Monday, March 14, 2022

“The Sacrifice of Praise and the Ecstatic Orientation of Man”: Dr. Kwasniewski’s Davenport Lecture

The following lecture was given in Davenport, Iowa, on March 2, 2022, at the invitation of Una Voce Quad City. I am grateful to the organizers for making a video, which is now on my YouTube page.

I am convinced that one of the greatest errors we are facing in the Church today—and one that, in a hidden way, drives a lot of other problems we are suffering under—is the dominance of an activist, utilitarian, this-worldly notion of what Christianity is all about. It’s taken for granted that religion is for the sake of social justice and improvement of quality of life, that it’s a matter of being busy with charitable projects, of making ourselves “useful,” and so forth—quite as if God is not very good at ruling His universe and needs a lot of help from us (“excuse me, Lord, let me step in and take care of this disaster”). At its extreme, as we see it too often in Vatican documents and activities, Catholicism looks like an interreligious, humanitarian social services operation, the “chaplain to the United Nations” as some wags have put it.

In my talk this evening I would like to present to you a totally different way of thinking of the meaning of Christianity and of the purpose of human life. I will offer you the traditional vision, which, needless to say, is not well understood. And I will do so starting from a book of the Bible that used to be at the heart of all of theology but has suffered enormous neglect in the modern Church, namely, the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is all about priesthood, sacrifice, and heaven, and the very title of which underlines the profound continuity between the worship of Israel instituted by God through Moses and its fulfillment in the worship of the New Israel instituted by the God-man Jesus Christ.

In this Epistle, whose author I will take to be St. Paul or certainly of St. Paul’s circle, a climactic verse of chapter 13 exhorts us: “By Him [our Lord Jesus Christ], therefore, let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to His Name” (Heb 13:15). Given the relative paucity of explicit references in Hebrews to the Christian liturgy and how it is to be conducted here on earth,[1] this exhortation rings out all the more loudly, summoning us to a certain way of life: one in which we offer unto God, continually, the “sacrifice of praise,” which is the fruit of interior faith and its verbal confession. One might ask: Why does St. Paul sum up the Christian religion as a sacrificium laudis? What might we learn from the emphasis on praise?

Before digging into that question, it is worthwhile to point out how frequently Sacred Scripture uses this language. Apart from Hebrews 13:15, here are some other instances:

Offer to God the sacrifice of praise: and pay thy vows to the most High. (Psalm 49:14)

The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: and there is the way by which I will shew him the salvation of God. (Psalm 49:23)

And let them sacrifice the sacrifice of praise: and declare his works with joy. (Psalm 106:22 )

I will sacrifice to thee the sacrifice of praise, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. (Psalm 115:8)

And offer a sacrifice of praise with leaven: and call free offerings, and proclaim it: for so you would do, O children of Israel, saith the Lord God. (Amos 4:5)

But I with the voice of praise will sacrifice to thee: I will pay whatsoever I have vowed for my salvation to the Lord. (Jonah 2:10)

And thou hast taken pity upon two only children. Make them, O Lord, bless thee more fully: and to offer up to thee a sacrifice of thy praise, and of their health, that all nations may know, that thou alone art God in all the earth. (Tobit 8:19)[2]
And there are countless verses that suggest the same in different language. We have, for instance, Psalm 70:8: “Let my mouth be filled with praise, that I may sing thy glory, thy greatness, all the day long”—a verse, incidentally, that is sung in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom immediately after the reception of Holy Communion, in a way identifying Our Lord with the very act of praise: “Let my mouth be filled with praise.”[3] The Prophet Jeremiah says: quoniam laus mea tu es, “for Thou art my praise” (Jer 17:14).

Of all forms of prayer, praise is the one most “for its own sake.” In a sense, it is useless, in that it has no further ulterior motive or result we are seeking out of it.[4] Praise looks to the greatness, glory, beauty, and worthiness of the one praised and seeks to render to him a selfless homage; in the words of the Gloria, propter magnam gloriam tuam, or in the words of the final Psalm: laudate eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis eius, “praise him according to his exceeding greatness!” (Ps 150:2). All forms of prayer, of course, are directed towards God, this being part of the very definition of prayer. That explains why the publican in the parable went home justified rather than the Pharisee, since the publican actually turned to God in self-abnegating repentance, whereas the Pharisee turned to himself in admiration of his own excellence.

