Monday, December 31, 2018

At the End of One Year and the Start of Another: Stability within the Cycle

Man, the human person, is defined by thirst: “O God, my God, to thee do I watch at break of day. For thee my soul hath thirsted; for thee my flesh, O how many ways!” (Ps 62:2). This existential thirst never goes away as long as we live, year in, year out. Indeed, in a healthy man, it should increase until it becomes unbearable, and he dies from it, to satisfy it at last.

Our thirst, our primal need, is to worship — to be filled, sated with the presence of God, the reality of God. “In a desert land, and where there is no way, and no water: so in the sanctuary have I come before thee, to see thy power and thy glory” (Ps 62:3). This mortal life, so obviously good that we cling to it rather desperately, is yet a place of constant change, where it often seems there is no way, and no water, except when we go to the sanctuary. There we find the power to be, to live, to suffer, and to die. There we find intimations of glory that beckon us forward, out of a desert land and into a watered garden (Is 58:3).

Socrates said that the purpose of philosophy was to prepare for death. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” as St. Paul said (Phil 1:23). The Apostle saw that his thirst for life could be quenched only in the beatific vision, which he himself tasted in the rapture he narrates in 2 Corinthians 12. In this vision there would be, at last, surcease of restless desire in the intensity of blissful unshakable possession. “They shall be inebriated with the plenty of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of thy pleasure” (Ps 35:9).

For him who seeks God and dwells in Him, life, however confusing and difficult, is never a parched and trackless desert in which one wanders aimlessly. For the atheist or nihilist or hedonist, however, could it be anything else? Our temporal pleasures are evanescent and, in a way, unreal, as they disappear into the maw of inexorable time, with the passing of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia. This, perhaps, explains the somewhat melancholy cast that, for many, hangs over the Christmas season and into the start of the New Year, a melancholy many attempt to drown in spirited celebrations that have, as their only lasting result, the killing of time.

Catholics, however, think and act differently about time. We find ourselves in the unfolding of the liturgy’s temporal and sanctoral cycle; we situate our lives upon a calendar that precedes and supersedes the civil calendar, and opens onto eternity. We do not say that January 1st is our new year, although, as the Epistle to Diognetus has it, we politely go along with the conventions of our place and time, when they are not wicked. Our newness is in Christ, who is before and after the ages, and within all ages: He is the beginning of the cycle in Advent, and the end of the cycle in the Last Sunday after Pentecost, when His ominous discourse about the end of the world places us in mind of the termination of time itself and of the whirling change that threatens to sweep away God’s immortal handiwork. “The Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8).

The passage from life to death and death to life, a passage of which we never cease to be reminded by the cycle of seasons and the two off-rhythm calendars we live by, does not, fundamentally, leave the Christian melancholy. He see himself as a “work in progress,” even as is the entire cosmos, and the Church in those of her members who are living in time. Our reality is not all at once, like a “fact,” but a reality that God is shaping as He leads it towards Himself. St. Thomas Aquinas expresses this point well:
‘He who is’ is the most proper name of God among other names. . . . For that is perfect outside of which there is nothing. But our being has something of it outside itself, for it is without something of itself which is now past and something else which is future, but in the divine being nothing is either past or future; and therefore He has His whole perfect being and on account of this, to Him properly belongs Being. (Sent. I.8.1.1)
What lends reality to our being, variable and sequential as it is; what constitutes us as one and permanent, so that we are not fractured and dissipated, is our resting in the Alpha and Omega, free from every shadow of change. If the Holy Spirit has made the liturgy the center of His working in our souls, as Dom Guéranger claimed, we might add: the Holy Spirit has made the liturgy the anchor for our ship in time of turmoil, the sail in times of fair weather, the harbor in time of need, the open ocean in time of peace. We are centered in the king and center of all hearts, rex et centrum omnium cordium.

This is why a liturgy that is theocentric, stable, determinate, orderly, and saturated with content is exactly suited to the nature of man-in-time, man in via, en route to the beatific vision. It must be theocentric or else it fails altogether to be worship. It must be stable, determinate, and orderly if it is to give shape, meaning, and direction to our passage through this mutable, variable, and often chaotic life. It must be saturated with ritual, textual, musical content in order to be suitable food and drink for rational animals defined by their capacity for the infinite. Man’s ever-recurring thirst is both slaked and newly awakened by the peaceful rhythm of the one-year lectionary, the rich sanctoral cycle, the alternating thinness and density of liturgical seasons, the comfort of familiar set prayers in the same ancient tongue and the provocation of the newly-noticed detail.

This is why, at the end of each year, whether ecclesiastical or civic, Catholics — instead of succumbing to bouts of melancholy or fending them off with feeble weapons — have every reason to look forward to the sobria ebrietas, the sober drunkenness, of another year fruitfully spent in worshiping the Lord with the traditional rites He has bestowed on His Church. “In the sanctuary have I come before thee, to see thy power and thy glory.”
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