Monday, May 10, 2021

The Church Exists to Seek First the Kingdom of God

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

As the traditional Latin Mass returns and as discussions of it multiply, one might hear an objection like the following, which I heard almost verbatim. “The traditional Latin Mass is too focused on the vertical and not enough on the horizontal. It fosters a bunker or fortress mentality. We cannot have people leaning so much toward the contemplative; they must be ready to storm the battlefield of the culture war.”

A specimen “in the wild” can be seen in the following words published a few years ago by a Catholic writer who, I believe, would no longer endorse them:

I am not saying there were no aspects of the “way of praying” in the old liturgy which may have been dangerous, in some way, to true Christian maturity. It may be true that, in some ways, as some reformers have argued, the old liturgy tended to foster a type of piety which was simplistic, a “pie in the sky” faith detached from the “here and now” of Christ’s call to act on urgent matters of charity and social justice. In this view, some aspects of the celebration of the old Mass, the incense, the robes, the mystery, caused people so much to focus on “heaven” that they forgot “earth.” I acknowledge that this may have been, and may be, true, and a concern for liturgical reformers who are truly committed to building the Kingdom, here and in time to come.
If this caricature were true, why would the greatest saints of charity and social justice — such as St. Vincent de Paul in the seventeenth century, or in our own times, Dorothy Day, who was traumatized by the liturgical revolution — encourage the careful and beautiful celebration of the traditional liturgy, which nourished them for their whole lives? They knew that whatsoever we do to the poor, hidden, humble, and vulnerable Host, we do to the glorious Christ our Judge in heaven; indeed, whatsoever sin we commit against the divine liturgy, we commit against our poor brothers and sisters, whose greatest treasure in this world is the Church’s faith and worship. For it is in the liturgy that the comforting words of the Prophet Isaiah are fulfilled:
All you that thirst, come to the waters: and you that have no money make haste, buy, and eat: come ye, buy wine and milk without money, and without any price. Why do you spend money for that which is not breed, and your labour for that which doth not satisfy you? Hearken diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and your soul shall be delighted in fatness. (Isa 55, 1–2) 

The history of the Church tells a far different story, one that C. S. Lewis has aptly conveyed in a famous passage from Mere Christianity that’s always worth repeating:

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
In the hustle and bustle of actively participating in close-to-home vernacular “Lite Rites,” it has come to be viewed as almost indecent for laity to ask that the liturgy be conducive to meditation, or for clergy to expect the Mass and the Divine Office to foster a contemplative life in their souls. Lewis’s observation could be custom-fitted to our postconciliar situation: “Aim at worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth, and you will get active participation ‘thrown in’; aim at active participation, and you will get neither.”

The way that liturgists still carry on, one would think they are speaking thus to one another: “What shall we do, so that all of us may be doing something? What shall we sing or speak? Who shall do the reading, who shall bring up the gifts, who shall clap the laudatory hand or hug the neighborly torso? When shall we stand or sit or kneel?” And Jesus is there to say, “The pagans seek all these things. Your Father knows that you need them — at the right time and place. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the rest will be added unto you.”

If we aim more at the participation than at the reality to be partaken of, and if we insert explanations and directions into the liturgy (“how to”) rather than taking pains to instruct people at other times so that they may truly yield themselves to the liturgy, we are inverting the proper order of goods, the proper hierarchy of values — and thereby meriting the deprivation of those goods, the anarchy of those values.

A Dominican spiritual writer, Fr Gerald Vann, articulated this relationship of primary and secondary in his work The Divine Pity (pp. 12–13):
It might be true to say, take care of contemplation — make sure that it is fervent, assiduous, and wholly God-centred — and action will take care of itself, the redemptive work will inevitably follow in one form or another; but the reverse would certainly not be true. What is the purpose of the grace of God, the sacramental system, the whole dynamism of the supernatural life, but to enable us to know God, to love God, to serve God?...   To be poor in spirit, to be meek, to be clean of heart: all these things denote an attitude of soul towards the world; but primarily they denote an attitude of soul towards God… Yes, we must long, and pray, and work to be filled with the love of our neighbour; but first of all, above all, we must long and pray and work to possess the one thing necessary, the substance of life everlasting, the thing whereof this other, when it is strongest and deepest, is the expression and derivative.

Abbot Ildefons Herwegen conveyed much the same sentiment in his 1918 introduction to Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy — an introduction sadly no longer printed with it these days:

It is not assemblies, speeches, demonstrations, nor the favor of states and peoples, nor protective laws and subsidies that make the Church so strong. And while there can never be enough done in preaching, in the confessionals, in parish missions, in catechesis, and in works of mercy; yet all such things are merely the external achievements that flow from an internal power. It would be perverse indeed to be concerned principally for such achievements whilst neglecting the concern for the purity, intensity, and growth of the internal source. Wherever the Church truly, vitally prays, there supernatural holiness springs up on all sides; there active peace, human understanding, and true love of neighbor blossom.

Dom Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance from 1951 to 1963, likewise had a profound understanding of the primacy and fruitfulness of contemplation:

The Church is intimately united with the Word of God, who became flesh for the salvation of mankind, and it is precisely this union with the incarnate Son of God which is the source of her pastoral function… It is by her union with Christ praying, teaching, and suffering, that she transmits the benefits of the prayer, the word, and the sacrifice of Jesus.
          Once you have close union, you have outgoing and true apostleship. Without close union with Jesus, there can be no question of radiation, of making others know and love him. (Quoted in Guy Oury, OSB, Dom Gabriel Sortais: An Amazing Abbot in Turbulent Times, trans. Brian Kerns, OSCO [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2006], 279; 300.)  

Mexican allegorical painting of Christ’s wounds as the font of life (depicted are the “five persons,” Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Anne, and Joachim); for more on this type of image, see here.
Una voce, the prophet Isaiah, C.S. Lewis, Fr. Gerald Vann, Abbot Ildefons Herwegen, Dom Gabriel Sortais tell us of the primacy of contemplation, of being centered on God, of feasting on the food He offers us, so that the rest of what we endeavor to do will be permeated with the “internal power” of divine grace, besought and received from its “internal source”: prayer, liturgy, sacraments. These orient Christians to the life that never ends, the life of the world to come, the heavenly destiny for which Christ purchased us with the outpouring of His precious Blood.

The Word became flesh not to bring us bigger and more climate-friendly houses, electricity and running water, literacy and hygiene, voting rights and online banking. None of this will prevent any of us from paying the debt of Adam: pain, sorrow, and death, followed by judgment and eternal bliss or woe. The Word became flesh to lift us, body and soul, to a share in His resurrection from the dead and His indestructible joy in His Father.

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