Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book Review: Turning Towards the Lord

[Some of you may be interested in this review I wrote of U.M Lang's book.]

Book Review: Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, by U.M. Lang, C.O., Ignatius Press, 2004, 156 pp.

Reviewed by Shawn Tribe

This work is a very needed contribution to the ongoing evaluation of the direction the reform of the Roman liturgy took after the Second Vatican Council. Uwe Michael Lang, a member of the London Oratory (internationally known for its beautiful celebration of the post-conciliar liturgy) sets out to re-examine the question of the orientation of the priest at the altar during the Mass. In tackling this question, Lang echoes the concerns of other prominent churchmen, proposing that the recovery of a sense of sacred direction in our liturgical prayer is "indispensable for the welfare of the Church today." Lang discusses the matter in a scholarly but very readable manner, falling firmly into the "reform of the reform" school of liturgical thought. Lang's work is not one of absolutes, but rather analyzes the principle of sacred direction in Christian worship and makes a strong argument for the propriety of the priest and people facing the same direction at least during the Eucharistic Prayer, if not the Liturgy of the Eucharist entirely.

In our own day, we are faced with a more absolute type of situation. With only a small few exceptions, the modern Roman liturgy is typically celebrated with priest and people constantly facing one another (versus populum). It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to suggest that many modern liturgists have almost raised this practice to the level of dogma, so fiercely do they hold to it. The thought of priest and people facing the same direction (ad orientem) sends many of them into a frenzy of disdain and anathemas. Lang tackles the matter head on, but is careful to do so in a non-polemical way. He addresses the arguments and assumptions most commonly made for versus populum celebration and quite successfully demonstrates why these arguments do not hold, either in the light of history, or in the light of sound theological thought. To do so he avails himself not only of history and patristic evidence, but also of modern liturgical thinkers such as Josef Jungmann, Louis Bouyer and Cardinal Ratzinger.

This book does a good job succinctly and lucidly presenting an indepth picture of the issues behind this question. Do not let the size of the book fool you, it is packed with relevant quotations, diagrams of early church architecture and ample footnotes that can serve the scholar and layman alike. The reader will not only come away with a deeper understanding of the history of orientation in Judeo-Christian liturgical prayer, but also a renewed appreciation of the eschatological and cosmological significance of ad orientem posture. In summary, Turning Towards the Lord is not only an excellent look at this specific liturgical question, but also a reminder, more generally, of what the Christian approach and attitude to liturgical prayer must first and foremost be: an act of Trinitarian worship.

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