All the same, other forms of prayer besides praise are unavoidably wrapped up with oneself. When we give thanks to God, we are recalling the good things He has done for us. When we supplicate Him, it’s about our own needs or the needs of others, and that’s perfectly fine; we are needy creatures, and the worst thing we can do is to pretend otherwise. When we accuse ourselves of wrongdoing and repent of it, we are recognizing that we have failed to live up to God’s just expectations of us, that we are at fault and deserving of punishment, and we beg for pardon. But when we praise, we are lifting up our hands, our voices, our minds, towards God who is almighty, all-glorious, awe-inspiring, worthy in Himself of the homage of the entire cosmos for all eternity, worthy of the total surrender of myself to Him. In a short story called “The Castle: A Parable,” George MacDonald gives us this magnificent prayer:
We thank Thee for Thyself.
Be what Thou art—our root and life,
our beginning and end, our all in all.
Thou livest; therefore we live.
Thou art—that is all our song.[5]
In order to have a concrete model in front of us, we might think of the sequence of psalms in the office of Lauds in the monastic tradition. On Sundays of Paschaltide, on Sundays in special seasons, and on Solemnities, Lauds is a time of prayer given over entirely to the pure praise of God: Psalms 66, 62, 92, 99, the Benedicite, and Psalms 148 to 150 (from which Laudate psalms the office derives its very name).[6] In contrast, when we look at Prime or the Little Hours, we can see how concerned they are with the labors and trials of the day, the ongoing struggle with our enemies who seek to surprise us and capture us, the need for help, mercy, and consolation in a time of exile or pilgrimage. While not excluding these themes, Lauds is principally a “sacrifice of praise,” a burning up of the incense of our time and of the fruit of our lips. It is an office we perform not in order to “get” something, but propter magnam gloriam tuam. May all the earth praise the Lord: every creature, every order of being, every man, woman, and child. We will stand in for them, voicing the praises of creation; we will announce and obey the divine imperative, laudate Dominum; we will give utterance to a sleeping world on its behalf.

As with the religious life in general, Lauds is not concerned with going out into the streets, knocking on doors, engaging in conversations, making the Gospel relevant or intelligible. Those things are important and have their place, but first comes praise, the precondition and promise of the fruitfulness of anything else we may do.[7] A priest once wrote to me these words:
I know of no great thinker, no great advocate of justice or mercy or great keeper of an institution, who was not first an ardent laudator (giver of praise). I also do not know true intercessors who did not do this ministry in the context of praise. Self-forgetting praise is our foretaste of Heaven.[8]
This is the message we modern Christians need to hear in the expression “sacrifice of praise.” We are steeped in a world of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and activism, where we place such a high premium on doing and making, where we ask “what good is it” and “what’s in it for me,” where we look for results, the bottom line, the cash value, the pay-off. It is so interesting to see how Our Lord in the Gospels repeatedly refuses to lower Himself to the level of quick victories over the roiling crowds, how He insists on the disciples taking time off to recollect themselves and to pray, and, most mysteriously of all, how He Himself spends whole nights in “the prayer of God,” as St. Luke says.[9] He who, as God, could not pray to Himself; He who, as man, was hypostatically united to the Word and therefore perpetually and perfectly communing with the Most Blessed Trinity in His human mind and heart, nevertheless really and truly exercised all the acts of prayer, including praise.

In this way He revealed to us that prayer is not something superficial and optional to man but, rather, is constitutive of his inmost identity as a rational creature fashioned by God, dependent on God, and destined for God. The one who does not pray is not living as a man; in any case, he cannot inherit the kingdom that a saint—that is, a man of prayer—is competent to receive. Jesus showed His disciples that prayer is an activity as necessary and as refreshing as eating and drinking when the body needs nourishment, as vital and fundamental as breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide.[10] The poignant little prayer before the Divine Office brings out this point: “O Lord, in union with that divine intention with which You Yourself praised God while on earth, I offer You this hour.” This short prayer addresses Our Lord as the one who first lived and always lives the sacrificium laudis with utter completeness, with inexhaustible superabundance; we wish to unite our will to His pure, lofty, all-sufficient intention.

At this point I should like to say a word about the second half of the title of this talk, namely, “the ecstatic orientation of man.” The word ecstasy is from the Greek ek-stasis, literally, a standing outside oneself. Ek-stasis captures well the paradoxical nature of the human person.

