I finally got around to finishing Louis Bouyer’s memoirs – what an odd book.
Bouyer was a French scholar and priest – a convert from Protestantism – raised in some combined high church Reformed/Lutheran milieu, he was a Lutheran pastor. Two of his more well-known books that have been translated in English are Liturgical Piety and The
Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. I’ve read both, but don’t remember tons about them.
Bouyer’s memoir has been receiving some buzz mostly because of what he says about his work on commissions attached to the Second Vatican Council. He was bitter.
I said the book was odd. Why?
Well, it is a memoir, but, in the end, a not terribly personal one. The first few chapters which treat his childhood in and about Paris are quite lovely and evocative. But as he grows to adulthood, the book takes on the character of a list. Bouyer went here, studied these subjects with these people, got fed up or converted and then moved on. Repeat. Over and over again. In Europe, in the United States, encounters and friendships, a bit of teaching, some preaching….
Not, in the end, terribly interesting.
A couple of points struck me:
First, Bouyer was in Paris for most of World War II. Perhaps he has written about that experience elsewhere in some depth, but here he does not. You know the war is going on – he mentions it in sad terms a couple of times, but only as the faintest background to his writing and engagements with other scholars. It’s very strange – he was living in German-occupied Paris and he has nothing to say about that? I don’t care what he thought about some other Oratian in the house – I want to know what occupied Paris was like for these fellows.
And then, the Vatican II stuff. To tell the truth there is not a lot more than what has been mentioned in reviews – his loathing of Bugnini, the composition of Eucharistic Prayer II in a Trestavere trattoria and Ratzinger’s aside about Rahner: “Another monologue about dialogue.”
Now, I do believe he did, indeed write about all of that in quite a bit more detail, so I can’t fault the memoir for only hitting the highlights (to him). But what I wondered about was not as much the content as the attitude. Bouyer had a deeply negative assessment of the liturgical direction of Vatican II and makes clear that this direction was present long before the Council itself – for example, in the French context, there was some sort of conflict between liturgical groups in the 50’s, but so much was assumed in the telling, I found it very confusing and really never understood what was going on. So yes, distress and even disgust – that’s clearly expressed. But what I found lacking was a consideration of the complexities of his own involvement or even distant responsibility, even the broadest sense for the direction of the post-Conciliar liturgical scene. It is this bad thing that happened, but why? It is almost as if what s more important in the telling is the personal slight to Bouyer in his desired direction being rejected rather than any concern for the Church as a whole.