Monday, June 22, 2015

Classics of the Liturgical Movement: Romano Guardini (2)

Two weeks ago we saw how masterfully Guardini spoke of the objectivity, preeminence, and emotional restraint of the sacred liturgy as the Church’s public prayer, and how tradition has bestowed on it a peculiarly balanced, well-rounded expression of the fullness of truth and integrity of doctrine, as well as how liturgy eagerly draws upon culture to enrich and elevate this expression.

This week, we take up at a gem of a work by the same author, Sacred Signs, first published in 1911. It would be difficult to exaggerate the beauty, power, and usefulness of this little book, which I have successfully used as a homeschooling assignment as well as a reading in college theology (it could serve many other purposes, too, such as a parish study circle). For many, this book has been a defining moment in coming to grasp the symbolic language of the liturgy, a language founded in a kind of heightened sensitivity to cosmology and psychology that moderns often lack. The table of contents reads like a grammar of ascent: “The Sign of the Cross, The Hands, Kneeling, Standing, Walking, Striking the Breast, Steps, Doors,  Candles, Holy Water, Fire, Ashes, Incense, Light and Heat, Bread and Wine, Linen, The Altar, The Chalice, The Paten, Blessing, Space Sanctified, Bells, Time Sanctified—Morning, Evening, Midday, The Name of God.”

In this book, Guardini helps us to see the Mass as the crown jewel of the liturgical “work” of Christ, who works through His Mystical Body to continue our divinization through sign, symbol, and sacrament. It is the Church's supreme and ancient love affair with Christ, where He has met to court her sweetly mid-way between heaven and earth, using the tools of every lover—song, word, gesture, symbol. In this splendorous spectacle of their love, we too are invited to join. We yearn to be an active partner in this drama of “fairest love.” To do that, we must make our own the Church's liturgical love-language, taught Her by Christ, so that with all the angels and Saints we can adore God with that “fairest love” we all desire. Through liturgy, Holy Church teaches us to love God as he deserves. Let us learn from Her!

Sacred Signs has been out of print for a very long time, and used copies are scarce. Since the text itself is in the public domain, I decided to produce a new edition of it, available here for $7.00. I'm pleased with the way it turned out.

Now for some tastes, to show why this has been a favorite book of so many readers over the past century!

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          When a man feels proud of himself, he stands erect, draws himself to his full height, throws back his head and shoulders and says with every part of his body, I am bigger and more important than you. But when he is humble he feels his littleness, and lowers his head and shrinks into himself. He abases himself. And the greater the presence in which he stands the more deeply he abases himself; the smaller he becomes in his own eyes.
          But when does our littleness so come home to us as when we stand in God’s presence? He is the great God, who is today and yesterday, whose years are hundreds and thousands, who fills the place where we are, the city, the wide world, the measureless space of the starry sky, in whose eyes the universe is less than a particle of dust, all-holy, all-pure, all-righteous, infinitely high. He is so great, I so small, so small that beside him I seem hardly to exist, so wanting am I in worth and substance. One has no need to be told that God’s presence is not the place in which to stand on one’s dignity. To appear less presumptuous, to be as little and low as we feel, we sink to our knees and thus sacrifice half our height; and to satisfy our hearts still further we bow down our heads, and our diminished stature speaks to God and says, Thou art the great God; I am nothing.
          Therefore let not the bending of our knees be a hurried gesture, an empty form. Put meaning into it. To kneel, in the soul’s intention, is to bow down before God in deepest reverence.
          On entering a church, or in passing before the altar, kneel down all the way without haste or hurry, putting your heart into what you do, and let your whole attitude say, Thou art the great God. It is an act of humility, an act of truth, and every time you kneel it will do your soul good.


          “And I saw an angel come and stand before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, and the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.” So writes Saint John in the mysterious book of the Apocalypse.
          The offering of an incense is a generous and beautiful rite. The bright grains of incense are laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds. In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality; and like music also is the entire lack of practical utility: it is a prodigal waste of precious material. It is a pouring out of unwithholding love.
          “When the Lord was at supper Mary brought the spikenard of great price and poured it over his feet and wiped them with her hair, and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” Narrower spirits objected. “Whereto this waste?” But the Son of God has spoken, “Let her alone. She hath done it against my burial.” Mary’s anointing was a mystery of death and love and the sweet savor of sacrifice.
          The offering of incense is like Mary’s anointing at Bethany. It is as free and objectless as beauty. It burns and is consumed like love that lasts through death. And the arid soul still takes his stand and asks the same question: What is the good of it?
          It is the offering of a sweet savor which Scripture itself tells us is the prayers of the Saints. Incense is the symbol of prayer. Like pure prayer it has in view no object of its own; it asks nothing for itself. It rises like the Gloria Patri at the end of a psalm in adoration and thanksgiving to God for his great glory.
          It is true that symbolism of this sort may lead to mere aestheticism. There are imaginations in which the fragrant clouds of incense induce a spurious religiosity; and, in such instances, when it does so, the Christian conscience does right to protest that prayer should be made in spirit and in truth. But though prayer is a plain, straight-forward business, it is not the so-much-for-so-muchness which the niggardly imagination and fleshless heart of the religious Philistine would make of it. The same spirit persists that produced the objection of Judas of Kerioth. Prayer is not to be measured by its bargaining power; it is not a matter of bourgeois common sense.
          Minds of this order know nothing of that magnanimous prayer that seeks only to give. Prayer is a profound act of worship, that asks neither why nor wherefore. It rises like beauty, like sweetness, like love. The more there is in it of love, the more of sacrifice. And when the fire has wholly consumed the sacrifice, a sweet savor ascends.


Sacred Signs. First published 1911. Trans. Grace Branham (St. Louis: Pio Decimo Press, 1956). Now available again in print, here.

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