Pre-script: I think what I don’t make clear is that this is a piece I wrote lamenting my own lapse into bad patterns as I can now just rush into the sacristy two minutes before mass starts and am not forced to take more time to prepare. It really is about finding discipline in practice and not about the alb – I’m missing that extra layer of time and preparation that traditional vesting requires. It should also be noted that I was simply amused by the hyperbole of the title. The Church has resisted all manner of things through time, exists in the heart of God, and will hardly be brought down by poor choices in attire. R
OK, so the title might be an exaggeration. There are hundreds of things more important than albs vexing the Church but there is little more pressing than our approach and discipline around worship.
This morning, in jest, I posted a vesting prayer for donning a cassock alb to Facebook. It read, “Place upon me, O Lord, the polyester potato sack of ease that I may speedily and conveniently enter Your Presence.”
The post garnered some amusing responses. Having not worn them before and now having worn them for a year – I think they represent some unfortunate trends in the Church. Sometimes an alb isn’t just an alb.
They represent an ease that makes me uncomfortable. When we approach worship our chief task is to spiritually prepare ourselves to be in the Presence of Christ. This is a responsibility that is all to easy to take lightly. The repetitive nature of our pattern of worship poses challenges to our need to come to the Sacraments with reverence – treating each encounter with Christ as a precious thing. The quickness and ease of the cassock-alb reinforces a desire to just “get on with it” and to get ready with haste.
It also represents our desire to make the encounter with God an easier thing – we remove the more disciplined and difficult preparations to streamline the encounter and even domesticate it a bit. The cassock-alb represents a certain dumbing down – a lowest common denominator approach to preparation in which we substitute comfort and haste for careful adherence to older patterns of care and preparation.
It is an innovation for the sake of comfort that too much resembles other short-cuts we might take in our spiritual and devotional life.
The cassock-alb exists for one reason – haste. It takes longer to vest properly. It is inconvenient and the added layers are hot and uncomfortable. Yet, there is little in the Christian faith that is truly comfortable and there is virtue in taking our time to make ourselves ready to offer our selves, and souls, and bodies in worship and adoration.
The cassock-alb is the strip mall of vestments. Convenient, unattractive, and accessible – its impact is less one of commission than it is one of negligence. It, like a strip mall, reflects our lack of discipline and attentiveness rather than causing it. It is not a real thing – in the way that fast food is not real food. It is there as a sloppy habit that takes the place of investing the time and energy into a more focused and present experience.
When preparing for the source and summit of Christian life – the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist – it is a good and holy thing to take some extra time. It’s good to fumble with amice strings. It’s good to add layer to layer in preparation. It’s good to get the knots right on the cincture. It’s good to ponder the correct arm for the maniple.
It’s a good and holy thing for our approach to mass to be paced, deliberate, and even a little confusing. Maybe the cassock-alb itself isn’t causing the collapse of the Church but sloppiness, haste, and a lack of thoughtful encounter with the Living Christ will hardly serve to build up the Body or draw those around us to a transformed and challenging new life.
Tuesday Rupp said:
In my experience, the cassock-alb also represents another quiet shift in worship trends: the diminishing number of people who participate in altar guilds. It takes a fair amount of time each week to launder, iron, and properly stow more traditional vestments. It would seem that the cassock-alb represents a shift in the relationship between clergy and lay ministries as well.
Reblogged this on Inwardly Digest and commented:
I fully agree with Robert Hendrickson on this.
Beau Reynolds said:
Father, while I realize that the cassock alb is a catalyst for your greater point regarding reverence for the sacraments and their liturgies, your language surrounding the modern vestment strikes me as unworthy of your message, and a bit fussy.The alb began as a simple tunic, and the now-traditional method of vesting has been one that has grown in complexity over time. The cassock-alb does not preclude a reverent celebrant, liturgy, or people, just as the cassock, amice, alb, and maniple do not secure reverence for the same. lntentionality is a virtue; quibbling is not. This strikes me as losing the forest for the trees.
Thanks Beau – I wrote this early in the morning before coffee so I am sure it is more fussy than needed! My general practice is not to alter the posts once they go up, so my fussiness and morning crankiness all are shining through.
Beau Reynolds said:
Fr, I am convinced coffee is a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to act in our daily lives. Previous comment still standing, I regularly enjoy your insights and reflections. Thank you.
The Rev Robert M Rainis, STS said:
Much to do about nothing Canon, that is the whole cassock alb thing. The rest of the offering is right on target however. And while I prefer cassock, alb , amice, stole and chasuble…it is a matter of personal preference and not reverence. However, I have seen and know enough clergy persons who are just plain sloppy about their liturgical appearance to appreciate your concerns.
i agree with the sentiment (despite being a cassock alb wearer) but my pedantic side would point out that the maniple is usually worn on the left arm not the right!
Joe Mock said:
Here in the Philippines the cassock-alb’s convenience has little to do with haste and much to do with the heat. Sweating one’s way through the service may upbuild character perhaps in a medieval sort of way, but it can also be bad for one’s health.
C. Wingate said:
Indeed, the oft-Philippine-like weather in the DC area and points south is undoubtedly part of the reason for the C-A’s popularity in these parts. I would also point out that albs presuppose cassocks, and nobody has yet come up with a short sleeve cassock with an iota of dignity.
Fr. M.J.G. Pahls said:
While I appreciate the sentiments driving the article, the argument against cassock-albs, etc. is utter historical-theological codswallop. All of the church’s current vestiture is the product of practical development and every mystagogical explanation of a particular piece of vestiture follows many years — sometimes centuries — behind the practical development. The old vestiture prayers — prayers that exist in many forms and ascribe theological symbolism differently — are an example of this.