First, as St. Thomas Aquinas and the entire Christian tradition teaches, man was created to find his good—indeed, to find himself, the meaning of his existence, his purpose—outside of himself. He was created looking outward: at the garden, at the animals, at Eve his helpmate; even when he looks inward, he is looking either at a mirror of the outer world or, with greater or lesser recognition, at the image of God within. Aristotle already recognized that man, as an intellectual being, is ordered to the knowledge of all that is (nearly all of which is not himself entitatively, although he can become it in the order of intentionality), and he will not be perfected except through the vision of that which is. Although we think with concepts, our concepts are, first and foremost, concepts of things that have their own existence, not concepts of concepts, which would lead us into the mental labyrinth so favored by Descartes and modern philosophers.[11] No, we are resolutely attached to surrounding substances and their accompanying accidents.

At the level of the will, the ecstatic ordering of man is even more obvious, since man does not possess his good within himself, but receives all that he is and has as a gift from the good God, and is ordered by the same God to a supernatural state of life and perfection in glory that entirely exceed man’s own abilities to obtain them, although he has the raw capacity to receive them. In our intellectual appetite or will, we are ordered to a good, namely, happiness or beatitude, whose root cause is outside of our souls; the essence of this happiness is union with the Blessed Trinity, and its possession, therefore, takes the form of an interpersonal communion in which we are (if I may use a metaphor) perpetually gazing outwards and upwards. In these ways (not to mention others), man is ecstatic in his very nature, operation, and fulfillment.[12]

Thus we come to the second word in the phrase “ecstatic orientation.” I say “orientation” very deliberately over alternatives such as “inclination” or “vocation,” because the word is based off of the root “Orient,” meaning the East. Sacred Scripture bestows this name on Christ, the lux mundi, the intelligible sun that gives light to all angels and men, the glorified Head of the Body who gives illumination and warmth to the blessed. It is he who illuminates intellects with truth and warms wills with charity. Man was made to face East, to worship the Son who rises on the world as its precondition and motor of life and the symbol of life in its blinding totality. It is not merely that we are made to be facing outwards, as our distinctively upright human posture suggests.[13] It is not merely that we are made to know the other, to long for and move towards and embrace the good in which we find rest, to be swept up and carried away by it. No, there is more: we are made according to the image and likeness of the Son and are therefore meant to face Him, to seek and see His face, and to be His for all eternity.

Moreover, the Son is the perfect image of the Father (Heb 1:3, Col 1:15) and is turned evermore to Him; thus, when we turn to Christ, we are brought face to face with the Father: “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9; cf. Jn 12:45); “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). Hence, contrary to the foolish things one sometimes hears or reads, there is no tension between Christocentric prayer and theocentric or Patricentric prayer; Christ is the way to the Father, but He is also the truth and the life at which we arrive (cf. Jn 14:6). The Father draws us to the Son (Jn 6:44) and loves us in Him (cf. Eph 1:4), while the Son naturally leads us to the Father. In short: versus Christum and versus Deum are internally consistent and coherent, and both are implied in the concept of ad orientem.
In an inspired editorial decision, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at the head of Part IV on prayer, displays an icon—a miniature from the monastery of Dionysius on Mouth Athos, painted in Constantinople in the eleventh century—of the Lord Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray. In this icon, He teaches them not by giving them a lecture or by praying in a closed circle with them, but by turning around and addressing His Father. He shows them what it means to adore the Father in spirit and in truth, and they are to imitate Him, learning by doing as He does, by turning away from earthly concerns to seek God alone.

In modern times we have lost the sense of sacred liturgy as an activity worth doing for its own sake, as an action whose justification lies in itself rather than in its usefulness as a tool or an instrument. The divine liturgy is first of all God’s activity, in which we are allowed to participate. In response to His preexisting work and prevenient call, we “do” the liturgy for God, because He is glorious, deserving of all our love, our adoration, our devotion, our self-forgetful attention. Supplication, contrition, thanksgiving, praise, and adoration would all be meaningless if God did not exist so that we could direct such acts towards Him, on account of who He is, and for establishing us in the proper relationship with Him. We pray, we offer divine worship, because He exists, because we are from Him and towards Him, and He desires to hold us in being and in friendship with Him—but always, we do it with reverence for His great glory, a reverence that must be sincerely and unmistakably exhibited in our attitudes and actions, our apparel and accoutrements. Our love of God is not like ordinary human love or even the greatest social love for the common good. It is a love permeated with holy fear, a vertiginous abandonment of oneself to the infinitely holy, mysterious, and ineffable One.

