What follows is a lovely passage from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's impressive work, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, which contains a chapter on liturgical prayer. Therein he recounts a story of Saint Thomas Aquinas, that greatest of theologians, who was also a great mystic and lover of the sacred liturgy. Drawing on the teaching and example of the saint, Fr. Lagrange goes on to compare the study of sacred theology to the contemplative use of the intellect that occurs within the liturgy. In light of my previous post, this demonstrates well the importance of the liturgy as the principal, non-doctrinal expression of the faith. By non-doctrinal I do not, of course, mean to imply that the liturgy is opposed to doctrine or that doctrine may be neglected for the sake of the liturgy, but simply that the liturgy expresses the faith in a way that differs from doctrine and immeasurably exceeds it in dignity. Fr. Lagrange puts it eloquently, with a specific attention to how the liturgy feeds the theologian, but with much insight into how the liturgy should serve as a basis of the spiritual life as a whole.
It is told of him [Saint Thomas] that he could not keep back his tears when, during Compline of Lent, he chanted the antiphon: "In the midst of life we are in death: whom do we seek as our helper, but Thou, O Lord, who because of our sins art rightly incensed? Holy God, strong God, holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not up to a bitter death; abandon us not in the time of our old age, when our strength will abandon us." This beautiful antiphon begs for the grace of final perseverance, the grace of graces, that of the predestined. How it should speak to the heart of the contemplative theologian, who has made a deep study of the tracts on Providence, predestination, and grace!
The chant, which prepares so admirably for Mass and which follows it, is one of the greatest means by which the theologian, as well as others, may rise far above reasoning to contemplation, to the simple gaze on God and to divine union. The theologian who has spent a long time over his books in a positive and speculative study of revelation, in the refutation of numerous errors and the examination of many opinions relating to the great mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the life of heaven, needs, after such study, to rise above all this bookish knowledge; he needs profound recollection, truly divine light, which is superior to reasoning and gives him the spirit of the letter which he has studied. Otherwise he grows spiritually anaemic and, because of insufficient contact with the light of life, he cannot give it adequately to others. His work remains too mechanical, not sufficiently organized and living, or it may be that the governing idea of his synthesis has not been drawn from a high enough source; it lacks amplitude, life, radiation, and little by little it loses its interest. The theologian needs often to find the living and splendid expression of the mysteries that he studies in the very words of God, such as the liturgy makes us taste and love: "Taste, and see that the Lord is sweet."
The word of God, which is thus daily recalled to us in prayer, is to its theological commentary what a simple circumference is to the polygon inscribed in it. We must forget the polygon momentarily in order to enjoy a little and in a holy manner the beauty of the circle, which the movement of contemplation follows, as Dionysius used to say. This is found during the chant, if mechanical haste is not substituted for the profound life which ought to spring from the fountain. The body of the chant must be truly vivified by the spirit of prayer.
In other words, it seems that in some mystical way, the liturgy - celebrated well - leads the soul to a more profound and real encounter of the mysteries which one would study in the science of theology, or sacred doctrine. The liturgy facilitates the act of knowing that is involved, not in sacred doctrine, but in contemplation. I think St. Thomas Aquinas would explain it this way: in the study of sacred doctrine, one necessarily has an understanding of God that is limited by human concepts. This is not to say we understand God according to human categories of thought, but that we cannot know about God except by analogy to such categories. Thus, this sort of knowledge is vastly imperfect inasmuch as it brings God down to the level of human understanding, so to speak. But in contemplation, which is the highest form of prayer, rather than bringing God down to one’s own level, one is raised up to God to encounter him spiritually – not, indeed, as one will see Him in the beatific vision, but nonetheless in a way that is more perfect than the understanding of doctrine. It is the difference between knowing about God through limited concepts, and knowing God Himself as one knows a beloved friend. To know a friend is to encounter him at a personal level, share in his life, witness his words and actions, be with him.
The liturgy is ordered to precisely this mode of knowing that is involved in contemplation. This is especially evident in the symbolic mode in which the liturgy operates. The liturgy is a complex organization of signs which point to the life and work of Christ the God-Man, as if to say to us “Here is Christ, your beloved; come and be with him! Share in his life; witness his words and actions; participate in them with him!” Sometimes this is accomplished by means which also carry a doctrinal character about them, but the liturgical action as such is ordered not to doctrine but to contemplation.
This suffices, I think, to address the common assumption - among traditionalist and conservative Catholics alike - that doctrine is more "important" than liturgy. The realization that holiness is achieved not primarily through doctrine but through contemplation yields the conclusion that in fact the opposite is true. Again, this is not, by any means, to devalue sacred doctrine or concede to modernist principles of doctrinal evolution and subjectivity; it is only to put things in proper perspective.