Friday, April 28, 2006

Orthodoxy, the Liturgy and the Crisis of the West

[From "Inside the Vatican"]

- by Dr. Robert Moynihan

“Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless (affectionately, gratefully praise) the Lord, O my soul... Who redeems your life from the pit and corruption.” —King David, Psalm 103:1-2, 4

“...many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme...” —John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

The central problem for men and women is always a problem of choosing between “life” and “death,” between a way that leads to life, and one that leads “downwards to darkness.” It is a problem of human choice, of human freedom — a moral problem. Why do so many call our time one of a “culture of death”? Because so many in our time seem, to use Keats’ words, “half in love with easeful Death.” We all know the choices I refer to. But what is the alternative? The alternative, as Pope Benedict expressed it so eloquently in his first encyclical in January, is to be in love with life, and with the author of life, who is, as David wrote, “the Lord — bless his holy name!”

When David encourages everyone “to bless his holy name,” what does this really mean? It means David is calling on himself, and on all of us, to bless, to praise, to worship God, because he “redeems” our lives — he gives life, not death.

But how do we bless God, praise him, worship him? And what is the best way to do this? This is a problem because holiness, “being holy,” is the essential attribute of God; holiness is his glory, his majesty, his eternity, his very essence and life. But precisely because God alone is holy, his holiness is the source of a separateness, a distance from us. So how do we approach him, even to worship him?

This brings us to the word “orthodoxy.” Literally, “ortho” means “right” or “correct,” and “doxy,” though it does have a connotation of “belief,” literally means “praise” or “worship.” So orthodoxy, more than “right belief,” means “right praise” or “correct worship.” When we say we wish to be “orthodox,” we are really saying that we want to do what King David said all of us should do: worship God with “all that is within us” and to do this in the correct way, in a way pleasing to God and worthy of him. The central problem the Church faces today, as always, is the problem of orthodoxy. (From the opposite point of view, it is the problem of apostasy, of making the decision to no longer praise God in the right way, or to no longer praise him at all.) But orthodoxy is not simply a matter of dogmas, of doctrines, of phrases memorized, of a series of propositions. It is a matter of “right praise.”

And so we come to the word “liturgy.” The word “liturgia” in Greek literally means “praise.”

The preliminary, striking conclusion is that the problem of orthodoxy, the problem of the right worship of God, is by definition a liturgical problem. What I am saying is that the problem of orthodoxy, the problem of praising God, is the central problem Benedict must face in his pontificate, and this means the central problem has a liturgical aspect.

But to say the problem is “liturgical” is not to set it on the margin of things. No, it is to set the liturgical problem at the center of our culture, as the determining problem for the future of “the Christian West” (though “the West,” as Benedict suggested when he recently dropped the title “Patriarch of the West” from his list of titles, has been made obsolete by modern technology — air travel, satellites, the internet — in the process of “globalization”). I say this because “right worship” (“orthodoxy”) sets men and women in a right relationship with the single being worthy of human worship, the “all-holy” divinity, and in so doing establishes them in a right relationship with one another.

Because this is so, “right worship” is, in the most profound sense, also a political matter.

Without going very deeply into this question, it is enough to say that “right worship,” just as it can sustain a man or a woman in the solitude of prison, or in a concentration camp, or through periods of intense suffering, so too it can be a central protection for freedom in our political life, because no political leader, no emperor, no ideology, can claim our “worship” if we know we must worship God alone.

In this sense, “right worship” is always a limitation on totalitarianism, whether it be from the left or from the right or from any other direction on the compass.

In this sense, Pope Benedict’s action to protect, preserve and promote the liturgy, to protect “right worship,” will be his religious duty, but also a supremely — I would say “sublimely” — political act. It will not be evidently political in the way John Paul II’s support of Solidarnosc was. But Benedict’s work to restore “right worship” will be the work of a Christian and a theologian and a bishop of Rome profoundly aware not only of the spiritual crisis of our age, but of its political crisis as well.

In a Europe threatened by two advancing, non-Christian cultures and systems of thought — liberal secular humanism, which seems destined to impose a new despotism of relativism in a vain search for liberty without the holy, freedom without God, and Islam, which preaches a God who never was and could not ever be incarnate in a man — only a radical return to Christian orthodoxy, that is, to right worship, can protect the very values that both of these traditions, at their best, espouse: the dignity of man, and the transcendence of God.

There cannot be a culture of life without right worship, without a true liturgy. This explains Benedict’s focus on the liturgy, and on closer relations with the Orthodox, whose liturgy is regarded by the Catholic Church as “right praise.”

—Robert Moynihan

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