From the middle of the twentieth century through the period after the Second Vatican Council, a quite different notion arose and took over, namely, that liturgy is a service to the people, for the people, and even by the people. It is true, of course, that the liturgy is something people have to do (it doesn’t get done by itself if no one lifts a finger or a foot) and it is something that benefits us.[14] We must, however, acknowledge a fundamental paradox: we stand to benefit precisely when, and to the extent that, we order ourselves to God as our first beginning and last end. When, and to the extent that, we act instead as if we were ordering God to ourselves, He will allow us to suffer the just penalties of restlessness, boredom, dryness, disbelief, and even despair. Nor should we underestimate the perceptiveness of the faithful in the pews, many of whom can readily sense the difference between a liturgy that is done for God’s sake, with His honor and glory as the motivating force, and a liturgy that is designed and conducted for the people, so as to involve, stimulate, affirm, entertain, or otherwise engage them.[15] 

Liturgists have conveniently applied the labels “vertical” and “horizontal” to these contrary modes of worship. Yet worship as such is vertical, or there is no worship taking place at all. Joseph Ratzinger describes the worst-case scenario as follows: “The group celebrates itself, and exactly for this reason it is celebrating nothing at all, since it is no cause for celebration. This is why the general activity turns into boredom. Nothing happens if he is absent whom the world awaits.”[16] Elsewhere Ratzinger says that when liturgy is (or has the appearance of being) oriented toward man, “it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise.”[17] When liturgy is done for man, when it is made by the group and for the group, it becomes an empty game that might amuse for a short while but has no staying power, no transcendent orientation to carry us out of ourselves, no substance wherewith to nourish our souls.

This problematic notion manifests itself in many ways. One obvious example is the insistence that the laity be given things “to do” at the liturgy so that they can feel like they’re “contributing some­thing.”[18] It goes without saying that everyone ought to be contributing something, but we do so primarily by uniting ourselves in faith and love to the mysteries being celebrated, vocalizing acts of contrition, thanksgiving, supplica­tion, praise, and adoration whenever called for by the rite, and with whatever bodily postures are suited to these acts. When, over and above this common path of participation, the laity are pressed helter-skelter into performing clerical or semi-clerical functions, particularly when it leads to the blending and blurring of distinct liturgical roles, it lends to an impression that we are the primary actors, when it is our Lord Jesus Christ who is the primary actor, acting upon us in the sacred signs. He is the one teaching us, the one ruling us, the one sanctifying us. In the Mass, He acts in a special way through His ordained ministers in the sanctuary, who are empowered to represent the Mediator between God and man, and to act on His behalf. The actions of the people should be responses to the action of Jesus Christ, rather than a group effort at “making prayer happen,” a communal enterprise like Habitat for Humanity or a soup kitchen.

There is an ancient principle that says: If you aim at the highest good, you will get lower goods, too; but if you aim merely for a lower good, you will miss both it and anything higher. More specifically, when we seek what is our own, we fail to achieve it, whereas when we seek what is another’s, namely, what is uniquely owed to God, we achieve our own good as well.[19] Our Lord taught this truth many times.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Amen I say to you, there is no man who hath left house or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who shall not receive an hundred times as much, now in this time; houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecu­tions: and in the world to come, life everlasting. (Mark 10:29–30)

But I say to you, that to every one that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: and from him that hath not, even that which he hath, shall be taken from him. (Luke 19:26)
My favorite modern expression of this truth is found in C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
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.[20]
John Piper commented insightfully on this quotation:
Yes, I know. It is possible to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. My problem is: I’ve never met one of those people. And I suspect, if I met one, the problem would not be that his mind is full of the glories of heaven, but that his mind is empty and his mouth is full of platitudes. I suspect that for every professing believer who is useless in this world because of other-worldliness, there are a hundred who are useless because of this-worldliness.[21]
Lewis’s and Piper’s remarks about being heavenly-minded and longing for the Kingdom are applicable to the sacred liturgy as well. We learn from the Church that our liturgy on earth is a symbol of and a participation in the worship of the heavenly Jerusalem.[22] But in many places it hardly looks or sounds or feels that way, either because it is being celebrated by those who do not seem to care much about or to be longing for the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem with all spiritual desire, or because it is being co-opted by ideological agendas, fashionable subcultures, and bad practices that weaken, or even contradict, its representation of invisible, sacred, and transcendent realities.

