Monday, February 24, 2020

The “Liturgical Little Way”: The Spiritual Value of Following Detailed Prescriptions

One of the great strengths of the traditional Latin liturgy is that it leaves nothing to the will or imagination of the priest (and the same may be said of every minister in the sanctuary). It choreographs his moves, dictates his words, shapes his mind and heart to itself, to make it clear that it is Christ who is acting in and through him. In the words of the Psalmist: “Know ye that the Lord he is God: he made us, and not we ourselves. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Psa 99:3). Sheep are to follow the lead of their shepherd. The clergy is not and will never be the first principle of the liturgy; as St. Thomas Aquinas says with sobering humility, the priest or other cleric is an “animate instrument” of the Eternal High Priest: “Holy orders does not constitute a principal agent, but a minister and a certain instrument of divine operation.”

Ministers are like rational hammers or chisels or saws, by which a greater artisan will accomplish His work of sanctification, while conferring on them the immense dignity of resting in His hand and partaking of His action. Here is how Monsignor Ronald Knox expresses it:
The philosopher Aristotle, in defining the position of a slave, uses the words, “A slave is a living tool.” And that is what a priest is, a living tool of Jesus Christ. He lends his hands to be Christ’s hands, his voice to be Christ’s voice, his thoughts to be Christ’s thoughts; there is, there should be, nothing of himself in it from first to last, except where the Church graciously permits him to dwell for a moment in silence on his own special intentions, for the good estate of the living and the dead. Those who are not of our religion are puzzled sometimes, or even scandalized, by witnessing the ceremonies of the Mass; it is all, they say, so mechanical. But you see, it ought to be mechanical. They are watching, not a man, but a living tool; it turns this way and that, bends, straightens itself, gesticulates, all in obedience to a preconceived order—Christ’s order, not ours. The Mass is best said—we Catholics know it—when it is said so that you do not notice how it is said; we do not expect eccentricities from a tool, the tool of Christ.
The clergy are privileged tools, to be sure, but they are still tools; and the liturgy remains the work of Christ, the High Craftsman, the carpenter of the ark of the covenant, the architect of the heavenly Jerusalem, the New Song and its cantor. In its external form, in text and music and ceremonial, the liturgy should luminously proclaim that it is the work of Christ and His Church, not the product of a charismatic individual or a grassroots community.

In an interview in February 2016, Bishop Athanasius Schneider was asked what lessons he has learned from celebrating the traditional form of the Mass. Here is the bishop’s revealing response:
The deepest lesson I have learned from celebrating the traditional form of the Mass is this: I am only a poor instrument of a supernatural and utmost sacred action, whose principal celebrant is Christ, the Eternal High Priest. I feel that during the celebration of the Mass I lose in some sense my individual freedom, for the words and the gestures are prescribed even in their smallest details, and I am not able to dispose of them. I feel most deeply in my heart that I am only a servant and a minister, who yet, with free will, with faith and love, fulfill not my will, but the will of Another.
How much does a priest stand to gain or lose by his cooperation or lack of cooperation with the “smallest details” of the liturgical rite bequeathed to him by tradition and ecclesiastical law?

Mother Mectilde (Catherine de Bar)
To find an answer, let us turn to a great writer of the golden age of French spirituality, Catherine de Bar (1614–1698), or, in religious life, Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament. In her correspondence with the Countess of Chateauvieux, Mother Mectilde writes:
The first thing I notice in you, my very dear daughter, is that you do not have enough esteem for small things. You do not consider them in the light of divine Providence; that is why you have little attention and respect for them and you lose therein a great deal of grace. … God sometimes asks only for a small act of fidelity in order to make us great saints. You should always be in a state of holy and loving attention towards God, in order to give yourself to Him in all ways . . .  If you could conceive the loss you cause when you act in a purely human way, you would be inconsolable. Is it not a great fault in a soul who is able to give glory to God and who nevertheless deprives Him of it in order to give precedence to his [own] reasoning that the small actions of life are only trifles and that they do not need to be governed. O my child, if you had truly understood how you are ransomed and how you belong to Jesus Christ, you would have much more solicitude about honoring Him. If one beat of your heart does not belong to you, then so much the more your smallest action, which is always more extended than one heart beat.
In these words we find a striking anticipation of the better-known “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Mother Mectilde sees clearly that small acts of fidelity are the proving ground of our desire to be great saints, and that we should try never to act in a purely human way, out of our own creaturely resources.

