Monday, February 02, 2015

Is the Liturgy an End or a Means? Further Considerations

After seeing the post “A Fundamental Misunderstanding of the Nature of the Catholic Liturgy,” a reader wrote to me about her experiences in a certain religious community that seemed to embody this very misunderstanding. She gave her permission to share the letter as long as I did not reveal any names or dates. First, then, for her story:
For [x] years I was a religious sister … During my years with them at various convents, I had difficulty with the way they spoke of the Liturgy, and likewise I had difficulty with the way the Liturgy was carried out. Among the many philosophical distinctions made in homilies, classes, and chapters, the one I heard most often was that the Liturgy is “at the level of the Form, not at the level of the Finality.” Another way they put it was that the Liturgy is “secondary.” This word “secondary” seemed to translate as “not too important.”
          It seems there were many consequences to such a view, although I’m not sure whether they are all direct consequences. I’ll list a few of the consequences I had in mind. Liturgies were planned at the last minute. Silence during the Mass was often preferred to music (during times which traditionally require music, such as an Introit, an Offertory proper or Communion proper). If they did have music, it was a skeletal version of Gregorian Chant which had been translated into the vernacular and stripped of its melismas in the name of “purity” … The walls of their chapels were blank white …
          My fellow religious would readily admit, with a laugh, that our Divine Office was poor, but in the next breath they would often explain, “but we are not Benedictines. Liturgy is not first in our life.” Some referred to the Benedictines as “liturgical Pharisees.” Even art itself was spoken of as being merely “at the level of the form.”
          Today, I help run a choir and schola at a parish. I’m so edified by the way our priest treats every detail of the Liturgy with such great attention and care, as if he were dealing with our Lord Himself. Even so, I still run into people who criticize our efforts at making the Liturgy beautiful. One person recently said to me “Our Lord said ‘make a joyful noise,’ not ‘make a beautiful noise.’ Your expectations of the Liturgy are much too high compared with us normal people.”
          I could list many other sad comments, which seem to me stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Catholic Liturgy, just as you said. It seems there are many different ways this misunderstanding manifests itself.
This writer has eloquently said what is wrong with putting the liturgical adoration of God in a secondary or compromised position. There is such a temptation to relegate liturgy to an incidental, a stepping-stone, a means, a mindset, an incentive, a mere symbol of what is greater—however one wishes to put it.

All of these phrasings share, at root, a Protestant rejection of the Incarnation as a mystery that irrupts into time and space and becomes living and real for us in and through the sacred liturgy, which is the very gate of heaven, our access to and participation in the heavenly Jerusalem. The fact that most Western liturgies look and feel nothing like the heavenly Jerusalem suggests the extent to which we have bought into Protestant iconoclasm, anti-sacramentality, anti-bodiliness, and Eucharistic indifferentism. A solemn and beautiful celebration of the usus antiquior is, indeed, a taste of heaven—as it should be. If one cannot forget oneself in the liturgy, one has not yet even begun to pray. I mean this in the sense of the Byzantine chant: “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity now set aside all earthly cares.”

The world, like the poor, we will always have with us; but Christ the Lord, in our mystical encounter with Him in the holy oblation, we do not (so to speak) always have with us; we are not always engaged in liturgical divine worship, and that is why, when we are so engaged, it must count. It must be right, holy, God-oriented, a total immersion in His life, death, and resurrection. The focus is all on Him.

That point about “not being Benedictines,” too, is striking, since Benedictine spirituality has long been recognized and praised as simply the natural unfolding of the supernatural vocation of the Christian. Every Christian, to the extent he can, ought to be a sort of Benedictine. I realize not everyone would agree with this formulation, but it could be demonstrated from the Holy Rule that all of its author’s general principles are taken from the New Testament or are directly extrapolated from it. For example, let nothing be put before the Work of God. Can anyone honestly say, even if he’s a Jesuit, that caring for the bodily needs of the poor ought to take precedence over the worthy praise of God Himself and the conferring of His life-giving sacraments? By all means, take care of the poor—but do not neglect “the one thing necessary” for the rich and for the poor!

Those who understasnd that the lex orandi is the first and fundamental expression of the Christian faith will understand what true obedience in the Church means: it means keeping alive in every generation the mission of Christ and the apostolic seed, receiving what has been passed down, cherishing and embracing it, and making it fruitful in the world and for the future. But if the liturgy is relegated to a secondary position, what then is going to take its place? What will be the source and summit of the Christian life? It’s up in the air: it could be apostolic work or the field hospital, it could be theology, it could be endless conferences and meetings and synods, it could be anyone’s idiosyncratic version of Christianity. It seems to me that everything hinges on whether one takes liturgy to be a goal that orders everything else around it or a mere “form” of life—that is, a means to a different goal.

Going to meet Christ, the Light of the World

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