As an illustration of what I mean by an “ideological agenda” and the bad practices that go along with it, consider the ubiquitous misconception of the Mass as a re-enactment of the Last Supper. As a result of this quintessentially Protestant idea, refurbished with shaggy carpeting in the 1960s and 1970s, the Mass was presented as a meal to be conducted in a cozy circle or, at very least, humanly face-to-face. This is a radically false view. The Last Supper—itself a solemn Jewish ceremony where participants sat along one side of a table, reclining, and were served from the other side by waiters—this supper was the transformation of the Passover meal as an anticipation of, and, one might say, a “pre-interpretation” of, the Passion and Death of Christ. Our Lord’s offering of His life upon the Cross is the supreme sacrifice that redeems mankind, and the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of this redemption. Holy Mass is not a play-acting of the Last Supper but the unbloody offering of the unblemished Lamb on Calvary.

Bearing this dogma in mind changes not only how we will think about the Mass but also, and more influentially, the seriousness and solemnity with which we celebrate its mysteries. It is not, first and foremost, a fellowship meal; it is a sacrificial oblation offered by the Son to the Father, the immolation of the Victim on the altar of the Cross. The correct inner attitude of the celebrant and the people is exhibited by Our Lord Himself, who accomplishes and exemplifies the total orientation of His human nature, and with it, all of creation, to the Father.[23]

Hence, the only posture that can possibly make theological sense at Mass is the traditional eastward stance, praying ad orientem. As Cardinal Ratzinger shows in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, it was due to poor and now thoroughly discredited historical scholarship that people equated versus populum with the practice of the primitive Church and pegged ad orientem as a late development.[24] More thorough research, such as that of Fr. Uwe Michael Lang,[25] has demonstrated that the view of the Church Fathers was substantially correct, namely, that the eastward stance was norma­tive and universal from the earliest period onwards, in both the Eastern and Western spheres of the Roman Empire.[26] This means we inherit a tradition of nearly 2,000 years of worshiping towards the East, with everyone, clergy and faithful alike, standing or kneeling together in the same direction. No other symbol expresses more clearly the ecstatic orientation of the human person and the essence of liturgy as sacrificium laudis, ordered to the glorification of God.

This is why Msgr. Klaus Gamber considered the turning around of the altar and of the celebrant to be the single most damaging mutation of the liturgical life of the faithful in the period of the reform. Astonishingly, the versus populum stance was never mandated by the Vatican, nor is it to be found as a requirement in any official liturgical book, and yet in the minds of most Catholics it has acquired the unquestioned status of being the very thumbprint or poster child of the liturgical reform.[27] And today we see bishops with abysmal liturgical knowledge attempting to outlaw ad orientem—they are horrified by its reappearance among younger clergy influenced by the Latin Mass!

Joseph Ratzinger frequently stated his opinion that ad orientem worship should be restored in the Catholic Church, and we know that many other high-ranking officials—just to name a few: Cardinal Ranjith, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, Cardinal Burke, and Cardinal Sarah—have said the same thing. Here’s what Cardinal Sarah said in an interview with the French magazine Famille Chretienne:
By this manner of celebrating, we experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation at the perfect sacrifice of the cross. I have personally had this experience: in celebrating thus, with the priest at its head, the assembly is almost physically drawn up by the mystery of the cross at the moment of elevation.…
          For us, the light is Jesus Christ. All the Church is oriented, facing East, toward Christ: ad Dominum. A Church closed in on herself in a circle will have lost her reason for being. For to be herself, the Church must live facing God. Our point of reference is the Lord! We know that he has been with us and that he returned to the Father from the Mount of Olives, situated to the East of Jerusalem, and that he will return in the same way. To stay turned toward the Lord, it is to wait for him every day. One must not allow God reason to complain constantly against us: “They turn their backs toward me, instead of turning their faces!” (Jeremiah 2:27).[28]
It is true that the most crucial “orientation” is for the celebrant to turn toward the Lord in his internal dispositions, reflected in the attentiveness, the evident love, care, and reverence he brings to the mysteries, with a peaceful, serious, and non-ostentatious way of celebrating and a willingness to make use of the means placed at his disposal by the Church for the elevation of the rite, for example, the use of plainchant. Nevertheless, it remains true that Christian worship, as worship of the Word-made-flesh, ultimately demands that we all once again physically turn towards the Lord in common: convertere ad Dominum. It is not enough for our orientation to be invisible, since we are not angels or pure spirits.

