Monday, August 04, 2014

Transcending Oppositions: Liturgy as the Synthesis of Faith and Reason

Philipp Rosemann argues that the very incompleteness of the Summa theologiae, which Saint Thomas could not bring himself to complete at the end of his life, should be taken as a sign, a gesture on the part of the Dominican preacher about the inadequacy of human language to capture the ultimate reality of the divine mysteries. (I have strong disagreements with how he fleshes out this thesis, but am sympathetic to something of the general idea.) Augustin Del Noce argues that rationalism and Christian philosophy differ not because the former is self-grounding and the latter demands a foundational act of faith, but rather, because the one expressly and honestly acknowledges its reliance on faith while the other naively or mendaciously fails to do so. Catherine Pickstock argues that the ancient Roman rite “purposefully” stumbles and struggles, wrestling with the angel of incomprehensible worship and unbloody sacrifice.

To put these together in reference to the liturgy, one might say that the ancient Roman Rite, in its swift simplicity and textured complexity alike, recognizes that all earthly worship must be, in some innocent and unintended way, imperfect and thus repeated (both within itself, built of blocks of repetition, and from day to day as the same sacrifice is represented ever anew until the end of the ages), at the same time recognizing that the sacrifice of Christ is perfect and all-sufficient, once for all, youthful as spring and abundant as summer. Like the Summa, the human act of liturgy is internally, that is to say, of its essence, incomplete, since it falls short of the heavenly Jerusalem’s eternal worship—but, again like the Summa, it is genuine knowledge, a triumphant ascent into the wisdom of the Cross.

In common with fideism, the liturgy prays “in order that there might be prayer”; it throws many prayers and chants into the air that the air might be filled with words as it is filled with clouds of incense, sweet-smelling and obscuring, luring while impeding. It stretches forth into the abyss, depth calling to depth in the dark night of faith. In common with rationalism, the liturgy knows that its prayer is rational through and through, an utterance of the Logos, heard for its righteousness; it knows that there is a fundamental soundness in the universe, which the liturgy expresses in its very dignity, stateliness, order, and beauty. In company with Christian philosophy, the liturgy transcends both fideism and rationalism; it is reason suffused with the utter abandonment of faith, faith anchored in truth and lifting the soul to truth.

The ancient Roman liturgy expressly (honestly) acknowledges its act of faith in the transcendent mystery of God. The new ordo risks turning worship into a communal act of gathering, a communal rationalism whereby man affirms what he already is and knows, instead of forcing upon him the weight of glory that demands the ascetical denial of the God’s-eye view, of adequacy, of any proportion between man and God, even while it paradoxically establishes the inner knowledge, the true proportion, which is none other than the one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, true God and true man, who not only knows all but, as the uncreated Word, is the infinite act of infinite knowledge. The liturgy brings man to God and to man himself—as yet unknown, destined to be broken and remade in the furnace of charity. The liturgy brings man to the edge of the abyss, where it is but one step, past the threshold of this life, to the beatific vision. For it is of the union of the soul with God by sanctifying grace that Pope Leo XIII wrote: “This wonderful union, which is properly called ‘indwelling,’ differ[s] only in degree or state from that with which God beatifies the saints in heaven” (Divinum Illud Munus 9).

The traditional liturgy establishes the link between God and man by focusing entirely on the God-man, reminding us of our nothingness, our incoherence apart from Him—the nihilism and fragmentation of fallen nature—and of our divine fullness and integrity in union with Him. In Christ Jesus we have access to the one and only knowledge that enlightens; as sinners, we are cut off from this light. That is why the ancient liturgy quavers between confession of sin and praise of God’s glory, between abasement and exaltation. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity begs of Jesus:
O Eternal Word, Word of my God, would that I might spend my life listening to you, would that I might be fully receptive to learn all from you; in all darkness, all loneliness, all weakness, may I ever keep my eyes fixed on you and abide under your great light; O my Beloved Star, fascinate me so that I may never be able to leave your radiance.
Is this not our experience, too, when we have plunged into the mysterious depths of the liturgy, tasted its otherworldly sweetness, become fascinated with its strange beauty, and then come face to face with our own darkness, loneliness, and weakness, our acedia, indolence, vanity, distraction, taste for things of the world... We say, with Elizabeth: “Keep my eyes fixed on you... make me abide under your great light... fascinate me so that I may never be able to leave your radiance.”

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