Monday, May 17, 2021

Liturgy as Labor versus Liturgy as Leisure

(Part 2 of a two-part series, “Exorcising the Demon of Activism.” For Part 1, see here.)

Last week I spoke of the tendency of modern Christians to prioritize activity, good works, social work — in short, the “horizontal” dimension — over the “vertical” dimension of the individual and corporate relationship with God and His kingdom that we find in, and cultivate through, personal and liturgical prayer. It is no secret that a pragmatic and utilitarian attitude dominates our world and, regrettably, our Church. Rare is the pastor of souls who takes seriously himself, and then teaches others by example and word, that seeking contemplative union with God is absolutely the first priority in the life of every man who has ever lived and who will ever live, and that this means giving Him the best of our time and resources. I sometimes have a mental picture of our final judgment being initially about why we gave God so little of our time, attention, and love when He was present in our midst in symbols and in His Real Presence; and, only after that fundamental defect has been thoroughly examined, launching into the terrifying review of our particular sins, offenses, and negligences.

The heroic Jesuit Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J. (1873–1917), who expended his life for his men on the battlefield of World War I as a much-loved and courageous army chaplain, and therefore cannot be accused of pious daydreaming, once observed: “Did it ever strike you that when our Lord pointed out the ‘fields white for the harvest,’ he did not urge his Apostles to go and reap it, but to pray?” (Recall Matthew 9, 37-38: “Then he saith to his disciples, The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth labourers into his harvest.”)

Pope St John Paul II’s critique of the impoverishment of personal relations in a materialistic society suggests a striking parallel with the confusion of primary and secondary in the life of the Church:

The criterion of personal dignity — which demands respect, generosity, and service — is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality, and usefulness: others are considered not for what they “are,” but for what they “have, do, and produce.” (Evangelium Vitae, §23)
The liturgical reformers committed an analogous blunder. The criterion of liturgical dignity — which demands profound respect for tradition (a prerequisite to internalizing its wisdom), generous self-surrender to its ascetical and rubrical demands, and sincere service to the faithful in offering them ongoing formation — was replaced by the activist criteria of efficiency, functionality, and usefulness ad extra. Liturgy was to be judged not by what it is in its innermost essence, but by its externals, its facilitation of us, its meeting of our untutored needs, its satisfaction of our desires, and (in a best-case scenario) its stimulation of our apostolic activities. It became a Mutual Aid Society for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with a decorative Catholic touch.

A contemplative ritual such as the Church had offered to God prior to the mid-1960s will never be able to withstand the relentless demands of the pragmatist for instant results or continual production of “output.” This is due to a fundamental error: work is taken as the paradigm of actuality, rather than rest. We would do well to dwell on this point.

Aristotle introduced into philosophy one of the most useful distinctions ever made, the difference between “first act” and “second act” (or, as some translations have it, first actuality and second actuality). We understand this distinction, which is not logical but metaphysical, by considering a lot of examples from common experience and intuiting what they have in common: being able to see versus actually seeing; being alive but asleep vs. being awake; being equipped with intellect or habitual knowledge vs. actually understanding an essence, which is when knower and known, subject and object, are one and the same. This latter state is being “fully-at-work” (in the Heidegger-influenced language of Joe Sachs), but paradoxically, it is not working at something laboriously; it is actively resting in the possession of a form or a perfection. Capacity for work is ordered to working (attaining actuality), but working is ordered to a certain “rest” (actuality fully achieved). What Abraham Maslow called “a flow state” or, colloquially, “being in the zone,” is just this second act/actuality of which Aristotle speaks, at its peak.

The solemn public liturgy of the Church, though it involves the combined efforts of various people, is essentially the latter kind of work: being fully-at-work in Christ’s actuality, which He now shares with us as an overflow, a redundantia, from heaven, and to which we unite ourselves more as twigs or leaves floating downstream than as trucks carrying gravel or streamrollers flattening asphalt. We are not making a better world by the work of our hands; we are being remade in the image of God, who is pure act.

Josef Pieper’s best-known book is called Leisure, the Basis of Culture. By “leisure” Pieper means what we do for its own sake when all our other practical needs are met. Leisure is not relaxation, which is an interval of inaction before resuming exertions. Nor is leisure exactly the same as recreation, when we entertain ourselves or one another in a more or less dignified manner. Leisure is the reflective and contemplative activity of rejoicing in what is real, with a full mind and heart, with no other business pressing on us and pulling us away; it is resting with wonder and gratitude in the goodness of creation and its Creator; it is what the virtuous man labors to make room for, because it is the best human activity and, in fact, something more than human.

