Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Living a Liturgical Life

(Originally published in The Catholic Response in Summer 2005)

by Shawn Tribe

For many of us, when we hear speak of "the liturgy" we tend to think of this as applying almost exclusively to the Mass. Thus, speaking of "living a liturgical life" we might conclude this simply means going to Mass as much as possible – which, while desirable, is far too limited an understanding. That being said, a genuine Catholic sensibility should glory in such a thought, since, in the liturgy, heaven permeates earth. Dom Chautard, in his spiritual classic, The Soul of the Apostolate, quotes St. Peter Damian who says that "the Divine Office and the Holy Mass... cannot be celebrated without the whole Church being associated with it and being mystically present."(1) When St. Peter Damian refers to "the whole Church," he means not only the Church on Earth, but also in Purgatory and in Heaven. This is a truth well worth pondering, especially for those who find the liturgy secondary in their spiritual life.

The Mass, or Divine Liturgy as it is also called, is certainly liturgy par excellence. In the hierarchy of Catholic prayer, it is topmost, being the source and summit of the Faith. As such its place in living a liturgical life cannot be underestimated, nor over-valued. But what does it mean to live a liturgical life? Does it simply mean going to Mass frequently? The idea of living a liturgical life is not novel. Many saints have talked about this subject, and it certainly was a matter associated with the liturgical movement. Put succinctly, living a liturgical life means placing one's spiritual life in sync with the liturgical seasons, feasts and associated customs of the Church’s year. Clearly the Mass is paramount in this, but not exclusive to it. But before getting to the how of this matter, let us discuss the why.

Why then should we strive to live a liturgical life? Isn't it enough to simply pray my daily devotions, perhaps the Rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet, read the Scriptures or simply spend quiet time in meditation? These things are all good and profitable and to be encouraged. But there is something to be said for unifying ourselves to the liturgical life of the Church. Dom Chautard puts it this way: "I share, thanks to the Liturgy, in the life of the Church and [God]. With Her I assist each year at all the mysteries of [Christ's] Life... Moreover, the periodic feasts of our Lady and the saints... by putting their examples before my eyes bring me an ever-increasing light and strength to reproduce in myself [Christ's] virtues..."(2) In joining our own spiritual life to the liturgical seasons and feasts of the Church we are embarking on a profound meditation on the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the saints who successfully emulated Him, and ultimately upon the Divine Truths and Sacred Mysteries which God has bestowed upon us. To draw ourselves deeply into this is to bring ourselves into intimate contact with the revelation of the Triune God and the Church He established. Done in spirit and in truth, it will only positively effect our spiritual growth. The public liturgical life of the Catholic Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit down the centuries; it has borne countless saints. As such it is by far our most sure, solid and comprehensive guide in the spiritual life.

How then are we to do this? As suggested earlier, there is a hierarchy in Catholic prayer, and first and foremost is the Mass. If at all possible, we should strive to attend daily Mass. Following closely is the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. The Divine Office can be particularly effective in drawing the liturgy of the Church out of the parish and into one's home, hotel room or place of work. What's more, it is setup to permeate one's day -- morning, evening and night -- with the liturgical feasts and seasons of the Church. While most of us will not be able to devote as much time to it as those in monasteries, nonetheless we can probably find at least some time to devote to it. Both the Mass and the Divine Office form a part of the formal liturgy of the Church and as such should be given the highest priority in a Catholic's spiritual life. As the great Benedictine spiritual director, Dom Columba Marmion, reminded us, "the Liturgy, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, draws from the Scriptures, from tradition and from the symbolism of the Church, a pure doctrine perfectly adapted to the spiritual understanding of the faithful..."(3) Hence, what better source to draw from? By comparison he notes that "the great difficulty which so many persons experience in prayer comes in great part from the divorce established between individual prayer and the prayer of the Church; shut up alone in themselves, they attempt by reasoning to find out the meaning of the Scripture and no longer go to Our Lord through the Church."(4)

There are of course other ways to unite ourselves to the liturgical life of the Church. One can pick devotions or spiritual reading in tune with the liturgical season. Perhaps one could take up the chaplet of Divine Mercy during Lent so as to meditate on the Passion of Our Lord. We might read the life of the saint of the day. Also, we live an incarnational faith; one filled with symbols and ritual. There is much of this we can draw into our own homes. Take up the custom of having a home altar. This could be a shelf, a mantle, or a small table set aside solely for this use. On this might be a statue, an icon or a crucifix, along with candles and incense that can be lit during times of prayer. If you have particular holy images for particular saints or feast days, you might give them prominence here during those days and seasons. You can even consider adorning it with flowers on solemnities or patron saints days – just as our parish sanctuaries are on such days. These holy reminders put before us continually a sense of the sacred. What’s more, the life of the Church becomes something incarnated in our day to day life, pulling us out of the doldrums of mere secular existence.

The liturgy is something of paramount importance to our Catholic life, both in Church and out of it. The life of Heaven is indeed an eternal liturgy of the angels and saints giving worship and adoration to the Holy Trinity. As such, in seeking to live a liturgical life here and now, we join ourselves more closely with the Church Triumphant in Heaven, as well as to venerable Christian antiquity where “the liturgy was not only a school of prayer… it was their prayer."(5)


1. Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate, 3rd American ed. (Mission Press,1941), 224.
2. Ibid., 216.
3. Dom Raymon Thibaut , ed., Union with God According to Letters of Direction of Dom Marmion (London: Sands & Co., 1949), 199.
4. Ibid., 200.
5. Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 243.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: