Archive for the ‘Liturgical Theology’ Category


The Prayer Of The Liturgy 3 – Fr. Romano Guardini

March 28, 2014
Rembrandt's Apostle Peter Kneeling 1631. Prayer must be simple, wholesome, and powerful. It must be closely related to actuality and not afraid to call things by their names. In prayer we must find our entire life over again. On the other hand, it must be rich in ideas and powerful images, and speak a developed but restrained language; its construction must be clear and obvious to the simple than, stimulating and refreshing to the man of culture. It must be intimately blended with an erudition which is in nowise obtrusive, but which is rooted in breadth of spiritual outlook and in inward restraint of thought, volition, and emotion.

Rembrandt’s Apostle Peter Kneeling 1631. Prayer must be simple, wholesome, and powerful. It must be closely related to actuality and not afraid to call things by their names. In prayer we must find our entire life over again. On the other hand, it must be rich in ideas and powerful images, and speak a developed but restrained language; its construction must be clear and obvious to the simple than, stimulating and refreshing to the man of culture. It must be intimately blended with an erudition which is in nowise obtrusive, but which is rooted in breadth of spiritual outlook and in inward restraint of thought, volition, and emotion.

Romano Guardini (17 February 1885, Verona – 1 October 1968, Munich) was a Catholic priest, author, and academic. He was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century.


Liturgical action and liturgical prayer are the logical consequences of certain moral premises — the desire for justification, contrition, readiness for sacrifice, and so on — and often issue afresh into moral actions. But there again it is possible to observe a fine distinction. The liturgy does not lightly exact moral actions of a very far-reaching nature, especially those which denote an interior decision. It requires them where the matter is of real importance, e.g., the abjuration at baptism, or the vows at the final reception into an order.

When, however, it is a question of making regular daily prayer fruitful in everyday intentions and decisions, the liturgy is very cautious. For instance, it does not rashly utter such things as vows, or full and permanent repudiations of sin, entire and lasting surrender, all-embracing consecration of one’s entire being, utter contempt for and renouncement of the world, promises of exclusive love, and the like.

Such ideas are present at times, fairly frequently even, but generally under the form of a humble entreaty that the suppliant may be vouchsafed similar sentiments, or that he is encouraged to ponder upon their goodness and nobility, or is exhorted on the same subject. But the liturgy avoids the frequent use of those prayers in which these moral actions are specifically expressed.

How right this is! In moments of exaltation and in the hour of decision such a manner of speech may be justified, and even necessary. But when it is a question of the daily spiritual life of a corporate body, such formulas, when frequently repeated, offer those who are using them an unfortunate selection from which to make their choice. Perhaps they take the formulas literally and endeavor to kindle the moral sentiments expressed in them, discovering later that it is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do so truthfully and effectually.

They are consequently in danger of developing artificial sentiments, of forcing intentions that still remain beyond their compass, and of daily performing moral actions, which of their very nature cannot be frequently accomplished. Or else they take the words merely as a passing recommendation of a line of conduct which it would be well to adopt, and in this way depreciate the intrinsic moral value of the formula, although it may be used frequently, and in all good faith. In this connection are applicable the words of Christ, “Let your speech be yea, yea, — nay, nay.” [Matthew 8:37]

The liturgy has solved the problem of providing a constant incentive to the highest moral aims, and at the same time of remaining true and lofty, while satisfying everyday needs.

Another question which arises is that concerning the form to be taken by prayer in common. We may put it like this: What method of prayer is capable of transforming the souls of a great multitude of people, and of making this transformation permanent?

The model of all devotional practice in common is to be found in the Divine Office, which day after day gathers together great bodies of people at stated times for a particular purpose. If anywhere, then it is in the Office that those conditions will be found which are favorable to the framing of rules for the forms of prayer in common. [We do not overlook the fact that the Office in its turn presupposes its special relations and conditions, from which useful hints may be gained for private devotion, such as the necessity for a great deal of leisure, which enables the soul to meditate more deeply; and a special erudition, which opens the mind to the world of ideas and to artistry of form, and so on.]

It is of paramount importance that the whole gathering should take an active share in the proceedings. If those composing the gathering merely listen, while one of the number acts as spokesman, the interior movement soon stagnates. All present, therefore, are obliged to take part. It is not even sufficient for the gathering to do so by repeating the words of their leader.

This type of prayer does, of course, find a place in the liturgy, e.g., in the litany. It is perfectly legitimate, and people desirous of abandoning it totally fail to recognize the requirements of the human soul. In the litany the congregation answers the varying invocations of the leader with an identical act, e.g., with a request. In this way the act each time acquires a fresh content and fresh fervor, and an intensification of ardor is the result. It is a method better suited than any other to express a strong, urgent desire, or a surrender to God’s Will, presenting as it does the petition of all sides effectively and simultaneously.

But the liturgy does not employ this method of prayer frequently; we may even say, when we consider divine worship as a whole, that it employs it but seldom. And rightly so, for it is a method which runs the risk of numbing and paralyzing spiritual movement.

[The foregoing remarks on the liturgy have already made it abundantly clear that the justification of methods of prayer such as, e.g., the Rosary, must not be gainsaid. They have a necessary and peculiar effect in the spiritual life. They clearly express the difference which exists between liturgical and popular prayer. The liturgy has for its fundamental principle, Ne bis idein [there must be no repetition It aims at a continuous progress of ideas, mood and intention. Popular devotion, on the contrary, has a strongly contemplative character, and loves to linger around a few simple images, ideas and moods without any swift changes of thought. For the people the forms of devotion are often merely a means of being with God. On this account they love repetition. The ever-renewed requests of the Our Father, Hail Mary, etc. are for them at the same time receptacles into which they can pour their hearts.]

The liturgy adapts the dramatic forte by choice to the fundamental requirements of prayer in common. It divides those present into two choirs, and causes prayer to progress by means of dialogue. In this way all present join the proceedings, and are obliged to follow with a certain amount of attention at least, knowing as they do that the continuation of their combined action depends upon each one personally.

Here the liturgy lays down one of the fundamental principles of prayer, which cannot be neglected with impunity. [In earlier ages the Church practiced by preference the so called "responsive" form of chanting the Psalms. The Precentor chanted one verse after the other, and the people answered with the identical verse, or the partially repeated verse. But at the same time another method was in use, according to which the people divided into two choirs, and each alternately chanted a verse of the Psalm. It says much for the sureness of liturgical instinct that the second method entirely supplanted the first. (Cf. Thalhofer-Eisenhofer, "I-landbuch der katholischen Liturgik," Freiburg, 1902, I, 261 et seq.)]

However justified the purely responsive forms of prayer may be, the primary form of prayer in common is the actively progressive — that much we learn from the lex orandi. [Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi. As we Worship, So we Believe, So we Live] And the question, intensely important today, as to the right method to employ in again winning people to the life of the Church is most closely connected with the question under discussion.

For it is modern people precisely who insist upon vital and progressive movement, and an active share in things. The fluid mass of this overwhelming spiritual material, however, needs cutting down and fashioning. It requires a leader to regulate the beginning, omissions, and end, and, in addition, to organize the external procedure. The leader also has to model it interiorly; thus, for instance, he has to introduce the recurrent thought-theme, himself undertaking the harder portions, in order that they may be adequately and conscientiously dealt with; he must express the emotion of all present by means of climaxes, and introduce certain restful pauses by the inclusion of didactic or meditative portions. Such is the task of the choir-leader, which has undergone a carefully graduated course of development in the liturgy.

Attention has already been called to the deep and fruitful emotion which is contained in the liturgy. It also embraces the two fundamental forces of human existence: Nature and civilization.

In the liturgy the voice of Nature makes itself heard clearly and decisively. We only need to read the Psalms to see man as he really is. There the soul is shown as courageous and despondent, happy and sorrowful, full of noble intentions, but of sin and struggles as well, zealous for everything that is good and then again apathetic and dejected.

Or let us take the readings from the Old Testament. How frankly human nature is revealed in them! There is no attempt at extenuation or excuse. The same thing applies to the Church’s words of ordination, and to the prayers used in administering the sacraments. A truly refreshing spontaneity characterizes them; they call things by their names.

Man is full of weakness and error, and the liturgy acknowledges this. Human nature is inexplicable, a tangled web of splendor and misery, of greatness and baseness, and as such it appears in the prayer of the Church. Here we find no carefully adapted portrait from which the harsh and unpleasing traits have been excluded, but man as he is.

Not less rich is the liturgy’s cultural heritage. We become conscious of the fact that many centuries have cooperated in its formation and have bequeathed to it of their best. They have fashioned its language; expanded its ideas and conceptions in every direction; developed its beauty of construction down to the smallest detail — the short verses and the finely-forged links of the prayers, the artistic form of the Divine Office and of the Mass, and the wonderful whole that is the ecclesiastical year.

Action, narrative, and choral forms combine to produce the cumulative effect. The style of the individual forms continually varies — simple and clear in the Hours, rich in mystery on the festivals of Mary, resplendent on the more modem feasts, delightful and full of charm in the offices of the early virgin-martyrs. To this we should add the entire group of ritual gestures and action, the liturgical vessels and vestments, and the works of sculptors and artists and musicians.

In all this is to be learned a really important lesson on liturgical practice. Religion needs civilization. By civilization we mean the essence of the most valuable products of man’s creative, constructive, and organizing powers — works of art, science, social orders, and the like. In the liturgy it is civilization’s task to give durable form and expression to the treasure of truths, aims, and supernatural activity, which God has delivered to man by Revelation, to distill its quintessence, and to relate this to life in all its multiplicity.

Civilization is incapable of creating a religion, but it can supply the latter with a modus operandi, so that it can freely engage in its beneficent activity. That is the real meaning of the old proverb, Philosophia ancilla theologiae — philosophy is the handmaid of theology. It applies to all the products of civilization, and the Church has always acted in accordance with it.

Thus she knew very well what she was doing, for instance, when she absolutely obliged the Order of Saint Francis — brimming over with high aspirations, and spiritual energy and initiative — to adopt a certain standard of living, property, learning, and so on. Only a prejudiced mind, with no conception of the fundamental conditions essential to normal spiritual life, would see in this any deterioration of the first high aims.

By her action in the matter the Church, on the contrary, prepared the ground for the Order, so that in the end it could remain healthy and productive. Individuals, or short waves of enthusiasm, can to a wide degree dispense with learning and culture. This is proved by the beginnings of the desert Orders in Egypt, and of the mendicant friars, and by holy people in all ages.

But, generally speaking, a fairly high degree of genuine learning and culture is necessary in the long run, in order to keep spiritual life healthy. By means of these two things spiritual life retains its energy, clearness, and catholicity. Culture preserves spiritual life from the unhealthy, eccentric, and one-sided elements with which it tends to get involved only too easily. Culture enables religion to express itself, and helps it to distinguish what is essential from what is nonessential, the means from the end, and the path from the goal.

The Church has always condemned every attempt at attacking science, art, property, and so on. The same Church which so resolutely stresses the “one thing necessary,” and which upholds with the greatest impressiveness the teaching of the Evangelical Counsels — that we must be ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of eternal salvation — nevertheless desires, as a rule, that spiritual life should be impregnated with the wholesome salt of genuine and lofty culture.

But spiritual life is in precisely as great a need of the subsoil of healthy nature — “grace takes nature for granted.” The Church has clearly shown her views on the subject by the gigantic struggles waged against Gnosticism and Manichaeism, against the Catharists and the Albigenses, against Jansenism and every kind of fanaticism. This was done by the same Church which, in the face of Pelagius and Celestius, of Jovinian and Helvidius, and of the immoderate exaltation of nature, powerfully affirmed the existence of grace and of the supernatural order, and asserted that the Christian must overcome nature.

The lack of fruitful and lofty culture causes spiritual life to grow numbed and narrow; the lack of the subsoil of healthy nature makes it develop on mawkish, perverted, and unfruitful lines. If the cultural element of prayer declines, the ideas become impoverished, the language coarse, the imagery clumsy and monotonous; in the same way, when the lifeblood of nature no longer flows vigorously in its veins, the ideas become empty and tedious, the emotion paltry and artificial, and the imagery lifeless and insipid.

Both — the lack of natural vigor and the lack of lofty culture — together constitute what we call barbarism, i.e., the exact contradiction of that scientia vocis which is revealed in liturgical prayer and is reverenced by the liturgy itself as the sublime prerogative of the holy Creative Principle. [The above remarks must not be misunderstood. Certainly the grace of God is self-sufficient, neither nature nor the work of man is necessary in order that a soul may be sanctified. God "can awaken of these stones children to Abraham." But as a vile He wishes that everything which belongs to man in the way of good, lofty, natural and cultural possessions shall be placed at the disposal of religion and so serve the Kingdom of God. He has interconnected the natural and the supernatural order, and has given natural things a place in the scheme of I-us supernatural designs. It is the duty of his representative on earth, ecclesiastical authority, to decide how and to what extent these natural means of attaining the supernatural goal are to be utilized.]

Prayer must be simple, wholesome, and powerful. It must be closely related to actuality and not afraid to call things by their names. In prayer we must find our entire life over again. On the other hand, it must be rich in ideas and powerful images, and speak a developed but restrained language; its construction must be clear and obvious to the simple than, stimulating and refreshing to the man of culture. It must be intimately blended with an erudition which is in nowise obtrusive, but which is rooted in breadth of spiritual outlook and in inward restraint of thought, volition, and emotion.

And that is precisely the way in which the prayer of the liturgy has been formed.


The Prayer Of The Liturgy 2 – Fr. Romano Guardini

March 27, 2014


When we pray with the Church, we pray as part of the mystical body of Christ who is our priestly advocate to the Father. Liturgy (the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours) is the worship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. It is the means by which we enter into a profound relationship with God and enter directly into the dynamic mystery of love of the three persons of the Trinity. In doing so we become divine, yes divine. This is the source of power and effectiveness, and joy. This union with God is why God created us, and God became man to allow this to happen: ‘The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature“: ”For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” ”For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” ”The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460, quoting 2 Peter 1:4; St. Irenaeus in the second century AD; and St Athanasius in the 4th century AD; and John 1:14)

When we pray with the Church, we pray as part of the mystical body of Christ who is our priestly advocate to the Father. Liturgy (the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours) is the worship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. It is the means by which we enter into a profound relationship with God and enter directly into the dynamic mystery of love of the three persons of the Trinity. In doing so we become divine, yes divine. This is the source of power and effectiveness, and joy. This union with God is why God created us, and God became man to allow this to happen: ‘The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature“: ”For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” ”For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” ”The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460, quoting 2 Peter 1:4; St. Irenaeus in the second century AD; and St Athanasius in the 4th century AD; and John 1:14)

Romano Guardini (17 February 1885, Verona – 1 October 1968, Munich) was a Catholic priest, author, and academic. He was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century.


Only thought is universally current and consistent, and, as long as it is really thought, remains suited, to a certain degree, to every intelligence. If prayer in common, therefore, is to prove beneficial to the majority, it must be primarily directed by thought, and not by feeling. It is only when prayer is sustained by and steeped in clear and fruitful religious thought, that it can be of service to a corporate body, composed of distinct elements, all actuated by varying emotions.

We have seen that thought alone can keep spiritual life sound and healthy. In the same way, prayer is beneficial only when it rests on the bedrock of truth. This is not meant in the purely negative sense that it must be free from error; in addition to this, it must spring from the fullness of truth. It is only truth — or dogma, to give it its other name — which can make prayer efficacious, and impregnate it with that austere, protective strength without which it degenerates into weakness.

If this is true of private prayer, it is doubly so of popular devotion, which in many directions verges on sentimentality. [A proof of this is to be found in the often sugary productions of sacred art -- holy pictures, statues, etc. -- which appeal to the people. The people are susceptible to powerful art when it is national; the Middle Ages are a witness to this, and certain aspects of modern art. But the danger of lapsing into mere insipidity is very great. The same thing applies to popular songs, and holds good in other directions as well.] Dogmatic thought brings release from the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion. It makes prayer intelligible, and causes it to rank as a potent factor in life.

If, however, religious thought is to do justice to its mission, it must introduce into prayer truth in all its fullness.

Various individual truths of Revelation hold a special attraction for the temperaments and conditions to which they correspond. It is easy to see that certain people have a pronounced predilection for certain mysteries of faith. This is shown in the case of converts, for instance, by the religious ideas which first arrested their attention at their entry into the Church, or which decided them on the step they were taking, and in other cases by the truths which at the approach of doubt form the mainstay and buttress of the whole house of faith.

In the same way doubt does not charge at random, but attacks for the most part those mysteries of faith which appeal least to the temperament of the people concerned.[This does not mean that these truths are merely a mental indication of the existing spiritual condition of the person concerned. It is rather a proof of the saying, "grace takes nature for granted." Revelation finds in a man's natural turn of mind the necessary spiritual premises by which the truths, which are of themselves mysteries, can be more easily grasped and adhered to.]

If a prayer therefore stresses any one mystery of faith in an exclusive or an excessive manner, in the end it will adequatelysatisfy none but those who are of a corresponding temperament and even the latter will eventually become conscious of their need of truth in its entirety. For instance, if a prayer deals exclusively with God’s mercy, it will not ultimately satisfy even a delicate and tender piety, because this truth calls for its complement — the fact of God’s justice and majesty. In any form of prayer, therefore, which is intended for the ultimate use of a corporate body, the whole fullness of religious truth must be included.

Here, too, the liturgy is our teacher. It condenses into prayer the entire body of religious truth. Indeed, it is nothing else but truth expressed in terms of prayer. For it is the great fundamental truths [It is a further proof of Pius X's perspicacity that he made universally accessible precisely those portions of the liturgy -- Sundays, the weekly office, and especially the daily Masses of Lent -- which stress the great fundamental mysteries of faith.] which above all fill the liturgy — God in His mighty reality, perfection, and greatness, One, and Three in One; His creation, providence, and omnipresence; sin, justification, and the desire of salvation; the Redeemer and His kingdom; the four last things. It is only such an overwhelming abundance of truth which can never pall, but continue to be, day after day, all things to all men, ever fresh and inexhaustible.

In the end, therefore, prayer in common will be fruitful only in so far as it does not concentrate markedly, or at any rate exclusively, on particular portions of revealed truth, but embraces, as far as possible, the whole of Divine teaching. This is especially important where the people are concerned, because they easily tend to develop a partiality for particular mysteries of faith which for some reason have become dear to them.

On the other hand, it is obvious that prayer must not be overladen and as a result form a mere hotchpotch of ill-assorted thoughts and ideas — a thing which sometimes does occur. Yet without the element of spaciousness, spiritual life droops and becomes narrow and petty. “The truth shall make you free” — free not only from the thralldom of error, but free as a preparation for the vastness of God’s kingdom.

While the necessity of thought is emphasized, it must not be allowed to degenerate into the mere frigid domination of reason. Devotional forms on the contrary should be permeated by warmth of feeling.

On this point as well the liturgy has many recommendations to make. The ideas which fill it are vital: that is to say, they spring from the impulses of the heart which has been molded by grace, and must again in their turn affect other eager and ardent hearts. The Church’s worship is full of deep feeling, of emotion that is intense, and sometimes even vehement.

Take the Psalms, for instance — how deeply moving they often are! Listen to the expression of longing in the Quemadmodum, of remorse in the Miserere, of exultation in the Psalms of praise, and of indignant righteousness in those denouncing the wicked. Or consider the remarkable spiritual tension which lies between the mourning of Good Friday and the joy of Easter morning.

Liturgical emotion is, however, exceedingly instructive. It has its moments of supreme climax, in which all bounds are broken, as, for instance, in the limitless rejoicing of the Exultet on Holy Saturday. But as a rule it is controlled and subdued. The heart speaks powerfully, but thought at once takes the lead; the forms of prayer are elaborately constructed, the constituent parts carefully counterbalanced; and as a rule they deliberately keep emotion under strict control. In this way, in spite of the deep feeling to be found in, say, the Psalms (to instance them once more), a sense of restraint pervades liturgical form.

The liturgy as a whole is not favorable to exuberance of feeling. Emotion glows in its depths, but it smolders merely, like the fiery heart of the volcano, whose summit stands out clear and serene against the quiet sky. The liturgy is emotion, but it is emotion under the strictest control. We are made particularly aware of this at Holy Mass, and it applies equally to the prayers of the Ordinary and of the Canon, and to those of the Proper of the Time. Among them are to be found masterpieces of spiritual restraint.

The restraint characteristic of the liturgy is at times very pronounced — so much so as to make this form of prayer appear at first as a frigid intellectual production, until we gradually grow familiar with it and realize what vitality pulsates in the clear, measured forms.

And how necessary this discipline is! At certain moments and on certain occasions it is permissible for emotion to have a vent. But a prayer which is intended for the everyday use of a large body of people must be restrained. If, therefore, it has uncontrolled and unbalanced emotion for a foundation, it is doubly dangerous. It will operate in one of two ways.

Either the people who use it will take it seriously, and probably will then feel obliged to force themselves into acquiescence with an emotion that they have never, generally speaking, experienced, or which, at any rate, they are not experiencing at that particular moment, thus perverting and degrading their religious feeling. Or else indifference, if they are of a phlegmatic temperament, will come to their aid; they then take the phrases at less than their face value, and consequently the word is depreciated.

Written prayer is certainly intended as a means of instruction and of promoting an increased sensibility. But its remoteness from the average emotional attitude must not be allowed to become too great. If prayer is ultimately to be fruitful and beneficial to a corporate body, it must be intense and profound, but at the same time normally tranquil in tone. The wonderful verses of the hymn — hardly translatable, so full are they of penetrating insight — may be quoted in this connection:

Laeti bibamus sobriarn
Ebrietatem Spiritus

[From the Benedictine Breviary, Lauds (i.e., the prayer at daybreak) of Tuesday. (Literally, "Let us joyfully taste of the sober drunkenness of the Spirit.")]

Certainly we must not try to measure off the lawful share of emotion with a foot-rule; but where a plain and straightforward expression suffices we must not aggrandize nor embellish it; and a simple method of speech is always to be preferred to an overloaded one.

Again, the liturgy has many suggestions to make on the quality of the emotion required for the particular form of prayer under discussion, which is ultimately to prove universally beneficial. It must not be too choice in expression, nor spring from special sections of dogma, but clearly express the great fundamental feelings, both natural and spiritual, as do the Psalms, for instance, where we find the utterance of adoration, longing for God, gratitude, supplication, awe, remorse, love, readiness for sacrifice, courage in suffering, faith, confidence, and so on. The emotion must not be too acutely penetrating, too tender, or too delicate, but strong, clear, simple and natural.

Then the liturgy is wonderfully reserved. It scarcely expresses, even, certain aspects of spiritual surrender and submission, or else it veils them in such rich imagery that the soul still feels that it is hidden and secure. The prayer of the Church does not probe and lay bare the heart’s secrets; it is as restrained in thought as in imagery; it does, it is true, awaken very profound and very tender emotions and impulses, but it leaves them hidden.

There are certain feelings of surrender, certain aspects of interior candor which cannot be publicly proclaimed, at any rate in their entirety, without danger to spiritual modesty. The liturgy has perfected a masterly instrument which has made it possible for us to express our inner life in all its fullness and depth, without divulging our secrets secretum meum mihi. We can pour out our hearts, and still feel that nothing has been dragged to light that should remain hidden.

[The liturgy here accomplishes on the spiritual plane what has been done on the temporal by the dignified forms of social intercourse, the outcome of the tradition created and handed down by sensitive people. This makes communal life possible for the individual, and yet insures him against unauthorized interference with his inner self; he can be cordial without sacrificing his spiritual independence, he is in communication with his neighbor without on that account being swallowed up and lost among the crowd. In the same way the liturgy preserves freedom of spiritual movement for the soul by means of a wonderful union of spontaneity and the finest erudition. It extols urbanitas as the best antidote to barbarism, which triumphs when spontaneity and culture alike are no more.]

This is equally true of the system of moral conduct which is to be found in prayer.


The Prayer Of The Liturgy 1 – Fr. Romano Guardini

March 26, 2014
The Liturgy (the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours) is not just powerful and effective. It is the most powerful and effective action of the Church on our behalf. Christ participated in it historically; and continues to do so eternally in heaven and on earth and we participate in His prayer through his mystical body, the Church.

The Liturgy (the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours) is not just powerful and effective. It is the most powerful and effective action of the Church on our behalf. Christ participated in it historically; and continues to do so eternally in heaven and on earth and we participate in His prayer through his mystical body, the Church.

Romano Guardini (17 February 1885, Verona – 1 October 1968, Munich) was a Catholic priest, author, and academic. He was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century.

An old theological proverb says, “Nothing done by nature and grace is done in vain.” Nature and grace obey their own laws, which are based upon certain established hypotheses. Both the natural and the supernatural life of the soul, when lived in accordance with these principles, remain healthy, develop, and are enriched. In isolated cases the rules may be waived without any danger, when such a course is required or excused by reason of a spiritual disturbance, imperative necessity, extraordinary occasion, important end in view, or the like. In the end, however, this cannot be done with impunity. Just as the life of the body droops and is stunted when the conditions of its growth are not observed, so it is with spiritual and religious life — it sickens, losing its vigor, strength and unity.

This is even more true where the regular spiritual life of a corporate body is concerned. Exceptions play a far greater part, after all, in the life of the individual than in that of the group. As soon as a group is in question, concern is immediately aroused with regard to the regulation of those practices and prayers which will constitute the permanent form of its devotion in common; and then the crucial question arises whether the fundamental laws which govern normal interior life — in the natural as in the supernatural order — are in this case to have currency or not.

For it is no longer a question of the correct attitude to be adopted, from the spiritual point of view, towards the adjustment of some temporary require-mentor need, but of the form to be taken by the permanent legislation which will henceforth exercise an enduring influence upon the soul. This is not intended to regulate entirely independent cases, each on its own merits, but to take into account the average requirements and demands of everyday life. It is not to serve as a model for the spiritual life of the individual, but for that of a corporate body, composed of the most distinct and varied elements.

From this it follows that any defect in its organization will inevitably become both apparent and obtrusive. It is true that at first every mistake will be completely overshadowed by the particular circumstances — the emergency or disturbance — which justified the adoption of that particular line of conduct. But in proportion as the extraordinary symptoms subside, and the normal existence of the soul is resumed, the more forcibly every interior mistake is bound to come to light, sowing destruction on all sides in its course.

The fundamental conditions essential to the full expansion of spiritual life as it is lived in common are most clearly discernible in the devotional life of any great community which has spread its development over a long period of time. Its scheme of life has by then matured and developed its full value. In a corporate body — composed of people of highly varied circumstances, drawn from distinct social strata, perhaps even from different races, in the course of different historical and cultural periods — the ephemeral, adventitious, and locally characteristic elements are, to a certain extent, eliminated, and that which is universally accepted as binding and essential comes to the fore. In other words, the canon of spiritual administration becomes, in the course of time, objective and impartial.

The Catholic liturgy is the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life. It has been able to develop kata ton holon, that is to say, in every direction, and in accordance with all places, times, and types of human culture. Therefore it will be the best teacher of the via ordinaria — the regulation of religious life in common, with, at the same time, a view to actual needs and requirements.

[It is not by chance that "the religious Pope" so resolutely took in hand the revision of the liturgy. The internal revival of the Catholic community will not make progress until the liturgy again occupies its rightful position in Catholic life. And the Eucharistic movement can only effectually distribute its blessings when it is in close touch with the liturgy. It was the Pope who issued the Communion Decrees who also said, "You must not pray at Mass, you must say Mass!"

Only when the Blessed Sacrament is understood from the point of view of the liturgy can It take that active share in the religious regeneration of the world which Pius X expected of It. (In the same way the frill active and moral power of the Blessed Sacrament is only free to operate unchecked when Its connection with the problems and tasks of public and family life, and with those of Christian charity and of vocational occupations, is fully comprehended.)]

The significance of the liturgy must, however, be more exactly defined. Our first task will be to establish the quality of its relation to the non-liturgical forms of spiritual life.

The primary and exclusive aim of the liturgy is not the expression of the individual’s reverence and worship for God. It is not even concerned with the awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such. Nor does the onus of liturgical action and prayer rest with the individual. It does not even rest with the collective groups, composed of numerous individuals, who periodically achieve a limited and intermittent unity in their capacity as the congregation of a church. The liturgical entity consists rather of the united body of the faithful as such — the Church — a body which infinitely outnumbers the mere congregation.

The liturgy is the Church’s public and lawful act of worship, and it is performed and conducted by the officials whom the Church herself has designated for the post — her priests. In the liturgy God is to be honored by the body of the faithful, and the latter is in its turn to derive sanctification from this act of worship.

It is important that this objective nature of the liturgy should be fully understood. Here the Catholic conception of worship in common sharply differs from the Protestant, which is predominantly individualistic. The fact that the individual Catholic, by his absorption into the higher unity, finds liberty and discipline, originates in the twofold nature of man, who is both social and solitary.

Now, side by side with the strictly ritual and entirely objective forms of devotion, others exist, in which the personal element is more strongly marked. To this type belong those which are known as “popular devotions,” such as afternoon prayers accompanied by hymns, devotions suited to varying periods, localities, or requirements, and so on. They bear the stamp of their time and surroundings, and are the direct expression of the characteristic quality or temper of an individual congregation.

Although in comparison with the prayer of the individual, which is expressive of purely personal needs and aspirations, popular devotions are both communal and objective, they are to a far greater degree characteristic of their origin than is the liturgy, the entirely objective and impersonal method of prayer practiced by the Church as a whole. This is the reason for the greater stress laid by popular devotion upon the individual need of edification. Hence the rules and forms of liturgical practice cannot be taken, without more ado, as the authoritative and decisive standard for non-liturgical prayer.

The claim that the liturgy should be taken as the exclusive pattern of devotional practice in common can never be upheld. To do so would be to confess complete ignorance of the spiritual requirements of the greater part of the faithful. The forms of popular piety should rather continue to exist side by side with those of the liturgy, and should constitute themselves according to the varying requirements of historical, social, and local conditions. There could be no greater mistake than that of discarding the valuable elements in the spiritual life of the people for the sake of the liturgy, or than the desire of assimilating them to it.

But in spite of the fact that the liturgy and popular devotion have each their own special premises and aims, still it is to liturgical worship that preeminence of right belongs. The liturgy is and will be the lex orandi. Non-liturgical prayer must take the liturgy for its model, and must renew itself in the liturgy, if it is to retain its vitality. It cannot precisely be said that as dogma is to private religious opinion, so is the liturgy to popular devotion; but the connection between the latter does to certain degree correspond with that special relation, characteristic of the former, which exists between the government and the governed.

All other forms of devotional practice can always measure their shortcomings by the standard of the liturgy, and with its help find the surest way back to the via ordinaria when they have strayed from it. The changing demands of time, place, and special circumstance can express themselves in popular devotion; facing the latter stands the liturgy, from which clearly issue the fundament, laws — eternally and universally unchanging — which govern a genuine and healthy piety.

In the following pages an attempt will be made to select from the liturgy and to analyze several of these laws. But it is an attempt pure and simple, which professes to be neither exhaustive nor con elusive.

The first and most important lesson which the liturgy has to teach is that the prayer of a corporate body must be sustained by thought. The prayers of the liturgy are entirely governed by any interwoven with dogma. Those who are unfamiliar with liturgical prayer often regard them as theological formula, artistic and didactic, until on closer acquaintance they suddenly perceive any admit that the clear-cut, lucidly constructed phrases are full of interior enlightenment.

To give an outstanding example, the wonderful Collects of the Masses of Sunday may be quoted. Wherever the stream of prayer wells abundantly upwards, it is always guide into safe channels by means of plain and lucid thought. Intersperse) among the pages of the Missal and the Breviary are readings from Holy Scripture and from the works of the Fathers, which continually stimulate thought.

Often these readings are introduced and concluded by short prayers of a characteristically contemplative and reflective nature — the antiphons — during which that which has been heard or read has time to cease echoing and to sink into the mind. The liturgy, the lex orandi, is, according to the old proverb the law of faith — the lex credendi — as well. It is the treasure-house of the thought of Revelation.

This is not, of course, an attempt to deny that the heart and the emotions play an important part in the life of prayer. Prayer is, without a doubt, “a raising of the heart to God.” But the heart must be guided, supported, and purified by the mind. In individual cases or on definite and explicit occasions it may be possible to persist in, and to derive benefit from, emotion pure and simple, either spontaneous or occasioned by a fortunate chance.

But a regular and recurrent form of devotion lights upon the most varied moods, because no one day resembles another. If the content of these devotional forms is of a predominantly emotional character, it will bear the stamp of its fortuitous origin, since the feeling engendered by solitary spiritual occurrences flows for the most part into special and particular channels.

Such a prayer therefore will always be unsuitable if it does not harmonize, to a certain degree at least, with the disposition of the person who is to offer it. Unless this condition is complied with, either it is useless or it may even mar the sentiment experienced. The same thing occurs when a form of prayer intended for a particular purpose is considered to be adapted to the most varied occasions.


What Does The Eucharist Symbolize?– Fr. Alexander Schmemann

December 15, 2011


The Fountain of Life From the Godescalc Evangelistary, folio 3v 781-3, Paris, Bibliothéque Nationale From the "Godescalc Evangelistary", commissioned by the Carolingian king Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard and produced in his court scriptorium at Aachen.

Now we can raise the basic question: What does the Eucharist symbolize? What symbolism unites into a single whole the entire ordo and all of its rites? Or, to put it differently, what spiritual reality is manifested and given to us in this “sacrament of all sacraments”? And this leads us back to what we began this chapter with — the identification and confession of the Eucharist as the sacrament of the kingdom.


The divine liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” The Savior likewise began his ministry with the proclamation of the kingdom, the ringing announcement that it has come: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1: 14-15). And it is with desire for the kingdom that the first and foremost of all Christian prayers begins: “Thy kingdom come…”

Thus, the kingdom of God is the content of the Christian faith — the goal, the meaning and the content of the Christian life. According to the unanimous witness of all scripture and tradition, it is the knowledge of God, love for him, unity with him and life in him. The kingdom of God is unity with God, the source of all life, indeed life itself. It is life eternal: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee” (John 17:3). It is for this true and eternal life in the fullness of love, unity and knowledge that man was created. But man lost this in the fall, and by man’s sin, evil, suffering and death triumphed in the world. The “prince of this world” began his reign; the world rejected its God and King. Yet God did not reject the world: as we pray in the anaphora of St John Chrysostom, and when we had fallen away [Thou] didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst endowed us with Thy kingdom which is to come.”

The prophets of the Old Testament hungered for this kingdom, prayed for it, foretold it. It was the very goal and fulfillment of the entire sacred history of the Old Testament, a history holy not with human sanctity (for it was utterly filled with falls, betrayals and sins) but with the holiness of its being God’s preparation for the coming of his kingdom.

And now, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). The only-begotten Son of God became the Son of man, in order to proclaim and to give to man forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and new life. By his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead he has come into his kingdom: God “made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, ,mod above every name that is named. . . and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things” (Ephesians 1:20-22). Christ reigns, and everyone who believes in him and is horn again of water and the Spirit belongs to his kingdom and has him within himself. “Christ is the Lord” — this is the most ancient Christian confession of faith, and for three centuries the world, in the form of the Roman empire, persecuted those who spoke these words for their refusal to recognize anyone on earth as lord except time one Lord and one King.

The kingdom of Christ is accepted by faith and is hidden “within us.” The King himself came in the form of a servant and reigned only through the cross. There are no external signs of this kingdom on earth. It is the kingdom of “the world to come,” and thus only in the glory of his second coming will all people recognize the true king of the world. But for those who have believed in it and accepted it, the kingdom is already here and now, more obvious than any of the “realities” surrounding us. “The Lord has come, the Lord is coming, the Lord will come again.” This triune meaning of the Aramaic expression maranatha! contains the whole of Christianity’s victorious faith, against which all persecutions have proven impotent.

At first glance all of this might sound like some sort of pious platitudes. But reread what has just been said and compare it with the faith and “experience” of the vast majority of contemporary Christians, and you cannot but be convinced that there is a deep abyss between what we have said and the modern “experience.” One can say without any exaggeration that the kingdom of God — the central concept in evangelical preaching — has ceased to be the central content and inner motivation of the Christian faith. Unlike the early Christians, those of later ages came, little by little, to lose the perception of the kingdom of God as being “at hand.” They came to understand it only as the kingdom to come — at the end and after the end, referring only to the “personal” death of individual believers. This world” and “the kingdom,” which in the gospels are set side by side and in tension and struggle with one another, have come to be thought of in terms of a chronological sequence: now — only the world; then — only the kingdom.

For the first Christians the all-encompassing joy, the truly startling novelty of their faith lay in the fact that the kingdom was at hand. It had appeared, and although it remained hidden and unseen for “this world,” it was already present, its light had already shone, it was already at work in the world. Then, as the kingdom was “removed” to the end of the world, to the mysterious and unfathomable reaches of time, Christians gradually lost their awareness of it as something hoped for, as the desired and joyous fulfillment of all hopes, of all desires, of life itself, of all that the early Church implied in the words “Thy kingdom come.”

It is characteristic that our scholarly tomes of dogmatic theology (which cannot, of course, pass over the early doctrine in silence) speak of the kingdom in quite sparing, dull and even boring terms. Here, eschatology — the doctrine of the “final destiny of the world and man” — is virtually reduced to the doctrine of “God as the Judge and Avenger.” As to piety, i.e., the personal experience of individual believers, the interest is narrowed to the question of one’s personal fate “after death.” At the same time, ‘this world,” about which St Paul wrote that its form is “passing away,” and which for the early Christians was transparent to the kingdom, reacquired its own value and existence independent of the kingdom of God.


This gradual narrowing, if not radical metamorphosis of Christian eschatology, its peculiar break with the theme and experience of the kingdom, has had tremendous significance in the development of liturgical consciousness in the Church. Re-liming to what we said above about the symbolism of Christian worship, we can now affirm that the Church’s worship was born and, in its external structure, “took shape” primarily as a symbol of the kingdom, of the Church’s ascent to it and, in this ascent, of her fulfillment as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The whole newness, the uniqueness of the Christian leitourgia was to its eschatological nature as the presence here and now of the future parousia, as the epiphany of that which is to come, as communion with the “world to come.” As I wrote in my Introduction to Liturgical Theology, it is precisely out of this eschatological experience that the “Lord’s day” was born as a symbol, i.e., the manifestation, now, of the kingdom. It is this experience that determined the Christian “reception” of the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost, as feasts precisely of a “pass-over” from the present “aeon” to the one which is to come, and thus — symbols of the kingdom of God.

But, of course, the symbol of the kingdom par excellence, the one that fulfills all other symbols — the Lord’s day, baptism, Pascha, etc. — as well as all of Christian life “hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), is the Eucharist, the sacrament of the coming of the risen Lord, of our meeting and communion with him “at his table in his kingdom.” Secretly, unseen by the world, “the doors being shut,” the Church — that “little flock” to whom it was the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom (Luke 12:32) — fulfills in the Eucharist her ascension and entrance into the light and joy and triumph of the kingdom. And we can say without any exaggeration that it was from this totally unique and incomparable experience, from this fully realized symbol, that the whole of the Christian lex orandi was born and developed.

It should now be clear why it was that with the weakening and the eclipse of the original eschatology the liturgical symbolism of the kingdom became overgrown little by little with the wild grass of secondary explanations and allegorical commentaries, i.e., with the “illustrative symbolism” that — as I have tried to show above — in fact means the collapse of the symbol. The more time went on, the more the symbolism of the kingdom, so fundamental for the Church, was forgotten. Inasmuch, however, as the liturgy, the lex orandi of the Church, with all its forms and its entire ordo, already existed and was perceived as an untouchable part of tradition, it naturally came to demand a new explanation — in the same “key” in which Christian consciousness was beginning to apprehend the place and ministry of the Church in “this world.”

This was the beginning of an ever-deeper infiltration of “illustrative symbolism” into the explanation of worship. And, paradoxical as it may seem, in this process the otherworldly, heavenly reality of the Eucharist came to be “included” in “this world,” in its causality, its time, the categories of its thought and experience, while the symbolism of the kingdom of God, so inherent to and inseparable from creation — the true key for the Church and her life — was reduced to the category of this unnecessary illustrative symbolism.


This process, to be sure, was long and complicated and not some kind of instant “metamorphosis.” And we must decidedly affirm that, whatever its external triumph, “illustrative” symbolism has never completely succeeded in supplanting the original, eschatological symbolism of the liturgy, which is rooted in the faith itself. No matter how much development took place, for instance, in Byzantine worship in the direction of what, in my Introduction to Liturgical Theology, I termed “external solemnity,” no matter how overgrown it became with decorative and allegorical details, with the pomp borrowed from the imperial cult and with terminology adopted from mysteriological “sacredness,” worship as a whole, as well as its deep intuition in the minds of the faithful, continued to be determined by the symbolism of the kingdom of God.

And there is no better witness to this than the fundamental Orthodox experience of the temple and of iconography, an experience that crystallized precisely during the Byzantine period and in which the “holy of holies” of Orthodoxy is expressed better than in the redundant rhetoric of the “symbolic” liturgical interpretations.

“Standing in the temple we stand in heaven.” I have spoken of the origins of the Christian temple in the experience of the “assembly as the Church.” We can now add that insofar as this assembly is undoubtedly conceived of as heavenly, the temple is that “heaven on earth” that realizes the “assembly as the Church.” It is the symbol that unites these two realities, these two dimensions of the Church — “heaven” and “earth,” one manifested in the other, one made a reality in the other.

And this experience of the temple, I repeat, has survived almost unchanged and unweakened throughout the entire history of the Church, despite the numerous declines and breakdowns in the authentic traditions of church architecture and iconography. This experience constitutes that “whole” that unites and coordinates all the elements of the temple: space, form, shape, icons, all that can be termed the rhythm and order of the temple.

As to the icon, it is in its very essence a symbol of the kingdom, the “epiphany” of the new and transfigured creation, of heaven and earth full of God’s glory, and it is for this reason that the canons forbid the introduction into iconography of any allegorical or illustrative “symbolism.”

For the icon dues not “illustrate” — it manifests, and does so only to the degree that it is itself a participant in what it manifests, inasmuch as it is both presence and communion. It is enough to have stood, be it only once, in the “temple of all temples,” Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — even in its present devastated and kenotic state — to know with one’s whole being that the temple and the icon were born and nurtured in the living experience of heaven, in communion with the “peace and joy of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

This experience was frequently darkened. Historians of Christian art often speak of the decline of church architecture and the icon. And it is important to note that this decline usually came about it by the whole — of the temple, of the icon — being weakened and lost beneath the thickening growth of details. Thus, the temple almost disappears under a thick layer of self-contained decorations, and in the icon, Byzantine as well as Russian, the original wholeness is replaced by an ever-growing attention to cleverly drawn details. Is this not the same movement — from the “whole” to the “particular,” from the experience of the whole to a discursive “explanation,” and, in short, from symbol to “symbolism”? And yet, as long as the “Christian world,” be it imperfectly and sometimes nominally, “refers” itself to the kingdom of God, the “homeland of the heart’s desire,” this centrifugal movement cannot fully overpower the centripetal force.

One might say that, at first and for a long period of time, the “illustrative” symbolism — be it in worship, in the icon or in the temple — developed inside the initial and ontological symbolism of the kingdom. The deeper and truly tragic rupture between the two of them, the initial replacement of the one by the other, began with the break from the patristic tradition and the coming of the long (and in many ways continuing) “western captivity” of the Orthodox mind. It is not accidental that the luxuriant and unchecked flowering of “illustrative” symbolism corresponded in time with the triumph of western juridicism and rationalism in Orthodox theology, of pietism and sentimentality in iconography, of embellished “pretty” baroque in church architecture, of “lyricism” and emotionalism in church music. All of these manifest one and the same “pseudomorphosis” of the Orthodox consciousness.

Yet even this deep and truly tragic decline cannot be considered final. In its depths, the Church’s consciousness ultimately remains untouched by all this. Thus, everyday experience shows us that “illustrative symbolism” is foreign to the living, authentic faith and life of the Church, just as “scholastic” theology remains foreign, in the last analysis, to such faith. “Illustrative symbolism” is at home in that superficial, “showy” and routine religiosity in which a widespread but shallow curiosity toward anything “holy” is lightly taken as religious feeling and “interest in the Church.” But where there is a living, authentic and, in the best sense of the word, simple faith, it becomes unnecessary, for genuine faith lives not by curiosity but by thirst.

Just as he did a thousand years ago, so today the “simple” believer goes to Church in order primarily to “touch other worlds” (Dostoevsky). “And almost free, the soul breathes heaven unhindered” (Vladislav Khodasevich). In a sense, he is not “interested” in worship, in the way in which “experts” and connoisseurs of all liturgical details are interested in it. And he is not interested because “standing in the temple” he receives all that for which he thirsts and seeks: the light, the joy, and the comfort of the kingdom of God, the radiance that, in the words of the agnostic Chekhov, beams from the faces of the “old people who have just returned from the church.”

What use could such a believer have for complex and refined explanations of what this or that rite “represents,” of what the opening and closing of the royal doors is supposed to mean? He cannot keep up with all these “symbol-isms,” and they are unnecessary for his faith. All he knows is that he has left his everyday life and has come to a place where everything is different and yet so essential, so desirable, so vital that it illumines and gives meaning to his entire life.

Likewise he knows, even if he cannot express it in words, that this other reality makes life itself worth living, for everything proceeds to it, everything is referred to it, everything is to be judged by it — by the kingdom of God it manifests. And, finally, he knows that even if individual words or rites are unclear to him, the Kingdom Of God has been given to him in the Church: in that common action, common standing before God, in the “assembly,” in the “ascent,” in unity and love.


Thus we return to where we began, indeed to where The Eucharist itself begins: to the blessing of the Kingdom Of God. What does it mean to bless the Kingdom? It means that we acknowledge and confess it to be our highest and ultimate value, the object of our desire, our love and our hope. It means that we proclaim it to be the goal of the sacrament — of pilgrimage, ascension, entrance — that now begins. It means that we must focus our attention, our mind, heart and soul, i.e., our whole life, upon that which is truly the “one thing needful.” Finally, it means that now, already in “this world,” we confirm the possibility of communion with the kingdom, of entrance into its radiance, truth and joy.

Each time that Christians “assemble as the Church” they witness before the whole world that Christ is King and Lord, that his kingdom has already been revealed and given to man and that a new and immortal life has begun. This is why the liturgy begins with this solemn confession and doxology of the King who comes now but abides forever and shall reign unto ages of ages.

“It is time to begin the service to the Lord,” the deacon announces to the celebrant. This is not simply a reminder that it is now “opportune” or “convenient” for the performance of the sacrament. It is an affirmation and confession that the new time, the time of the kingdom of God and its fulfillment in the Church, now enters into the fallen time of “this world” in order that we, the Church, might be lifted up to heaven, and the Church transfigured into “that which she is” — the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” Amen, answer the people. This word is usually translated as “so be it,” but its meaning is really stronger than this. It signifies not only agreement, but also active acceptance. “Yes, this is so, and let it be so.” With this word the ecclesial assembly concludes and, as it were, seals each prayer uttered by the celebrant, thereby expressing its own organic, responsible and conscious participation in each and every sacred action of the Church. “To that which you are — say Amen,” writes St Augustine, “and thus seal it with your answer. For you hear ‘the body of Christ’ and answer ‘Amen.’ Be a member of the body of Christ, which is realized by your Amen… Fulfill that which you are.


This Sacramental Understanding Of The World – Alexander Schmemann

December 14, 2011


The River Of Life Watering The Tree Of Life, from the Beatus of Saint-Sever: The Apocalypse of John of France, illuminated in the middle of the 11th century by Stephanus Garsia for Gregorio Montaner, the then abbot of the monastery of Saint-Sever, Gascogny, France.


There is no need for us to enter into a detailed examination of this system, well constructed and internally consistent though it may be. Enough has been said, I believe, to realize how alien this doctrine is to the Orthodox experience of the sacraments, how incompatible it is with the age-old liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. But I say alien to experience, not to doctrine, because the teaching on the sacraments, and above all on the Eucharist, that we find in our dogmatics textbooks, patterned as they are on western models and constructed in western categories, not only does not correspond to this experience but openly contradicts it.

But when we speak of experience, what has been preserved from the beginning by the Church in her lex orandi, then the most profound alienation of western sacramental scholasticism from this experience cannot but become obvious. The chief source of this estrangement is the Latin doctrine’s denial and rejection of symbolism, which is inherent to the Christian perception of the world, man and all creation, and which forms the ontological basis of the sacraments.

In this perspective, the Latin doctrine is the beginning of the disintegration and decomposition of the symbol. On the one hand, being “reduced” to “illustrative symbolism,” the symbol loses touch with reality; and, on the other, it ceases to be understood as a fundamental revelation about the world and creation. When Dom Vonier writes that “Neither in heaven nor on earth is there anything like the sacraments,” does he not indicate above all that, although the sacraments in any event depend on creation and its nature for their accomplishment, of this nature they do not reveal, witness or manifest anything?

This doctrine of the sacraments is alien to the Orthodox because in the Orthodox ecclesial experience and tradition a sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as “this world,” will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transfiguration in a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life.

If in baptism water can become a “laver of regeneration,” if our earthly food — bread and wine — can be transformed into partaking of the body and blood of Christ, if with oil we are granted the anointment of the Holy Spirit, if, to put it briefly, everything in the world can be identified, manifested and understood as a gift of God and participation in the new life, it is because all of creation was originally summoned and destined for the fulfillment of the divine economy — “then God will be all in all.”

Precisely in this sacramental understanding of the world is the essence and gift of that light of the world that permeates the entire life of the Church, the entire liturgical and spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy. Sin is itself perceived here as a falling away of man, and in him of all creation, from this sacramentality, from the “paradise of delight,” and into “this world,” which lives no longer according to God, but according to itself and in itself and is therefore corrupt and mortal.

And if this is so, then Christ accomplishes the salvation of the world by renewing the world and life itself as sacrament.


A sacrament is both cosmic and eschatological. It refers at the same time to God’s world as He first created it and to its fulfillment in the kingdom of God. It is cosmic in that it embraces all of creation, it returns it to God as God’s own — “Thine own of Thine own… on behalf of all and for all” — and in and by itself it manifests the victory of Christ.

But it is to the same degree eschatological, oriented toward the kingdom which is to come. For, having rejected and killed Christ — its Creator, Savior and Lord — “this world” sentenced itself to death, as it does not have “life in itself” and rejected him of whom it was said, “In him was life and this life was the light of men” (John 1:4). As “this world” it comes to an end — ”heaven and earth will pass away” — and thus those who believe in Christ and accept him as the “Way, the Truth and the Life” live in hope of the age to come. They no longer have here a “lasting city, but… seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). But this is precisely the joy of Christianity, the paschal essence of its faith: this “age which is to come,” though future in relation to “this world,” is already “in our midst.” And our faith itself is already “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11: 1). It is, it manifests and it grants that to which it is directed: the presence among us of the approaching kingdom of God and its unfading light.

This in turn means that in the Orthodox experience and tradition the Church is herself a sacrament. Historians of theology have many times noted that in the early patristic tradition we find no definition of the Church. The reason for this, however, lies not in the “lack of development” of the theology of that time — as several learned theologians suppose — but in the fact that in her early tradition the Church was not an object of “definition” but the living experience of the new life. This experience — in which we find also the institutional structure of the Church, her hiearchy, canons, liturgy, etc. — was sacramental, symbolical by its very nature, for the Church exists in order to be always changing into that same reality that she manifests, the fulfillment of the invisible in the visible, the heavenly in the earthly, the spiritual in the material.

Hence, the Church is a sacrament in both of the higher dimensions we have indicated, the cosmic and the eschatological. She is a sacrament in the cosmic sense because she manifests in “this world” the genuine world of God, as he first created it, as the beginning, and only in the light of and in reference to this beginning can we know the full heights of our lofty calling — and also the depths of our falling away from God. She is a sacrament in the eschatological dimension because the original world of God’s creation, revealed by the Church, has already been saved by Christ. And in liturgical experience and the life of prayer it is never severed from that end for the sake of which it was created and saved, that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).


