Saturday, 11 April 2015

Liturgy, Contemplation, and the Self (Part 1)

The Resurrection, by Fra Angelico

In a profound passage from the Summa (which is of course full of such passages), St. Thomas Aquinas writes of the gift of wisdom:
Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learnt the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality. Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them: thus Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ii) that "Hierotheus is perfect in Divine things, for he not only learns, but is patient of, Divine things."
The gift of wisdom is, according to St. Thomas, the basis of the prayer of contemplation, which is a simple, loving gaze upon the divine truths. The normal way of sanctity, we are taught by the saints, consists essentially in this infused prayer of contemplation. It is not the Beatific Vision, but its prelude, an experiential knowledge of God that surpasses the knowledge attained by speculation or imagination. One does not merely think about divine truths abstractly, but is “a patient of divine things” – that is, one receives, experiences, suffers the divine, without being granted to see it. This is to be likened to the experience of brilliant light which dazzles our weak human eyes so that we are first blinded before we are permitted to see with clarity. Likewise, contemplation is an experience of the divine light, but without the clarity of vision. In this contemplation we participate truly in the divine Wisdom, through the gift of wisdom, so that we are brought closer to our deification, the full participation in the divine nature – we become, to use St. Thomas’ terminology, connatural with the divine nature. Hence this contemplation is not only the preparation for, but also the very beginning of our union with God. It is indeed a foretaste of Wisdom, in which we “taste and see that the Lord is sweet.”

This union with God is made possible by God’s union with us in the person of Jesus Christ, who “became man so that man might become God” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation).  The act of becoming man, and the act of suffering and dying a criminal’s death, was for God an entirely selfless act. God, the Lord and Creator of the universe, humbled Himself to assume the infinitely inferior dignity of a servant and a creature, so that He might offer Himself up as a sacrifice. He forgot Himself, even His own divinity, that He might assume our humanity, and perform the greatest act of love for us. We, in turn, have been enabled to do the same for Him: to completely forget ourselves, and to unite ourselves to God, that leaving behind our frail humanity we might be elevated to partake of His divinity.

Contemplation is the earthly beginning of this elevation of man to God. Thus it is of the essence of this contemplation that man abandon himself, as Christ abandoned himself first in becoming man, and again in dying as the death of the worst of sinners. Contemplation is an inherently selfless act; it is entirely other-directed. Thus it is necessary for the contemplative soul to be completely detached from himself, and to throw himself completely into the arms of God. The mystic father of the Church, Dionysius the Areopagite – whom St. Thomas cited above – exhorts his disciple Timothy with the following words:
And thee, dear Timothy, I counsel that, in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation, thou leave the senses and the activities of the intellect and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive, and all things in this world of nothingness, or in that world of being, and that, thine understanding being laid to rest, thou strain (so far as thou mayest) towards an union with Him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. For, by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of thyself and all things, thou shalt in pureness cast all things aside, and be released from all, and so shalt be led upwards to the Ray of that divine Darkness which exceedeth all existence. (Dinoysius, Mystical Theology)
Now, the Catholic tradition assures us that this contemplation is the end and perfection of the sacred liturgy in all its forms. The liturgy is the formal worship of the Church, the first place wherein the soul finds the living representation of the sacred mysteries for his contemplation. The act of worship is an act of complete submission to God, and so it must necessarily involve an act of perfect self-abandonment to God. The liturgy is not first ordered to man himself, as a source of edification; rather, it is ordered to the worship of God for His own sake, which accomplished by a complete forgetfulness of oneself and the gift of oneself to God. The perfection of worship thus consists in the very union with the divine nature that is begun in contemplation.

Dionysius himself writes in another work, the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, that the purpose of the liturgy is the deification of the worshiper, which is his unification to God. “Let us affirm, then, that the supremely Divine Blessedness, the essential Deity, the Source of deification, from Which comes the deification of those deified, bequeathed, by Divine Goodness, the Hierarchy, for preservation, and deification of all rational and intellectual beings.” God in His goodness has raised man from the mire of sin in order to assimilate him to Himself. But this must be carried out through the rites of the liturgy. For “how could the Divine imitation otherwise become ours, unless the remembrance of the most holy works of God were perpetually being renewed by the mystical teachings and ministrations of the Hierarchy?” It is crucial to understand that this deification of man is not a self-deification. Man cannot make himself god; this can only be accomplished by participation in the God who alone is divine by nature. Thus, even as the sanctification and glorification of man is accomplished through the liturgy, it is only by forgetting and abandoning himself that man can attain this end. Man’s only good is to worship God. Thus, in complete opposition to the deification of self, man’s deification is accomplished only by his going out of himself and directing his attention entirely to another.

It follows that the liturgy, in order to be as efficacious as it possibly can be, must foster this spirit of self-abandonment and mortification, turning the focus of the worshiper away from his own ego and from mundane things, and towards God alone. The selfhood of the creature is involved in the act of worship only insofar as it is in submission to the Creator. The worshiping creature must not assert his own value, but must recognize that his only value derives from his submission and union to the divine. It is the sacrifice of Christ which pleases God; we please God now only inasmuch as we unite ourselves to Christ in the offering of the sacrifice. When the sacrifice of Christ is carried by the hands of God’s holy angel to the heavenly altar, we too will be carried up to be yet more closely united with God. Our deification is only accomplished by participation in the mysteries of Christ, who said “No one comes to Father except through Me.” The content of the liturgy must be formed in accordance with this rule of self-abandonment and submission to the mysteries of Christ, so as to be united to the divine nature by participation. The signs and symbols have the purpose of orienting the soul away from self, except insofar as the self is meant to be absorbed, as it were, into God and His mysteries. The liturgy must therefore be something set apart from the world and from merely human affairs, resembling the liturgy of heaven itself. The ordinary life of the Christian, as lived through the liturgy, must be something extraordinary with respect to the life of man in the world. The liturgy must foster the awareness that the Christian man is not a citizen of the world, but of the heavenly City of God. Indeed, the liturgy is itself the living out of this truth – the divine citizenship in act, to use an Aristotelian term. The liturgy is the primary act of the Church, by which it shows its essential connection to heaven, its identity with the City of God. Wrapped up with this great mystery is the theocentricity of the liturgy – its focus on the divine, rather than the human. As the liturgy is, in a way, the earthly presence of Heaven itself, set apart from the world, so is it the all absorbing presence of God on earth, in which man steps out of himself to give himself to God.  

(To be continued...)

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