Friday, 23 January 2015

Liturgical Spirituality and Theology [Edited 1-29-15]

There is common approach to the liturgy that treats it as a didactic text that simply teaches about things, such as God and how to live a holy life. The liturgy is thus like a source of theological knowledge and moral teaching: participants are expected to walk out of Church having learned something new about God and about how to live, which later they are expected to apply in their daily lives in the world. This assumption about the nature of the liturgy underlies most of the preaching and liturgical catechesis that Catholics receive today, even in traditionalist circles. This approach is not entirely without merit, of course, but I think it risks overlooking a more important aspect of the liturgy and its spirituality. As Fr. Aidan Kavanagh writes in On Liturgical Theology, the liturgy is not simply about God and the good Christian life, but more accurately must be seen to be of God. The liturgy itself is the center of the Christian spiritual life, wherein occurs the primary encounter with the Creator in the act of worship.

In the sacred liturgy, something real happens. The sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, of course, are at the center of it all. Everything in the liturgy culminates with the Eucharistic presence of Christ on the altar, in which the sacrifice of our redemption is made present again. But it would be minimalistic to suppose that the sacraments and the Eucharist are the only real things that occurs in the liturgy, in isolation from the other mysteries of Christ's life and work, and that everything else is merely external. The whole purpose of the entire liturgical year, for example, is to relive those mysteries ourselves. Traditionally, the liturgical year is not merely a commemoration of the events of Christ's life, but it in some way makes us present to those mysteries so that we might participate in them spiritually ourselves, profiting all the more from the sacraments. It would be nonsensical to consider Christ's death on the cross in isolation from the rest of his life and mission on earth. Similarly it would be strange to think that in the liturgy the only real thing that is made present is the Eucharistic mystery of Christ's sacrifice, in isolation from everything else. Something real and supernatural actually takes place in the celebration of the liturgy itself, continually renewed on many levels. In this way, the liturgy is even like a sacrament (though it is not actually a sacrament, as I will explain below). God is actually present on many levels in the liturgy, primarily and ultimately through the Eucharist, but also in other ways through the liturgical symbols, actions, and prayers themselves.

I have seen some traditionalists object to any notion of the "presence of God" in the liturgy other than that of the Eucharistic presence. Specifically, they have objected to the teaching of Pope Paul VI, in the document Mysterium Fidei, on the various ways in which Christ is really present in his Church and the liturgy. Pope Paul taught - rightly, in my opinion - that although we speak of the "real presence" most specifically with regard to the Eucharist, this does not exclude other senses of Christ's presence also being real. Christ is really present in many different ways, but in the fullest and most perfect sense in his substantial presence in the Eucharist. I think there is nothing objectionable in this understanding (despite much that is objectionable in Paul VI's actual liturgies). In fact, this is a fundamental understanding of the liturgy in Catholic tradition. St. Benedict, who referred to the Divine Office as the "Work of God," had this to say: "We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that 'the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place' (Prov. 15:3). But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God" (Rule, chapter 19). Following in the footsteps of his master, Dom Gueranger writes of the liturgy that "It is therefore Jesus Christ Himself who is the source as well as the object of the liturgy; and hence the ecclesiastical year, which we have undertaken to explain in this work, is neither more nor less than the manifestation of Jesus Christ and His mysteries, in the Church and in the faithful soul. It is the divine cycle, in which appear all the works of God, each in its turn" (The Liturgical Year, Preface). Laszlo Dobszay writes that "the Roman liturgy does not rest satisfied with words but expresses itself in visible symbols and dramatic actions in an exceptionally powerful way . . . By going beyond the sphere of words, a theological perspective manifests itself at the same time which holds that the liturgy is more than a didactic, exhortative or meditative remembrance: it is an action of mystery where, under the veil of an outward act, the facts of our redemption come true in the present" (The Bugnini Liturgy, pg 25).

