pray in public? There, surely, was an activity that called most earnestly for pure spontaneity. Heaven defend the congregation from having to listen to a read prayer. Potted prayers gave off a whiff of your Tibetan prayer wheels. No use at all.

The irony here, of course, was that every one of us could render, on the spot, a “spontaneous” prayer that, upon scrutiny, turned out to be composed of a string of altogether hackneyed, shopworn, and threadbare tags that we had heard our elders using, time out of mind. “Our dear’vnly Father, we just want to praise and thank you for all your many blessings. . . .” My son returned spluttering from an Evangelical summer camp one year, demanding to know why they all said “just” in their prayers. Lord, we just pray. . . . I had no very satisfying explanation for him. He, having been raised in a liturgical church, was buffaloed by this particular approach to the Most High.

I tried, in that article, to put the case for structure and tradition. We all resort to these props, all the time. “Happy birthday to you”; who wants some stumbling, off-the-cuff effort here? We want this pre-canned jingle, both for our one-year-olds and for our nonagenarians. Or the Marine Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” on the Fourth. A new effort won’t quite fill the bill. “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, “Toora-loora-loora” in an Irish pub (although we were certainly not Catholics, and didn’t drink beer, so that is probably not a good example), or “Dixie” for the Southerners on any and all occasions.

That article was written in the seventies. Many traditions were under fierce attack from “The Movement.” The flag was ritually (ritually!) burned. Fatigues, jeans, and waffle-stomper boots replaced traditional dress. Bras went out. Last names were dropped: “Hi. I’m Tootsie.” Period. I, for one, would have been glad to learn that she was Tootsie Throckmorton, since I already knew a Tootsie Rominski. Posture changed, from the somewhat cool strut of the crew-necked preppies of the fifties, to a sort of waiflike, specious-ingénue, wayfarer stoop, complete with green cloth bag over one shoulder (heaven defend us from briefcases), as though to say, “Hey man, I’m just passin’ through. What’s goin’ on?”

We are now in a new eon as far as the calendar goes, but the eon finds its harbingers in what I have just described. Tradition has succumbed to the gargantuan efforts to keep up spontaneity in all sectors of life, the irony being, of course, that these efforts themselves become traditions within the first 24 hours.

Let Britney Spears or Keanu Reeves show up in such-and-such a costume, and bango: it’s de rigueur. The message is supposed to be, “I’m choosing my own lifestyle in contradistinction to the bourgeois, suburban style of my parents,” and so forth and so forth. (That’s a poor sample of the argot of the spontaneous crowd, since people who say “I’m like . . .” don’t use the word contradistinction. But you know what I mean.)

We need not multiply instances here. The whole matter is with us in living color all the time.

Sovereign Spontaneity

The aspect of the matter that is naturally of interest to readers of Touchstone is the religious aspect. No century since the first has been free from Montanism, the claim, that is, to be acting on the spur of the moment in direct response to direct and unmediated messages from the Holy Ghost. Today Montanism, more popularly known as spontaneity, is sovereign in immense reaches of both Protestantism and Catholicism. (I cannot speak for the Copts.) A Protestant might suppose that what with the Mass and one thing and another, spontaneity is for the Catholic pretty well ruled out. Isn’t the whole thing canned?

Well, yes, in one sense. You have to knuckle under to a given form of words when it comes to the central act of the Mass, and you have to have bread made from wheat (rice cakes or potato pancakes don’t work) and drink pressed from grapes, not hops or corn.

On the other hand, a global effort to loosen things up and inject a strong dose of spontaneity was mounted in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. I say “aftermath” on purpose, since the documents of the council do not grant a warrant for the pitiable hi-jinks by means of which tens of thousands of parishes try to get with it. Two cheers for electric guitars, by all means, but the phenomenon does raise some piquant questions.

The Mass, standing as it does on the cusp between the temporal and the eternal, or between the conditioned and the Unconditioned, does not take its cues merely from history’s ephemera. The Sapphire Throne is approached via the Upper Room and Golgotha. How do we dispose ourselves in these thunderous precincts? What deportment will answer here? It is worth asking whether huge efforts to loosen up and get chatty and affable are quite the rubric.