Recognizing that an overnight shift was not always possible or desirable, Ratzinger himself had recommended the now-famous “Benedictine altar arrangement”: the placement of six candlesticks and a crucifix along the front of the altar to function as a sort of mini-“rood screen.”[29] I used to teach at a college where we did this at every Novus Ordo and I will say it made quite a difference. The arrangement reminds both priest and people that the Mass is about Him and not about us, or rather, about us only inasmuch as we are united by Him, in Him, and for Him.

However, the Benedictine altar arrangement is provisional of its very nature, a makeshift solution. If what I said earlier about the ecstatic orientation of man is true, it follows that our literal orientation at the Eucharistic liturgy—our facing east, towards Christ represented by the horizon of dawn, the apse, the sanctuary, the crucifix, and the altar, and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament—is not just an old custom or a pretty convention; it is the foundational symbol of Christian anthropology, a first principle of ascetical-mystical theology, a school for learning right habits of mind and heart.

If I may say it provocatively, unless the priest imitates Jesus as depicted in the icon at the head of Part IV of the Catechism by turning his back to the people and facing the Father alone, he will never be able to teach them how to pray. If he cannot show them in a vivid and unmistakable manner that prayer is about Someone and Something other than them and their concerns, he is not leading them into communion with God.[30] We are creatures of flesh and blood who learn through our senses. The right externals in the liturgy do far more to form Catholics in the true faith and in the mind of the saints than a mountain of sermons, pamphlets, books, videos, or diocesan programs.

If we understand what liturgy is, and, in particular, what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is, we will grasp immediately that its external symbols, its texts and chants, its entire ars celebrandi, ought to be unambiguously theocentric—directed to God, for the praise of His glory, as an exercise of the greatest of all moral virtues, the virtue of religion, and as an exercise of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are infused by God and directed to Him as their definitive object. The liturgy “works” for man when, and to the extent that, it looks like what it essentially is.[31]

We must therefore help ourselves with, and help ourselves to, all that Holy Mother Church provides for the living of a life of praise: the chant of the liturgy, which uplifts and renews our spirit; the splendor of solemn ceremonial, which compels us to take seriously that which is, in truth, most serious; the careful observance of rubrics, because they bring discipline to our “undisciplined squads of emotion”[32]; medita­tion on the antiphons, prayers, and readings, which are a treasury of doctrine and a spur to devotion; lectio divina, which illumines our mind and warms our heart. These things and others like them are the means and methods by which we acquire the mind of a laudator, one who lives in order to praise; they are the “tools of the trade” for every Christian apprentice in the workshop of the Master.

It is not for nothing that the Rule of St. Benedict has been, for so many centuries, the favorite guide for aspiring artisans of the sacrifice of praise. St. Benedict establishes an entire way of life that has its beginning and its end in the opus Dei or “work of God,” which is really another way of saying the sacrificium laudis; every practical detail of the Rule is ordered to facilitating this highest and best of human acts, or more truthfully, this theandric act, at once God’s and man’s. In chapter 16 of the Rule, St. Benedict emphasizes praise by mentioning it five times:
The prophet saith: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee (Ps 118:164). We shall observe this sacred number of seven, if we fulfil the duties of our service in the Hours of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; for it was of these Day Hours that he said: Seven times a day have I given praise to thee. But of the Night Office the same prophet saith: At midnight I rose to give praise to thee (Ps 118:62). At these times, therefore, let us render praise to our Creator for the judgements of his justice (Ps 118:164), that is, at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; and let us rise in the night to praise him.[33]
In the same spirit, St. Faustina Kowalska wrote in her Diary one day: “Goodnight, my Beloved; I rejoice at being one day closer to eternity. And if you let me wake up tomorrow, Jesus, I shall begin a new hymn to your praise.”[34] It is just such an interior attitude and aspiration that led to the establishment, in times past, of giant monasteries dedicated to the laus perennis, “an arrangement . . . by which the praises of God never ceased. Relays of monks or nuns were so timed to succeed each other that the chanting of the divine office went on night and day without intermission.”[35]