Seeing “Liturgy as Labor” and seeing “Liturgy as Leisure” are, then, the two basic ways of seeing it. The former is activist, the latter contemplative; the one is based on a paradigm of involvement and production, the other on a paradigm of receptivity, surrender, and rest. The partisans of the first conception think of themselves as doing the right thing, bringing the right state of affairs into being, and thus feel that their opponents are “passive” and “mute observers”; the partisans of the second conception think of themselves primarily as beholding and loving what is beautiful or noble in itself, and therefore consider a certain kind of passivity a virtue, and quiet observation a form of opening one’s soul to the power of another who acts to conform the soul to Himself. As Andrew Louth remarks, “To participate by beholding seems a shortcoming only to the busy Western mind.” (The Study of Spirituality, p. 187)

Monastic professions: everyone in this photo is receptive in stance and action
Monastic private Masses (see here for more recent photos)
Fr. Ray Blake asks the question “Why are contemplatives problematic?” and answers:

It is presumably something about the ‘otherness’ of their lives. . . . their values are not those of the contemporary world: they tend to stand still rather than go out to the peripheries of contemporary thought, stat crux dum volvitur orbis, which means they don’t get “with the program.” There is something about the transcendence and otherness of their lives that says some important things about God; that he is above and beyond us, that he is unknowable, ineffable, which means he is beyond the control of Kings and governments, or even Churchmen. The war on Liturgy that speaks of the transcendent of the post-conciliar period uses the same arguments, or lack of argument, as those who have difficulty with the contemplative life. Liturgy that is pure worship, that does not seek to teach, or build community or to “celebrate” in the contemporary sense of the word, is equally incomprehensible; it is about esse [to be] rather than agere [to act]. 

In his fine work Love and Truth: The Christian Path of Charity, Jean Borella brilliantly analyzes the mentality behind suppressing prayer and liturgy because of “social needs”:

Being universal, this commandment [of love] is by definition and a priori applied to every man, but its realization does not require, for it to be accomplished in perfection and for us to be perfect, that we apply it successively to all men. A similar interpretation is implied, however, in the manner in which our contemporaries have become intoxicated with a quantitatively unlimited charity. Besides, why limit the import of this commandment to humanity? Does not the cosmic order concern the whole of creation, and has not Christ ordained the teaching of the Gospel to every creature and not to man alone? And on the other hand, imperfection, misery, and injustice being by definition inexhaustible, the work of justice claims the totality of my time and therefore the totality of my life.
          Consequently, everything not directly an individual or social work of justice is [regard as] mortal sin. Prayer and liturgy, momentarily requiring the whole man and the cessation of every action for the sake of the collectivity, become mortal sins themselves. For to pray, we must withdraw from the world. It is not we ourselves but Christ who is saying this, and we only need state that the commandment on prayer comes immediately after the just-quoted passage, as if the Gospel wished to forestall the modern errors of interpretation: “For yourself when you wish to pray enter into your chamber, close the door and pray to your Father who dwells in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6).
          The hic and nunc of our existential situation implies a unicity of acting. We cannot do several things at once. The act of prayer and the liturgy concretely exclude the social act and vice versa. If active charity is to absorb the totality of the charitable power, everything opposing it should be eliminated. And this is why we think the modern conception leads directly and logically to the elimination of liturgical worship and the spiritual life, that is to say ultimately of the Church and theism, for their opposition, in concreto, is strictly inevitable. (225–26)
Now, what Borella describes may well be considered a “limit case” that will never be reached on earth, regardless of the combined effects of activism, indifference, and wickedness in high places as in low; nevertheless, the logic driving toward it leaves a path of carnage behind itself, along which are strewn the lost or never-awakened vocations of tens of thousands of contemplative religious after the Council — a gaping hole in the Mystical Body on earth that no campaign of charity, no pastoral programs, no liturgical reform, could ever fill. Precisely when and where the primacy of contemplation and the true leisure of liturgy are rediscovered and embraced will there be a restoration of the Church’s missionary dynamism and her once-unparalleled charitable work in the world. Delightfully, the way to reach that longed-for goal is the same as the goal itself: prayer and worship. The means and the end coincide, even as our “daily bread” par excellence is the Maker of bread and the Life it imparts.

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