Friday, 11 July 2014

Liturgical Piety and Private Piety

My attention was recently drawn to this article by Fr. Mark Kirby on the question of whether liturgical or individual piety ought to take precedence in the life of a Christian. The two opposing positions on this question are represented by two schools of spirituality, namely those associated with the Benedictine and the Jesuit orders. Benedictine life and spirituality is very deeply embedded in the traditions of monasticism, revolving very closely around the liturgy. For the Benedictines, the liturgy is the primary bed and source of the spiritual life; individual piety is informed by the liturgy, and takes place first and foremost in the liturgical context. The Jesuits, on the other hand, have a famously individualistic spirituality. They were the first religious order who did not bind themselves to the praying of the Divine Office, due to their particular focus on the active missionary life and its many demands. St. Ignatius of Loyola was not necessarily opposed to the praying of the Office; indeed he himself had a particular devotion to it, but he nonetheless did not wish to bind the members of his order to it, while still commending it as a very good thing to do. But the Jesuit spirit after him adopted a very individualistic view of piety, even to the positive neglect of the importance of the liturgy. 

In my own limited understanding, the Benedictine spirituality is more in line with the Catholic tradition. Like Fr. Kirby in the above article, I do not wish to deny the importance of individual piety, and the Jesuit approach is certainly not without its benefits, but that does not mean that liturgical piety ought not to take precedence. Catholics are, well, Catholic before anything else; as such they are first part of the universal Church, of which the liturgy is the primary expression of prayer. Thus, as individuals, the first duty of Catholics is to live the life of the universal Church. The Catholic spiritual life ought therefore to be a corporate and universal endeavor before it is an individual endeavor. 

After the Council of Trent, and under the strong influence of the Jesuit understanding, the faithful by large began to fall away from the primarily liturgical spirituality of their age-old tradition, and for it was substituted a very individualist devotional piety. Not that the liturgy completely fell out of use; but private devotion began to take precedence over it, and soon enough the liturgy itself began to be used as a place for expression of this private, individualistic piety. Whereas previously private devotion was seen through the lens of the liturgy, and informed by the spirituality of the liturgy, now the situation was that the liturgy was seen through the lens of private devotion, and was informed by it. The relationship between the two was reversed. The important difference between these two kinds of spirituality is that one, namely that in which the liturgy is foremost, has its source of devotion in something that is objective and is given in a tradition that is prior to and independent of the subjective will of men; whereas the other, namely that in which private piety is foremost, seems to have its source of devotion primarily in man himself. Certainly, there is a legitimate sense in which Christian piety must come from within the man, but to place the private, individual aspect of spirituality over the more objective aspect is to risk reducing the act of worship to mere private sentiment. The heresy of Modernism is precisely the ultimate reduction of the religious act to a mere private and subjective thing, so by placing private devotion over the liturgy we risk falling into errors that smack of Modernism.

I cannot help but wonder if this attitude towards the liturgy might be in some measure responsible for the crisis with which we are faced today. First, on a broader level, it represents a failure to appreciate the true depth and beauty of the Catholic liturgical tradition, which has prepared the way for a certain liturgical minimalism, resulting in the almost complete upheaval of the Roman liturgy. Secondly, this attitude might explain the tendency towards exalting human creativity in liturgical matters; and this is in some way the origin of all of the recent reforms, and of course of the rampant degree of liturgical abuse and unlimited improvisation which occurs in most parishes today. I would also submit that the majority of "traditionalist" Catholics have also been affected in some way or another by this attitude, although they vocally object to its presence in the newer liturgies. Private devotions are a very common thing among modern traditionalists, and yet a vast number of them hardly know the first thing about something like the Divine Office. This past Holy Week, after having participated in a poorly attended liturgy for Holy Thursday (if I remember rightly) at an SSPX chapel (and thus it was according to the rite of 1955), the pastor invited some of the parishioners in the sacristy to join him in praying Compline. I was somewhat saddened to see their blank faces as they wondered in apparent confusion what "Compline" was, and as the priest had to explain it to them. And mind you, these particular parishioners were, to every appearance, very devout and faithful Catholics, but no doubt nourished spiritually by a plethora of private devotions in place of liturgy. In my opinion, this phenomenon is just as much a part of the liturgical crisis as the Novus Ordo, though perhaps representing a different stage and degree of harm to the Church.

I'll conclude this post by quoting a beautiful passage from the preface of Dom Gueranger's The Liturgical Year on this dichotomy of private and liturgical piety. He addresses specifically the problem of private devotionalism being the lens through which the faithful approach the liturgy, rather than the other way around. In this passage Dom Gueranger sides, of course, with the Benedictine - and, in my opinion, traditionally Catholic - view that the liturgy ought to be the primary source of spiritual nourishment for the Christian interior life; approaches which are primarily individual and private are "only human." This coincides nicely with St. Benedict's naming of the Divine Office as the "Work of God," implying that it is God and not man who must inform man's own spiritual life. Anyway, here is Gueranger's passage, with my emphases:
For a long time, a remedy has been devised for an evil which was only vaguely felt. The spirit of prayer, and even prayer itself, has been sought for in methods and prayer-books, which contain, it is true, laudable, yea, pious thoughts, but after all only human thoughts. Such nourishment cannot satisfy the soul, for it does not initiate her into the prayer of the Church. Instead of uniting her with the prayer of the Church, it isolates her. Of this kind are so many of those collections of prayers and reflections, which have been published under different titles during the last two hundred years, and by which it was intended to edify the faithful, and suggest to them, either for hearing Mass, or going to the Sacraments, or keeping the feasts of the Church, certain more or less common place considerations and acts, always drawn up according to the manner of thought and sentiment peculiar to the author of each book. Each manual had consequently its own way of treating these important subjects. To Christians already formed to piety, such books as these would, indeed, serve a purpose, especially as nothing better was offered to them; but they had not influence sufficient to inspire with the spirit of prayer such as had not otherwise received it.  
It may perhaps be objected that, were all practical books of Christian piety to be reduced to mere explanations of the liturgy, we should run the risk of impoverishing, and even destroying, by excessive formalities, the spirit of prayer and contemplation, which is such a precious gift of the Holy Ghost to the Church of God. To this we answer, firstly, that by asserting the immense superiority of liturgical over individual prayer, we do not say that individual methods should be suppressed; we would only wish them to be kept in their proper place. Then secondly, we answer that in the divine psalmody there are several degrees: the lowest are near enough to the earth to be reached by souls that are still plodding in the fatigues of the purgative way; but in proportion as a soul ascends this mystic ladder, she feels herself illuminated by a heavenly ray; and still higher, she finds union and rest in the sovereign Good. Whence, for instance, did the holy doctors of the early ages, and the venerable patriarchs of the desert, acquire their spiritual knowledge and tender devotion, of which they have left us such treasures in their writings and their works? It was from those long hours of psalmody, during which truth, simple yet, manifold, unceasingly passed before the eyes of their soul, filling it with streams of light and love. What was it that gave to the seraphic Bernard that wonderful unction, which runs in streams of honey through all his writings? To the author of the Imitation of Christ that sweetness, that hidden manna, which seems ever fresh? To Louis Blosius, that in expressible charm and tenderness which move the heart of every reader? It was the daily use of the liturgy, in the midst of which they spent their days, intermingling their songs of joy with those of their sorrow.