After the Second Vatican Council prematurely announced a worldwide renewal, monastic life has plummeted in the past half-century to a mere fraction of its former strength. The “bare ruin’d choirs” that dot Europe like monuments or tombs of past greatness, of an age of faith that prioritized the sacrificium laudis, are a melancholy (and salutary) reminder of the vanity of Enlightenment ecclesiastical policy, which, for several centuries, has been fleeing the fundamental truths articulated in this lecture. Yet the Lord calls out to us through St. Benedict: “Never despair of God’s mercy.” [The mustard seed of monasticism retains its immense potency and fertility, perhaps especially when the Lord permits us to cling to a life of praise in spite of every temptation to the contrary.] To me, the most poignant acknowledgment of the primacy of praise comes in the Canticle of Habakuk, which concludes:
Even though the fig does not blossom, nor fruit grow on the vine,
even though the olive crop fail and fields produce no harvest,
even though flocks vanish from the folds and stalls stand empty of cattle,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord and exult in God my savior.
The Lord my God is my strength.
He makes me leap like the deer, he guides me to the high places.
In conclusion, the contrast between two visions of worship—the modern, horizontal, populist, fellowship vision and the ancient, vertical, hierarchical, sacrificial vision—is no mere theoretical dispute, but a chasm that separates Protestantism and modernism on the one hand from Catholicism on the other. We have a lot of rebuilding to do, and the time is short. Fortunately, the Lord provides us with one new generation after another, and today’s youth are either terribly indifferent to religion or hungry for something far more substantial than the pablum spoonfed to the sheep of the postconciliar period. The quest for true religion begins with an absolute conviction that God is our all, our Alpha and Omega, and that our worship is from Him, with Him, and for Him. Whenever and wherever our liturgies display that truth in all its healing and elevating splendor, the longed-for renewal of the Church will have begun in earnest.

Let us, again and again, make our own the words of the Psalmist, the words Holy Mother Church places on the lips of her priests as they raise the chalice of salvation: Laudans invocabo Dominum, et ab inimicis meis salvus ero (Ps 17:4)—“Praising, I will call upon the Lord, and I shall be delivered from my enemies.”


[1] For a good treatment of the verses that pertain to the Eucharist in Hebrews, see Shane Kapler, The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016), 101–17.

[2] From this passage is derived the Introit for the Nuptial Mass.

[3] The third antiphon of the office for Pentecost Sunday teaches the same truth: Repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sancto, et coeperunt loqui, alleluia, alleluia: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak, alleluia, alleluia.” God is the one who gives us the power to speak His praises in truth and righteousness. This is the fundamental gift of tongues that defines the Christian life.

[4] In this respect it is like liberal education…

[5] George MacDonald, “The Castle: A Parable,” in The Gifts of the Child Christ and Other Stories and Fairy Tales, ed. Glenn Edward Sadler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 198.

[6] In the traditional Benedictine cursus, the Laudate psalms (148–150) are repeated every day.

[7] This is why it is most unfortunate that the reform of St. Pius X in 1911, by spreading out Psalms 148-150 over successive days, significantly lessened the character of pure praise that had belonged to Lauds since time immemorial. It has been argued that the ancient Jews prayed Psalms 148-150 each day; Our Lord may very well have used these psalms as His morning prayer. In the Liturgy of the Hours promulgated by Paul VI, Morning Prayer, greatly reduced in content, suffers a further loss of its original atmosphere.

[8] Rev. Michael P. Forbes, in a private communication to me.

[9] Luke 6:12.

[10] Thus Padre Pio was speaking with brilliant exactitude when he said: “Prayer is the oxygen of the soul.”

[11] Logic studies concepts about concepts, but logic is piggyback on metaphysics, or to put it in more everyday language, you can’t talk about talk or think about thinking unless you first have something to talk or think about.

[12] See my articles “Solitude, Communion, and Ecstasy,” Communio 26 (Summer 1999): 371–92; “Golden Straw: St. Thomas and the Ecstatic Practice of Theology,” Nova et Vetera 2 (2004): 61–89; “Aquinas on Eucharistic Ecstasy: From Self-Alienation to Gift of Self,” Nova et Vetera 6 (2008): 157–204.

[13] See Thomas’s comments on why man stands upright: Summa theologiae I, q. 91, a. 3.

