Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Dietrich von Hildebrand on the Rhythm, Scope and Primacy of the Sacred Liturgy

The following excerpts come from pp. 155-169 of Dietrich von Hildebrand's work, Liturgy and Personality (Longman's, 1943) in a chapter titled "The Spirit of Discretio." This particular passage touches on a variety of subjects we have raised here on NLM over the years, and particularly these past few months.

Some of the subjects addressed by von Hildebrand in this excerpt include:

  • a non-reductionst view of the sacred liturgy
  • the relationship of the liturgy and non-liturgical devotions
  • the hierarchical relationship of the liturgy and devotions
  • the proper chants of the liturgy vs. hymns
  • the progression of minor and major orders

The excerpt is lengthy, and I fear it may discourage some of you from reading it, but I would encourage you to make the effort. There is much to unpack here. To help identify some of these sections, I will bold some emphases within the text.

In the Liturgy we find the spirit of discretio expressed in its three lines of development. Its structure and atmosphere clearly testify to this spirit, and the man who lives in the Liturgy grows organically into that spirit.

Let us recall the structure of the Holy Mass. Behold its organic unfolding for participation in the mystery. it is not a hurried march towards the great final aim, Holy Transubstantiation. One is aware that certain stages must first be passed through. First the Introibo mounting with the Confiteor to the altar of the Lord, the confrontation with God, the prayer for the forgiveness of sins, and then the centering of the Mass on the mystery of the feast of the day, as expressed in the Introit. Then the Kyrie, the great solemn cry for mercy; the adoring praise and thanksgiving offered to God in the Gloria; the Oratio with the special allusion to the mystery of the feast of the day; the illumination and preparation of our spirit through the epistle or lesson. Then comes the praise of the Gradual and the Alleluia, which rise as an echo to the epistle; and then the even more solemn and deep illumination of the words of eternal life of the Gopsel. The Credo resounds as a solemn response to the revelation contained in the words of the Lord through an expressly professed Faith. All this is an organic preparation, an ascension toward the mystery. Then follows the Offertory in which we give ourselves up to Christ in order to be carried by Him and with Him to the Father; the elevation of the host and the chalice; and the Lavabo which is another purification on a higher scale, performed alone this time by the priest directly on the threshold of the mystery. But we still stand in the world of symbols; it is still the priest as representative of Christ who acts, while we participate in his act.

As we approach the mystery more closely, we hear the sursum corda. What a deep sense of the entirely new which is now on the point of beginning, of the inner elevation of our attitude to a new scale which is now demanded. But before Christ enters our midst to perform the sacrifice of the Cross, the solemn praise and thanksgiving for the magnalia Dei must resound once more in the Preface culminating the song of praise of the Angels: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus! Now the last veil drops, the authentic actio begins, the celebration of the mystery itself. First, the ultimate, highest unfolding of the consciousness of communion -- the prayer for the Holy Church and its Head, the loving glance cast on our fellow men, the drawing of all into the mystery, the glorious vision of the Communion of Saints. And then, the world of symbols and of human acts fades away: Christ Himself, our Head, sacrifices Himself to His heavenly Father.


Truly we behold in the Holy Mass the primary image of the entire dramatic rhythm of being, all the stages which much be traversed, the necessity of ascension, and inner preparation for the utterance of an objectively genuine "Word." In the transubstantiation, we also behold the primal pattern of a full "now." Here we learn to know the moment charged with inner significance; here where time and eternity meet, we understand the ultimate essence of the full "now." But the further development of the Holy Mass is as organic as the ascension to the Holy Mystery. After participating expressly in the sacrifice of Christ, reaching its climax in the prayer Per ipsum, cum ipso et in ipso (Through Him, with Him and in Him), follows the third part of the Holy Mass, the sacrificial meal which is solemly initiated by the Pater Noster, the Lord's prayer. In the first part of the Pater, we once more are in the rhythm intended purely for the praise of God, which until now has dominated the entire sacrificial act. In the second part of the Pater we ask for the bread of life and the forgiveness of our sins...


We find in the structure of the Holy Mass the primal image of the sense of the dramatic essence of being, its inner laws of development and the necessity of passing through objectively presented stages. But this sense of dramatic rhythm is also expressed in many distinct elements of the Liturgy, as for instance in the incensing of the altar during the Kyrie and the Offertory, the incensing of the Gospel, as well as in the blessing received by the deacon before the reading of the Gospels. We also find it in the purification of the chalice and the ablution of the hands after communion, in the fact that the initial prayers are recited at the foot of the altar, as well as in many other details. These are not mere fortuitous creations of the rubrics, but the expression of the sense of different objective degrees and what must take place in each of these before we dare pass to the next one. They are the fruit of discretio.

