Monday, October 12, 2020

Is Modern Man “Incapable of the Liturgical Act”?

In 1964, “forty-six years after the publication of his seminal work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, and just after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Romano Guardini reflected on the challenges of the Liturgical Movement in a letter to a Congress on the Liturgy in 1964.” [1] He famously claimed that Modern Man is “no longer capable of a liturgical act”:
Is not the liturgical act and, with it, all that goes under the name of “liturgy” so bound up with the historical background – antique or medieval or baroque – that it would be more honest to give it up altogether? Would it not be better to admit that man in this industrial and scientific age, with its new sociological structure, is no longer capable of a liturgical act? And instead of talking of renewal ought we not to consider how best to celebrate the sacred mysteries so that modern man can grasp their meaning through his own approach to truth? [2]
In the same letter, Guardini states:
The question will arise whether our present liturgy contains parts which cannot mean much to modern man. I remember a conversation with the late Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of Maria Laach, the great champion of liturgical renewal. We had been considering various aspects and I said a sign that the work for liturgy was really coming to life would be a liturgical crisis, and Abbot Herwegen thoughtfully agreed.[3]
While Guardini himself only a few years later would dismiss the Consilium’s drafts as “plumber’s work,” it would be impossible to exaggerate the harm he himself caused by the remarks he made in the 1964 letter, which seemed to suggest, as many other semi-modernists had done, that the entirety of Christian liturgy from as early as Constantine, and certainly no later than the Middle Ages onward, was irrelevant, useless, inaccessible, ready for the scrap heap. What is surprising is that a theologian of Guardini’s stature, who was so attuned to the sacred liturgy's “irrelevance” and “uselessness” (properly understood) [4], was able to embrace this kind of chronological relativism.

On the one hand, we might sympathize with Guardini to this extent: the liturgical reform seemed to be premised on the idea that if the liturgy as it stands “isn’t working,” then all we need to do is redesign it — find a “working” model — pack it up, ship it out, and roll it off the skids to the expectant populace. In this vision, the problems are all on the side of the liturgical rites; it is not men who need to be reformed, but only the rites.

Yet what if the problem is in man? If he were judged to be incapable of the liturgical act, then he would be incapable of any liturgy, whether it comes from the scriptorium of Gregory the Great or the desk of Annibale Bugnini. He might be capable of something else, like a Bible study, a soup kitchen, prison ministry, or volunteering for scouts, but the leitourgia, the sacrificial action of one on behalf of the many [5], will not have any purchase in his individualistic world. In that sense, perhaps the avant-garde liturgists underestimated the challenge they were up against. It’s not about “tweaking” something to get it to “work” better, much less of piling on more and more Scripture so that one can check off a box that says “Bible is being read—done.” For it is not the reading or the text, the chant or the ritual, that is a problem, but the modernity of modern man, which prevents him from engaging, cosmically, symbolically, ascetically, and mystically, with the very realities Scripture is about, and short of which it fails of its aim.

“More than words: Signs, symbols, metaphors”

On the other hand, in defense of the common man, it might be asked: Why should we buy this typically pessimistic German view to begin with, reminiscent of Wotan lamenting the ineluctable collapse of Valhalla, the Götterdämmerung? To say that moderns are not able to be liturgical in the same way that all men prior to them have been is a path leading to despair: as if man were now a different species that requires a different religion, that is, a different system of signs ordered to divine worship. This subterranean despair was part of the motivation for the Novus Ordo. It led to the belief that a simplified, abbreviated, intelligible, vernacular, communal celebration will obviously appeal to modern man, who is incapable of vertical, theocentric, densely symbolic, archaically uttered ritual. But this seems to be basically false, and has led to a massive falling-away, as well as to the surprising resilience of the old rites that were supposed to be outdated and unapproachable.

The truth that is really inevitable is not Guardini’s fatalism, but an acknowledgement of the requirements of human formation.
Just as we cannot give ourselves permission to stop teaching each new generation how to speak, how to read, how to write, and how to think, so we must not fail to immerse ourselves in ritual that is uncompromisingly ritualistic, for this is the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of revealed religion, in both Testaments and in the history of the Church. It enjoys a universal anthropological basis that makes it always learnable, but since it is rather strange within rationalistic modernity, it is now more capable, not less capable, of confronting us with the transcendence of God, which calls us out of our comfort zone, as Abraham was called from Ur of the Chaldeans. When people have the sense that in the liturgy they are entering the domain of the sacred, somehow stepping into the realm of the divine, then their ears will begin to open to listening to the words of God in Scripture. The focus, the starting point, has to be elsewhere than Scripture. That is exactly contrary to where the reformers, in their homotextuality (so to speak), wanted to place the emphasis.

Another way of seeing this is to look at the repetitiousness of the old rite, much maligned of course by the reformers. In “Repetition Is the Mother of a Great Many Things,” I discuss the value of the frequent use of the same pericopes and verses of Scripture (and non-Scriptural texts) in the traditional liturgy precisely as a method for making us deeply familiar with the words. Eventually these words, or many of them at any rate, will be memorized; they come to live within us, forming our consciousness as the floor, walls, and ceiling of our inner architecture. The way to get modern Christians to take Scripture more seriously would be to take memory more seriously, and to preach and teach about ways in which our modern way of life is sapping or emptying our memories of what is divine and filling them with what is secular, profane, and, at times, diabolic. Once again, what modern man needed and still needs is what traditional liturgy rites and practices give him, not something newly fashioned à la Guardini.

Learning the old liturgy in the midst of ruins

It is also true, and I will be the first to admit it, that without some catechesis, whether outside of liturgy or in the homily, most modern people will not be able to grasp enough of the message of liturgy to get a good grip, a good foothold, for making further progress. In that sense, education simply cannot be bypassed. Dignified and beautiful liturgy can accomplish immense good, even conversions from atheism or paganism; but for most people, entering deeply into all that the liturgy has to offer is going to require at least some investment of work, slowly, over a long period. And it has always been so; there’s a reason St. Benedict speaks of the opus Dei, the work of God. It is work that, as the Holy Rule stresses, requires repetition, study, and expertise, though — as Guardini rightly says — it is also the highest-level play, since it does not have an ulterior motive, an end for which it is merely a means.

Let us return to our starting point. Guardini said that modern man could no longer perform the liturgical act. This was taken by many in the later phase of the Liturgical Movement as an indisputable truth and a warrant for unlimited experimentation, with the goal of equipping the liturgy to elicit or solicit the “correct” participation from the faithful. Ironically, what happened instead is that the liturgical act was transformed into its opposite: the celebration of the community itself by itself. In a strange twist, Guardini’s dour assessment was not disproved by the Novus Ordo but inculcated by it: what had been a risk of missing the properly liturgical became a habit of missing it with confident ease. In short, it is above all the reformed liturgy that has made modern men, to the extent humanly possible and divinely permitted, incapable of performing the liturgical act.


[1] Editorial introduction at Corpus Christi Watershed.
[2] “1964 Letter from Romano Guardini.”
[3] See Christopher Carstens, “Romano Guardini Was Careful What He Asked For: A Liturgical Crisis.”
[4] See Fr. Daniel Cardo, “At Prayer in the Fields of the Lord: The Playfulness of the Liturgy.”
[5] See William Daniel, Christ the Liturgy (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), 1-39, on the correct meaning of the term leitourgia.

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