[14] Indeed, St. Thomas says in many places that we offer worship to God on account of our needs, not because God needs it from us: “We pay God honor and reverence, not for His sake (because He is of Himself full of glory to which no creature can add anything), but for our own sake, because by the very fact that we revere and honor God, our mind is subjected to Him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subjected to its superior, for instance the body is perfected by being quickened by the soul, and the air by being enlightened by the sun. Now the human mind, in order to be united to God, needs to be guided by the sensible world, since ‘invisible things . . . are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,’ as the Apostle says (Romans 1:20). Wherefore in the Divine worship it is necessary to make use of corporeal things, that man’s mind may be aroused thereby, as by signs, to the spiritual acts by means of which he is united to God” (Summa theologiae II-II, q. 81, a. 7); “we employ words, in speaking to God, not indeed to make known our thoughts to Him Who is the searcher of hearts, but that we may bring ourselves and our hearers to reverence Him. Consequently we need to praise God with our lips, not indeed for His sake, but for our own sake; since by praising Him our devotion is aroused towards Him, according to Psalm 49:23: ‘The sacrifice of praise shall glorify Me, and there is the way by which I will show him the salvation of God.’ And forasmuch as man, by praising God, ascends in his affections to God, by so much is he withdrawn from things opposed to God, according to Isaiah 48:9, ‘For My praise I will bridle thee lest thou shouldst perish’” (Summa theologiae II-II, q. 91, a. 1)            .

[15] I am not claiming that the faithful who perceive the difference will always and necessary prefer the more sacred form of liturgy. In fact, due to bad habituation, it will often happen that they like the horizontal mode and are offended when confronted by a more vertical liturgy. On the other hand, there are countless stories (many recorded in print in such places as Mass of Ages) of people who attend a truly vertical liturgy for the first time—it is almost always in the usus antiquior, although David Clayton records his conversion experience at the Brompton Oratory’s elevated usus recentior—and are carried out of themselves in a profound encounter with God. In any case, the argument about how liturgy should be done has everything to do with what liturgy is, and does not rest on statistical probabilities of resulting conversions, even if it is true that more conversions would result. If only church authorities would try the “experiment of tradition,” they might be surprised that God would bless them with an abundant harvest of souls.

[16] Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, p. 117; cf. remarks on the golden calf in The Spirit of the Liturgy.

[17] Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 23.

[18] See Joseph Shaw’s superb critique of the implicit clericalism of this entire approach, e.g.,

[19] This is the relationship between love of God and (well-ordered) love of self as St. Thomas Aquinas understands it.

[20] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 134.

[21] John Piper, “I Do Not Aspire to Be a ‘Regular Guy’,”, accessed July 28, 2016.

[22] Sacrosanctum Concilium, §8: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, in which Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.”

[23] Note that, of the Seven Last Words, three (the first, fourth, and seventh) are obviously addressed to the Father, while the fifth and sixth can plausibly be seen as similarly addressed.

[24] Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 74–84.

[25] See Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, Turning Towards the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004).

[26] See Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, 96–99.

[27] Taken in connection with everything else discussed in this lecture, we can see that versus populum is a fitting symbol of the Enlightenment-inspired anthropocentric turn in theology, liturgy, catechetics, homiletics, and every other area of Church life in the past half-century. One might almost say it was inevitable that a new, modern liturgy would have to be celebrated in a new, modern way. It is no different than the plight of sacred music: Paul VI openly stated that the “incomparable Gregorian chant” had to be sacrificed on account of the new liturgy, as if recognizing that, in spite of what Sacrosanctum Concilium had said, this ancient music would not harmonize with the spirit of the Bugnini liturgy.

[28] See interview at, accessed July 5, 2016. He made similar remarks in his address at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London.

[29] See my article “Putting Christ at the Center: On the Benedictine Altar Arrangement,”, accessed August 3, 2016.

[30] To me, this explains an otherwise puzzling fact about many of the discourses of Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John. He often seems to avoid answering the questions posed to Him or even to abandon abruptly the thread of the conversation. I believe He meant to show them that their questions and concerns, which loomed so large in their own eyes, needed to be left behind with the suddenness with which James and John dropped their nets and left their father to follow Christ. It is as if Jesus were saying: “You are on the wrong track, you need a course correction, and you must learn to follow me where I am going. You are wrapped up in your own thoughts; you need to be wrapped up in My thoughts.”

[31] We say that sacraments effect what they signify. The liturgy, too, in an analogous sense, brings about in our souls that which it symbolizes—and it will do so rightly only when its symbols are pure, focused, righly directed.

[32] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, V.11.

[33] The Rule of Saint Benedict in English and Latin, trans. and ed. Abbot Justin McCann, O.S.B. (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.), 61.

[34] St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2003), n. 679, p. 280.

[35] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, complete edition, ed. Herbert Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1990), 2:209.

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