We also find this spirit of discretio in the structure of the Breviary as well as in the articulation of the various Hours. They are all dominated by the clearly expressed sense of the rise, culminating in the point and decline, the organic unfolding of a single theme.

This spirit is reflected above all in the rite of baptism and the ritual of Holy Orders....

The Liturgy deeply expresses the sense of these various stages which are to be objectively passed through for an achievement of the final aim. This is also reflected in the fact that though today even for the baptism of adults the entire baptismal rite is compressed in a short space of time, the gradation of the liturgical steps have been preserved in tact...

The same is true of Holy Orders. There are seven different orders still separated in time even today, organically leading to the essential aim. What a discretio in the gradation of powers required by the various orders! How distinctly is there expressed here also that element of discretio in which the degrees of relationship with the Kingdom of God are clearly distinguished in the various acts directed towards God. The divine service of the reading of the epistle can be performed by one who is still only a sub-deacon; the divine service of the reading of the gospel and the preaching of a sermon is open only to the deacon. Whereas the latter may distribute Holy Communion, the priest alone can offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.


This discretio is also clearly reflected in the distinction within the Liturgy between the sacraments and sacramentals. The wholly new degree of sacredness possessed by the sacraments in relation to the sacramentals is clearly expressed through the Liturgical treatment. Both are forms of divine service, both are destined to glorify God, yet they are distinctly separate in so far as their objective link with God is concerned. And how deeply is the entire Liturgy penetrated with the sense of the depth of the level at which something must be performed. Its own atmosphere of ultimate depth and of the presence of God, its profoundly sacred spirit, entirely irradiated by the face of Christ, prevents us from slipping onto the peripheral level so often presented by non-liturgical forms of devotion.

Everything in the Liturgy, even the singing, is formed by the spirit of Christ. What a world of ultimate greatness and truth, towering high above all individual deviations and entanglements, discloses itself in the solemnly uttered Deus in adjutorium meum intende! It draws us into the sacred realm where there is no place for anything profane.

And let us recall, on the other hand, the swamp of triviality and sentimentality into which certain modern religious hymns sink even though full of good and pious intentions. These hymns actually invite the faithful to drop into the superficial; they lead the outsider astray, for instead of offering him the true face of Christ, as revealed in the Liturgy, they falsify it through a sugary sentimentality. Instead of drawing us out of our narrowness into the pure mysterious atmosphere of the King of Eternal Glory, instead of revealing to us the entire "suavity," the mysterious splendour of the "fairest of the children of men," they lead us into a world of sentimentality and philistine narrowness repulsive even from the natural point of view. Many hymns induce the faithful to abandon the level of genuine religious emotion for the sphere of childhood memories; or else they incite to a profession of feelings of mere allegiance such as are typical of any Fourth of July gathering. This does not concern the purely aesthetic problem, but rather the question as to whether or not a hymn reflects the spirit of Christ, whether or not it is penetrated with a truly sacred atmosphere; it is the question of the level to which it leads us inwardly when we follow its spirit. Indeed it would be too naive to believe that the spirit of Christ is always reflected in everything which has been composed with the intention of edifying and is not heretical or immoral.


In the piety which is not determined by the Liturgy, the weight is easily shifted to that which is far less directly linked to God; it is shifted from the centre to the periphery. For many, attendance at the month of May devotions or rosary devotions appears as important as attendance at the Holy Mass on week-days. And even when they do not place them theoretically on the same scale, they actually give their preference to the devotions. Yes, many recite during Mass a prayer of devotion to Saint Joseph and Saint Anthony. For many, in the month of May, devotion to Mary overshadows Easter time. For them this devotion to Mary stamps the day far more than does the Easter Cycle. For many, solemn benediction appears as central as the Mass. For many, the visit to a famous place of pilgrimage is a more solemn contact with the supernatural than that obtained by participating in the Holy Sacrifice. They tremble in awe far more in touching a relic than in the Preparation during which we tread before the Lord's altar. Than man who is formed by the Liturgy possesses, on the contrary, the discretio which makes him more aware of the true degrees leading to the mystery, and also the narrower spheres within the divine service. He will fully affirm the venerable non-liturgical forms of piety; he will be fully aware of their beauty which belongs to them in so far as they are secondary branches of the primordial, but he will see and experience them in their right place where they objectively stand.

The Liturgy teaches us to put everything in its right place in the realm of God...

On the matter of the major and minor orders, on reading von Hildebrand's words in their regard, it put me to mind of the recent call made by Bishop Athanasius Schneider for a motu proprio re-establishing the minor orders and subdiaconate throughout the Latin rite.

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