Applying Mother Mectilde’s doctrine to Msgr. Knox’s comparison and Bishop Schneider’s experience, we can arrive at a new insight into the enormous spiritual benefits of the traditional Roman liturgy for the ministers who submit to its thousand little demands, which are occasions for placing them in a state of holy and loving attention towards God. Not one word or motion is considered a trifle that does not need to be governed; all actions are ordered to honoring Him.

Mother Mectilde develops this point in another passage from the same correspondence:
The gospel tells us today in two words what Christian holiness consists in. It is a wonderful lesson, listen to this please. The law says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind.”  Ponder these things well and you will see how much you are required to give to God, even to the smallest of your actions. …
       You will find in an infinity of places in Holy Scriptures your incapacity to dispose of yourself, indeed even one of your thoughts, if you do not want to steal it from Jesus Christ. For by right you cannot. You have been bought: the one who buys the tree buys the fruit, thus you are not your own. Ponder this truth well, repeat often these words: I am not my own, I belong to Jesus Christ. He has ransomed me by love, I am thus necessarily the slave of His love. O worthy slavery! …
       You see, next, how much you are obliged to give yourself to Him. That is, to consent to all the rights, powers, and authority He has over you, and to remain in Him. That is, to never depart from His holy presence, and to do all things by His spirit. As much as is possible for you, to never have in your ideas any other object than Him. In short, that His pure glory cause you to act in everything, even to the least of your actions. Do not think that there is anything small in regard to God: all is great, all is holy, His love sanctifies everything.
       Be thus very exact in the smallest things. All is done for a great God. It is necessary that you do everything mindfully, that is to say, with attention to God, and with a simple desire to glorify and please Him in everything. … He wants you to have this fidelity [in the smallest things] and then He will raise you to even greater ones. The man who does not value the little things will soon fall into great disorders.
How compelling is Mother Mectilde’s doctrine of holy slavery to Christ, expressed in the constant giving over of every little thing, every small act, done for the great God, the Lord of heaven and earth!

We are looking here at a gloss on Our Lord’s own teaching: “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater” (Lk 16:10). Note the emphasis on justice: the one who is unfaithful to God in little matters will prove unjust to Him in greater ones, too — not unloving, but unjust. It is about justice, the “rights of God,” since, as we saw Mother Mectilde so vividly saying, we belong to Him as His property.

In speaking of fidelity and justice, Our Lord is making reference to the virtue of religion, that is, giving to God that which we owe Him, to the best of our abilities. If we do not give Him our controlled limbs, our bows, genuflections, kisses, averted eyes, and careful pronunciation of syllables, why would we deceive ourselves into thinking that we shall give him our mind and will, our love, our service to others?

The school par excellence of utmost fidelity in small things as well as great ones is the sacred liturgy, wherein we obey little rubrics as we handle the greatest thing, the very flesh and blood of God. Prompted by Mother Mectilde’s teaching, should we not say that a liturgy that offers the celebrant or the participant a greater number of opportunities to submit to the mind of another and serve His will, especially in the “smallest details,” is a liturgy that will produce more abundant fruits of holiness?

If I may coin a phrase, this is nothing other than the “liturgical Little Way” — the teaching of St. Thérèse applied to that area in which it had always been practiced without fanfare until recent decades, when the rubrics were severely curtailed, celebrant options were multiplied, a casual approach was adopted, and a millennium of Western piety was dismissed as obscurantism. With the abandonment of this Little Way came an ever-increasing flood of infidelity, impiety, and depravity. “The man who does not value the little things will soon fall into great disorders.”

Thanks be to God we are seeing a restoration of the little things, so that someday we may see once again great sanctity emerging from the liturgy.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website for selected articles, sacred music, and books from Os Justi Press, his SoundCloud page for lectures and interviews, and YouTube for talks and sacred music.

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