If this is true, then the liturgy is not merely about God but of God, in the sense that it is itself divine. It is not a human treatise about the divine. The spirituality of the liturgy itself, then, is one which takes place and is lived precisely in the context of the liturgical celebration itself. More than teaching us how to live after exiting the Church and going about our business, the liturgy itself is a way of life for Christians. What is this way of life? It is nothing other than the worship of God, and the contemplative participation in the mysteries of his work, which he repeatedly manifests to us in the liturgy, and by which he accomplishes our redemption. This is the essence of the Christian life. All those details about how we must live our life outside the liturgy are certainly important, but they are related to the liturgy more as their end and purpose, more than the other way around. The worship of God and contemplation of his mysteries is the end for which we must predispose ourselves by living well in our daily life. Certainly, the liturgy does contain much teaching for the faithful in regards to how to live in the world. The epistle and gospel readings are full of such treasures. But more than that, the readings, especially the gospels, often reflect an aspect of Christ's work that is connected to the liturgical scheme throughout the year. As such, more than being a source of moral teaching, it is like part of great piece of artwork whose beauty we are simply meant to contemplate in prayer. This contemplation is on one level purely speculative, a contemplation of God simply for his own sake, which gives rise to charity, the highest of the virtues; and this is the highest end of religion. But it is also appreciative of the benefits for humanity that God has produced by his work of redemption. Finally, it approaches the practical, insofar as it involves the supplication that we might continue to benefit from the merits of his work.

There are some theologically minded traditionalist Catholics who do not appreciate the use of the word "encounter" by neo-modernist theologians in seeking to define faith. But I think there is some merit to understanding faith as an encounter, at some level - certainly at the level of the liturgy. There are other levels, mainly that wherein one simply assents intellectually - by the aid of infused grace - to revealed truth. What happens in the liturgy (hopefully) is precisely this, but a more determined and specific form of it: one encounters not simply an intellectual proposition or concept, but the reality signified by that proposition or concept. The call to liturgical participation is not merely to think about certain concepts; it is more like a call to be there at the foot of the cross on Calvary with Jesus, to be there at each of the events commemorated in the liturgy. One who has faith but does not live a very liturgical life might believe, in his mind, that Christ became man and died for the sins of man. But one who believes this and participates actively in the liturgy also witnesses the reality of redemption taking place before him, on many different levels, Eucharistic or otherwise. Both would have faith; but the latter would be living his faith more fully and more perfectly by participating in the Church's own commemorative re-visitation of the mysteries of that faith. The liturgy is thus not just one part of the Christian life, among many others. It is the culmination of the Christian life, the primary component of a living faith, the heart of the Church, the foremost context wherein the Catholic soul encounters the living God, as Moses encountered him in the burning bush. The mystical realities which we contemplate in the liturgy are part of a seamless garment in which the central pieces are the realities of the sacraments themselves.

This being said, I have wrestled with the problem of showing exactly how this differs from a sacrament, particularly the Eucharist. The liturgy as a whole is not a sacrament, but the proper context wherein the sacraments and especially the Eucharist take their place to be adored and venerated by the faithful. The sacraments, in an even more literal way than the liturgy, make present the realities which they signify. Christ is literally present on the altar when the Eucharist is confected, whether or not one believes it, or is attentive to the fact, when kneeling there in the Church. The liturgy also effects the presence of God, as I said, but perhaps not with the same degree of potency that the sacraments do so. Perhaps it is a more internal presence of the divine realities, but not one which consists merely in our thinking about or remembering certain truths. Something real actually occurs in the act; the mysteries are somehow present again for us to benefit from them. But perhaps the key difference between the liturgy and the sacraments is that the sacraments confer sanctifying grace upon the soul ex opere operato - that is, of their own power, infallibly, and necessarily - whereas the liturgy does not necessarily produce grace. One who receives the Eucharist with a good disposition will benefit immensely; without a good disposition, i.e. in a state of mortal sin, one commits the grave sin of sacrilege - the grace given has the opposite effect. This is not so with the liturgy. The liturgy does not infallibly or necessarily affect the soul; one might attend the Divine Office and not be changed in the least by it. One must participate actively and attentively, in the very act of the celebration, in order to benefit from the liturgy. This being done well, Gueranger writes that each liturgical celebration "[brings] with it a special grace, which produce[s] in our souls the reality signified by the Rites of the Liturgy" (The Liturgical Year, The Mystery of Pentecost). We are enabled to witness in a mystical way the actions of Christ's redemptive work - not merely by calling them to mind, but by an actual spiritual participation in them by contemplation. Thus, we see how the liturgy, though not on par with the sacraments, nonetheless approaches the dignity of a sacrament.