Let’s chase this out a bit in a way that will grind at the rad-trad, “cassocks and birettas for lunch at Denny’s,” Catholics…
Your Chasuble began as the conical “casula” — a Roman outer traveling garment that could be gathered about the waist and arms when necessary for doing stuff with the arms and hands. Otherwise the sides hung down below the knees like the front and back to keep your fingers from frostbite. My Slabbinck gothic chasuble — one that my wife bought me for Christmas a half decade ago — is closest to that original form and the good Belgians who constructed it added vecro to the inside instead of the traditional ties to hold the folded up arms while manipulating the chalice, paten, and cruets at the altar. By the 1200’s the sides were shortened to fall at or slightly above the wrist and the shortening continued until the 16th century when the chasuble more closely resembled a monastic scapular than the original casula. These “fiddleback” chasubles came to be preferred for convenience when vesting and for its superior functionality in preventing spillage with the chalice or the upending of a ciborium.
Thus comes the question: Was this perfectly sensible development, saving time when vesting and preventing needless accident, or a profane concession to convenience?
My thinking is that at the gallows for liturgical profanity you’d have to hang the fiddleback by the same noose as the cassock alb.
In the end, we have to remember that the amice is not a “helmet of salvation,” but a barrier to keep your “ring around the collar” from becoming the “ring around the thousand-dollar chasuble.”
Your maniple is not a “maniple of sorrows,” but a napkin that’s presently not-so-useful for keeping your sweaty forehead from commingling with the precious Blood of Christ.
Your cincture has nothing to do with reigning in your libido. It exists to keep your billowy fabric together (and to accentuate your beer-belly).
Your stole has nothing to do with immortality, but is a symbol of education and office. And don’t cross it like an “X” in front. You look like a tool. The discipline throughout the Western Church is to let it hang simply around your neck. You are a priest of the church and your individual self-expression ends when you ascend to the altar of God. Vestments are not a means for grinding some weird neo-ultramontanist, neo-Thomistic axe. Let Saint John XXIII open the window and let a little of that hard-won Vatican II breeze in to your vestry.
And finally comes your alb:
Regardless of whether it looks like a linen moo-moo needing a cincture, like a monk’s cowl, or like a fitted cassock…
…whether it hangs to your ankles or creeps up your legs to become a surplice or “mini-skirts” to become a cotta…
…whether it’s made of linen, cotton, polyester, the finest silk, or duct tape…
…whether it’s plain or embroidered or ornamented with little, or lots, or lots and lots — I mean Castro District fabulous lots — of lace…
…it still exists to keep your stinking pits and the crap you dribbled on your shirt at lunch away from the above-mentioned thousand-dollar chasuble. It began as a simple street-wear tunic and it now exists to keep your street-wear separate from your church-wear. It’s liturgical underwear, so quit bitching about the other guy’s BVD boxer briefs because you prefer the Fruit of the Loom tighty-whiteys they wore in what you imagine were the good ol’ days.
In all seriousness, brothers, tradition is a great thing and it’s important to celebrate that we are bound no less to the saints of the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries than we are to the saints of the second. Deliberation and intention when preparing for our work at the altar is likewise a critical service to ourselves, to God, and to the People of God.
Personally-speaking, I use the vesting prayers every Sunday for this very reason. They are a necessary speed-bump for this church-planter, reminding me that my brain and ingenuity aren’t sufficient to build God’s Church. They slow me down and remind me that this is God’s work, not mine. That being said, however, clericalism is the ever-present dark passenger of all proper respect for the clerical state. When your vestments become the occasion for your preening, self-aggrandizing, self-righteous conceit and snobbery — and the linked article ventures in that direction — you’d be better off burning them on the new fire you light at the Easter Vigil.
Derek Olsen said:
Thanks to the Liturgical Renewal Movement there’s a tendency to fetishize the 4th century. The trope of the origins of clerical garments has its roots in an attempt to de-escalate the lay/clergy split. But this is a classic case of the genetic fallacy. You’re either wearing “funny clothes” or you’re not! A cassock-alb isn’t less “funny clothes” than a fiddle-back despite what 4th century cheerleaders try to tell you!
I think Robert’s point is still valid and important: the light-hearted rant about a garment is a deeper question about how much we are willing to open ourselves to the discipline of the tradition and to make the effort to be thoughtful and intentional. Because these things don’t stop at garments—the same attitudes will care over into preaching, children’s ed, pastoral care, etc…
(Great point above about the decline of altar guild ladies–that’s worth deeper thought as well!)
I definitely agree that The Real Thing is vastly superior to any cassock alb I’ve seen, but I think one ought to be careful about implying that all who wear cassock albs don’t care about being prayerful, intentional, not looking slovenly, etc. And there is the fact (which I find perplexing but must accept) that some people actually think cassock albs look “smarter” and more attractive!
cassock:alb::cassock-alb ::: shampoo:conditioner::shampoo-conditioner
Michael Bertrand said:
For your next post I humbly suggest discussing the merits of pushing the altar against the wall and celebrating facing God. You might as well hit all the bases while you’re at it.
Father Jim Brady said:
I think cassock albs are okay if they are professionally made to measure and of good heavy material. Mine is from Almy. What I can’t stand are the homemade efforts in synthetic material (sometimes with zips) produced by well meaning relatives.
Reblogged this on Theology in Tweed and commented:
What does it say about the time we take and our own intentions with our vestments? Are they being worn devotionally for God and catechetically for the people (as Newman might have said) or are they simply being worn to meet the expectation that a priest should be wearing something and it may as well be as comfortable as possible?