For Christmas last year my husband bought me the huge (684 pages, weighs 3 lbs!) and beautiful book A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages by James Monti. I had wanted it badly. This book is somewhat like an encyclopedia, only one that provides a live, guided tour of the rites and rituals of our Church a thousand years ago, and one that is written with evident love for the Church and the splendor of the liturgy. I haven’t read all of this marvelous book yet, but I highly recommend this book to Catholics and to scholars.
The author, Mr. Monti, sought and received both a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for his book, which is rare to see these days, and is usually an impressive sign of faithfulness and love for the Faith. In its three parts, the book describes the beliefs and rituals behind (1) The Sacraments, (2) Sacred Time: The Liturgical Year, and (3) Other Rites (such as canonizations and funerals) during the four hundred or so years around the turn of the previous millennium, what we call the Middle Ages.
During most of my life, I believed that the Middle Ages represented something utterly foreign, utterly backward, and utterly unrecognizable in its thought and life compared to the achievements and progress that have happened since in our modern times. Well, I’ve recently been finding that, especially in philosophy, culture, and manners, the people who are really backward are we moderns, and comparisons between folks back then and people now is in many to most ways uncomplimentary on our side of the timeline! The title of this book, “A Sense of the Sacred”, excellently encapsulates the author’s vision of connecting we modern Catholics with Catholics in another time: a time when God was both at the center of human life and the central focus of the worship of the Church, a time when all people recognized that to worship God properly they must use words and things that were elevated, set apart, holy, extremely beautiful–in a word, sacred. Every gesture, every prayer, every word in the ceremonies of the Church in the Age of Faith had a sacred significance. You will marvel at the spiritual beauty that the sense of the sacred developed in the worship of previous generations of Catholics. This sacredness in Catholic worship has been lost in our times, and Mr. Monti says in his introduction that he hopes that his book will help us today and “serve as a source book in discussing the proposed ‘reform of the reform’.”
Definitely, then, this book is for clergy and laity who are serious about understanding spirituality and religious thought in the Age of Faith–but also for those who want to understand what it means to be Catholic. It is for someone who wants to understand how Catholics have thought about the Sacraments for hundreds of years. And I think it is also a book for Catholic artists who want to be able to decode, understand, and use religious images and symbols in traditional Catholic art. Even if you consider yourself none of the above, I would recommend that you (and all Catholics!) read the Introduction and Chapter 1 (The Medieval Liturgy: An Overview). The writing style is completely accessible and will not intimidate anyone. These two chapters will explain the growth and development of the Mass to you like nothing else, and will inspire your gratitude and deepen your devotion on Sunday mornings.
In order to understand the Catholic Church today, to fully grasp what we believe and who we are as Catholics, to appreciate what the Sacraments are for and what they do, what we really need to do is travel back in time. We need to boost our faith today by going back and spending time in the great and glorious Age of Faith. What a blessing that we have authors such as James Monti who have already made the journey and are happy to take us back with them!