What a grievance would it be, then, to tamper with the liturgy, to adapt it to one's own personal whims or the whims of modern men, rather than let it take its course as God directs it. The liturgy, because it is not only about God but of God, must transcend the conceptions of men. Men must be formed by the liturgy rather than the liturgy by them. I think it is manifest historically - though some will seek to rewrite history - that, despite imperfections and the occasional interferences of men, the liturgy as a whole grew out of the seeds of tradition, in continuity with tradition, as a plant grows organically and in continuity with itself. Certainly this involved the advantageous contributions of man, but they were contributions to a greater whole that already existed. They fit into the whole like leaves and branches on a tree, nourished and supported by the older and more established elements. But when men have interfered with this growth of the liturgy, they have hindered the faithful from participating adequately in the mysteries of faith, because the manifestation of these mysteries was obscured by their destructive reforms. Faith was consequently weakened, and sometimes it even died.

The liturgy is a complex organization of texts and actions which together enact - hopefully - the mysteries of revelation in the souls of the participants. Any interference with the intricacies of the liturgy risks doing damage to the participant's ability to revisit the sacred mysteries, even if the text itself contains nothing actually false. Good liturgy is not simply a matter of textual truth or even textual clarity, since, as I have said, the liturgy is not simply a doctrinal text. An individual text in the liturgy might say nothing false, in fact it may be perfectly and manifestly true; but that text may not fit into the overall liturgical scheme, which itself has much to reveal in a non-textual way - at least not in a way that is directly textual. It may be a matter of external symbolism in connection with the text; or it may be a matter of ordering or arranging texts. An example of this is the case of the Sunday collects of the liturgy of Paul VI. Many of these collects are individually quite sound and orthodox (not that there are none which are doctrinally ambiguous, but that is not my point). But, as Dr. Lauren Pristas has aptly demonstrated, they do not fit into the greater picture which the liturgy seeks to portray, and in the context of that greater picture, they are indeed dangerously capable of sending a false message. The traditional collects of Advent portray a picture of man as powerless and in need of God's coming and his grace, because of sin. Lent portrays him as likewise awaiting the redemptive action of Christ, without which he cannot experience spiritual renewal. The majority of the collects in all the seasons before Easter thus portray man as a receiver of God's gifts which sanctify him; man is not portrayed as an actor with any power of his own. But after Easter, man is portrayed as now vivified, enabled and empowered by grace to approach God. There is a marvelous order in the placement of the collects that enables the soul to recognize his relationship to God, and to progress through the year with a living awareness of his need for God and his utter reliance on Christ's death and resurrection. As he witnesses liturgically the events of Christ's life, he experiences in himself a corresponding spiritual development. This is repeated yearly, and the same experience is renewed again and again with greater potency each time, gradually bringing man closer to a state of sanctity. In the liturgy of Paul VI, this order of the collects is uprooted. The Advent collects portray man as already empowered to approach God. Lent likewise gives more expression to the activity of man. As a result, the new body of collects do not fit into the order of the liturgical year and its retelling of the story of man's salvation. This cannot but hinder the active participant from moving through the year with a living recognition of his progression towards God, as intertwined with the story of redemption. Thus, while each individual collect in the new liturgy may be doctrinally true and even unambiguously so, the greater picture is distorted. Participants in the new liturgy can no longer live this central aspect of the faith liturgically, as they could in the traditional Roman rite.