Once at the dinner table at the Roman Catholic seminary where I taught for 15 years, this topic came up. One of my colleagues on the faculty, an admirable young priest, in answer to some of my musings about loose-jointedness in the contemporary celebration of the Divine Liturgy, remarked with worried surprise, “But that’s what they taught me. That’s all they taught me.” (I happened to know his teacher, who is the very model of a modern liberated nun.)

I had often been present when he was the celebrant. He made superhuman efforts to cast the words of the Liturgy into a friendly, familiar, conversational mold. Even chatty. And lots of eye contact. There was a sort of “Help yourself to the refreshment” air about it all.

My own view, always admitting that I am the stuffy type who does, in fact, love the Latin Mass (although I will squabble with no one about it; I never get to a Latin Mass) and Renaissance polyphony, is that very little has been gained by the laborious efforts to get things spontaneous. (“Laborious . . . spontaneous”: does anyone sniff an anomaly here?)

Modern Montanism

Protestantism, of course, has no given tradition in any sense analogous to Catholicism. You begin with an array: Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Menno Simon, Ann Bradstreet, Roger Williams, John Nelson Darby, Azusa Street. There is an invigorating variety. Evangelicalism, a subdivision of Protestantism, is the freest of all the sectors in that camp.

When the Mass was jettisoned, certain dignified ways of conducting public worship grew up in most of the denominations. Today, perhaps as a by-product of the zeitgeist, spontaneity is a quality most sedulously sought in every quarter of Protestantism—though not, I hasten to say, by every Protestant—even, I have recently discovered to my astonishment, in the Dutch Reformed churches, which one had always thought of as being of all Protestant churches the most sober (along with the Scottish Presbyterians of Pittsburgh, no doubt).

The idea is to loosen up. The first element to go has been the hymnal. How, exactly, movie screens dropped from the ceiling with the texts of “praise songs” projected onto them achieve an advance in spontaneity, I have never quite grasped. You still have canned words. “Shine, Jesus, shine” is as fixed as “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” And as for the sentiments evinced in these two songs, I leave it to the reader to choose.

A second element, this time an addition, has been the appearance of something called “worship teams.” I believe that the idea here is to hatch (and hatch and hatch) new and diverting orders of service, perhaps with some surprises for the congregation, but certainly with novelty. We need to be kept on our toes. Especially if we have been raised on Sesame Street or that amiable heliotrope dinosaur, we will need this rapid-fire sequence of stimuli and surprises. I believe that such teams are energetically at work in the mega-churches.

I have to confess to having been impressed upon my one visit to the original mega-church near Chicago. It was all well done. The music was (I am serious) worthy of Broadway. Nothing sloppy, or even tacky. We were greatly entertained.

Prayer. Ex tempore prayer, of course, has been the “tradition”(!) in Protestantism since John Calvin introduced the “pastoral prayer,” I would guess. Certainly in the excellent Evangelicalism of my own childhood and youth it was the practice. As all Evangelicals know, spontaneity in prayers can only hold out for so long; then one reaches for the tried and true tags, tropes, and phrases. “Journey mercies” was one in my day; I never could figure out why it wasn’t “journeying mercies” that we were asking from the Most High, but there it was. We thought we were quoting Lamentations when we thanked him for his mercies which are “new every morning and fresh every evening.” The joker in that pack was that Jeremiah says nothing about the evening in that text.

I must admit that when I was received into the Church of England, I found myself overwhelmed with the sheer plenitude of, say, “Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command.” These “collects,” no matter how many times you repeat them, never dry up. I learned them forty-some years ago, and I still use many of them in my own private prayer. I can’t manage the business nearly so well drawing on my own ad hoc resources.

Public Deliverance

However. To conclude: It may be that the nub of the matter is to be found at the watershed between the public and the private. In public, what we want is to be delivered from the caprices of personality. The minister’s ebullience, or preening, or rickety syntax, or attempts to be warm, are beside the point altogether. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis has said what needs to be said:

Those who dislike ritual in general—ritual in any and every department of life—may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. [This is one of the very few places where Lewis gets so earnest.] It [ritual] is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance.

To those who toil so assiduously to capture spontaneity, and to those who are finding it wearying at last, I can only turn you towards the thing that reaches both deeper and higher than spontaneity, namely, That-Which-Is-Handed-Down.  


Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).

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“Contra Spontaneity” first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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