A second example: In the traditional order of the Mass, there are a great many texts and gestures that directly refer to the mysteries of the Trinity and divinity of Christ. All of the ancient rites of the Church, East and West, are simply full of these references, by which the worshiping soul is enabled, not only to think of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, but also to be made present to God Himself so that he can fall on his knees in adoration of the Trinity, in worship of the Divine Second Person who accomplished his redemption. The spirit of all the traditional liturgies is profoundly Trinitarian and Christocentric, encouraging the submission of the humble worshiper to the majesty of the Lord. He is brought to encounter the Godhead through whom alone his salvation is effected. How effectively can this same encounter be enabled by a liturgy which dramatically reduces the references, both textual and gestural, to the Trinitarian and Christological aspects of the faith, setting in their place a liturgy that is man-centered? The Novus Ordo is precisely such a liturgy. A mere comparison of the number of texts and gestures that evoke the contemplation of these aspects of the faith reveals the sheer reduction in the centrality of these mysteries. For example, the old liturgies of the East and West repeated the gesture of the Sign of the Cross to no end; in the Novus Ordo it is possible to count on two hands the number of times the Sign of the Cross is made. Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, in his recent book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, explains how this is an instance of modern-day Arianism and Pelagianism, according to which the divinity of Christ is downplayed while man seeks to deify himself. The order and emphasis in the relation between God and man has been reversed. While nothing in the new liturgy can strictly be said to be false in the sense that a proposition or a doctrine is false, it is unquestionable that the new liturgy no longer enables the participation in the divine mysteries nearly as potently as the traditional liturgy did.

Similar examples are found in the rites of Holy Week, which were reformed by Pope Pius XII from 1951-1955. On Good Friday, the traditional liturgy was exemplified in the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, in which the events of Christ's passion and death are mystically re-presented. Although there is no consecration of the Eucharist that day, the sacrifice of Christ is nonetheless signified through prayers and ceremonies which closely mirror those of an actual Mass. In some of the local medieval rites there was a ceremony explicitly evoking the burial of Christ in the sepulchre. At the end of the rite, the church is left empty of the Eucharistic presence, with only the crucifix visible, for Christ is dead on this day. This profound symbolism was lost in the reformed Holy Week of Pope Pius XII. The liturgy was transformed into a simple communion service, with the prayers and ceremonies imitating that of the Mass being abolished. The effect of this is to rob the faithful of the ability to behold in the rites of the Church the redemptive action of Christ on Mount Calvary, and so participate in them contemplatively. And this is while the texts of the new service remains substantially orthodox.

Changes like those wrought by Pius XII and Paul VI, while certainly not producing any falsehood in the liturgical texts themselves, nonetheless had the effect of hindering right liturgical participation in the sacred mysteries. The liturgy was reduced to something less than a re-presentation of the mystical realities. It approached the lower dignity of a mere text or didactic exercise, and even then, sometimes poorly. The immediate effect of this is the inability to live the faith actively and liturgically. Faith itself, the intellectual assent to revealed truths, could still exist in the minds of Catholics; but they could no longer mystically witness the realities of faith occurring in the liturgical action. Their faith could no longer be lived by the active participation in the truths of faith themselves, as presented in the liturgy. Such a faith might be real, but it is inactive. A faith that is real but inactive is, on account of being inactive, more susceptible to faltering, and even dying.

How then does legitimate change occur without being destructive? Development and reform in the liturgy can take place so long as the liturgical laws and structures already in place are respected. The liturgy expresses the faith in definite ways, and its various traditions have established set patterns of expression. Change can occur within these patterns and structures, enhancing them, clarifying them, sometimes pruning and simplifying them, but not altering them.

I do not wish to altogether discount textual truth or clarity as a basis of judgment in liturgical matters. Some of the problems with the Pauline mass are indeed textual and doctrinal, inasmuch as some of the texts are doctrinally ambiguous (e.g. the new offertory prayers), and this is a real danger. But I do not think it is the greatest problem with the recent reforms. More attention should be paid to the symbolic elements of the liturgy, whether textual, ritual, or in the interweaving of these elements. These elements present the same truths that the text alone presents, but in a non-doctrinal way; in a way that is not directly ordered to teaching, and hence does not require the logical, doctrinal clarity of expression that one would expect to find in a theological treatise. Rather, the more complex elements of the liturgy - which, I might add, are its most essential components - present the truths of faith in a way ordered towards contemplation by participation in the mystical realities themselves. Granted, this may sometimes make use of texts that are capable of criticism on doctrinal grounds, but ultimately the rite itself is not doctrinal; it is, rather, experiential. Modern man has to a tragic extent lost the ability to comprehend the liturgy as a harmonious collection of signs pointing directly to the realities of revelation, thereby enabling the contemplative participation in them. Participation has become misunderstood as either the effort to learn, or as merely external action such as hand-clapping and playing Eucharistic minister. But true participation in the liturgy is neither of these. It is rather the contemplation, encounter, and reliving of the work of God.

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