Being a sacrament in the most profound and comprehensive sense of the term, the Church creates, manifests and fulfils herself in and through the sacraments, and above all through the “sacrament of sacraments,” the most Holy Eucharist. For if, as we have just said, the Eucharist is the sacrament of the beginning and the end, of the world and its fulfillment as the kingdom of God, then it is completed by the Church’s ascent to heaven, to the “homeland of the heart’s desire,” the status patriae — the messianic banquet of Christ, in his kingdom.

This means that all this — the “assembly as the Church,” the ascent to the throne of God and the partaking of the banquet of the kingdom — is accomplished in and through the Holy Spirit. “Where the Church is, there is the Holy Spirit and the fullness of grace.”`’ In these words of St Irenaeus of Lyons is engraved the experience of the Church as the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. For if where the Church is the Holy Spirit is also, then where the Holy Spirit is there is the renewal of creation, there we find the “beginning of another life, new and eternal,” the dawn of the mysterious, unfading day of the kingdom of God.

For the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth, the gift of sonship, the pledge of future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessing, the life-creating power, the fountain of sanctification, through whom every creature of reason and understanding worships Thee and always sings to Thee a hymn of glory” (from the anaphora of the Liturgy of St Basil the Great). In other words, where the Holy Spirit is, there is the kingdom of God. Through his coming on the “last and great day of Pentecost” the Holy Spirit transforms this last day into the first day of the new creation and manifests the Church as the gift and presence of this first and “eighth” day.

Thus, everything in the Church is by the Holy Spirit, everything is in the Holy Spirit and everything is partaking of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit because with the descent of the Spirit the Church is revealed as the transformation of the end into the beginning, of the old life into the new. “The Holy Spirit grants all things; he is the source of prophecy, he fulfills the priesthood, he gathers the entire church assembly” (Hymn of Pentecost). Everything in the Church is in the Holy Spirit, who raises us up to the heavenly sanctuary, to the throne of God. “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit” (another hymn of Pentecost).

Finally, the Church is entirely oriented toward the Holy Spirit, “the treasury of blessings and giver of life.” The entire life of the Church is a thirst for acquisition of the Holy Spirit and for participation in him, and in him of the fulness of grace. Just as the life and spiritual struggle of each believer consists, in the words of St Serafim of Sarov, in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, so also the life of the Church is that same acquisition, that same eternally satisfied but never completely quenched thirst of the Holy Spirit. “Come to us, O Holy Spirit, and make us partakers of your holiness, and of the light that knows no evening, and of the divine life, and of the most fragrant dispensation…” (Compline Canon Of The Feast Of The Holy Spirit).

Having said all this, we can now return to what we began this chapter with: the definition of the Eucharist as the sacrament of the kingdom, the Church’s ascent to the “table of the Lord, in his kingdom.”

We know now that this definition “slipped out” of our scholarly, theological explanations of the liturgy, which were adopted by Orthodox theology from the West. The main reason for this was the disintegration, in Christian consciousness, of the key concept of the symbol, its contraposition to the concept of reality and thus its reduction to the category of “illustrative symbolism.” Inasmuch as the Christian faith from the very beginning confessed precisely the reality of the change of the gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — “this is indeed the very body and this is indeed the very blood of Christ” — any “confusion” of this reality with “symbolism” came to be seen as a threat to Eucharistic “realism” and hence also to the real presence of the body.and blood of Christ on the altar.

This led to the reduction of the sacrament to the “consecratory formula” — which by its very narrowness “guarantees” in time and space the reality of the change — and this “fear” also led to the more and more detailed definition of the “modus” and “moment” of the change, as well as its “efficacy.” Hence the persistent reminders that before the consecration of the gifts the paten holds only bread and the chalice contains only wine; but after the consecration we find only body and blood. Hence the attempts to explain the “reality” of the change by using Aristotelian categories of “essence” and “accidents” and to describe the change as “transubstantiation.” Finally, we find here the source of the denial of the real relation of the liturgy — both in its many details as well as taken as a whole — to the change of the holy gifts and the practical exclusion of the liturgy from explanations of the sacrament.

Here and now, we must ask whether this understanding of the symbol and symbolism, their contraposition to “reality,” corresponds to the original meaning of the idea of the “symbol,” and whether it applies to the Christian lex orandi, the liturgical tradition of the Church. To this fundamental question I answer in the negative. And this is precisely the heart of the matter: the primary meaning of “symbol” is in no way equivalent to “illustration.” In fact, it is possible for the symbol not to illustrate, i.e., it can be devoid of any external similarity with that which it symbolizes.

The history of religions shows us that the more ancient, the deeper, the more “organic” a symbol, the less it will be composed of such “illustrative” qualities. This is because the purpose and function of the symbol is not to illustrate (this would presume the absence of what is illustrated) but rather to manifest and to communicate what is manifested.

We might say that the symbol does not so much “resemble” the reality that it symbolizes as it participates in it, and therefore it is capable of communicating it in reality. In other words, the difference (and it is a radical one) between our contemporary understanding of the symbol and the original one consists in the fact that while today we understand the symbol as the representation or sign of an absent reality, something that is not really in the sign itself (just as there is no real, actual water in the chemical symbol H2O, in the original understanding it is the manifestation and presence of the other reality — but precisely as other, which, under given circumstances, cannot be manifested and made present in any other way than as a symbol.

This means that in the final analysis the true and original symbol is inseparable from faith, for faith is “the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), the knowledge that there is another reality different from the “empirical” one, and that this reality can be entered, can be communicated, can in truth become “the most real of realities.”

Therefore, if the symbol presupposes faith, faith of necessity requires the symbol. For, unlike “convictions,” philosophical “points of view,” etc., faith certainly is contact and a thirst for contact, embodiment and a thirst for embodiment: it is the manifestation, the presence, the operation of one reality within the other. All of this is the symbol (from the Greek for “unite,” “hold together”). In it — unlike in a simple “illustration,” simple sign, and even in the sacrament in its scholastic-rationalistic “reduction” — the empirical (or “visible”) and the spiritual (or “invisible”) are united not logically (this “stands for” t hat), nor analogically (this “illustrates” that), nor yet by cause and effect (this is the “means” or “generator” of that), but epiphanically. One reality manifests and communicates the other, but — and this is immensely important — only to the degree to which the symbol itself is a participant in the spiritual reality and is able or called upon to embody it.

In other words, in the symbol everything manifests the spiritual reality, but not everything pertaining to the spiritual reality appears embodied in the symbol. The symbol is always partial, always imperfect: “for our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

By its very nature the symbol unites disparate realities, the relation of the one to the other always remaining “absolutely other.” However real a symbol may be, however successfully it may communicate to us that other reality, its function is not to quench our thirst but to intensify it: “Grant us that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the never ending day of Thy Kingdom.” It is not that this or that part of “this world” — space, time, or matter — be made sacred, but rather that everything in it be seen and comprehended as expectation and thirst for its complete spiritualization: “that God may be all in all.”

Must we then demonstrate that only this ontological and “epiphanic” meaning of the word “symbol” is applicable to Christian worship? And not only is it applicable — it is inseparable. For the essence of the symbol lies in the fact that in it the dichotomy between reality and symbolism (as unreality) is overcome: reality is experienced above all as the fulfillment of the symbol, and the symbol is comprehended as the fulfillment of reality. Christian worship is symbolic not because it contains various “symbolical” depictions. It may indeed include them, but chiefly in the imagination of various “commentators” and not in its own ordo and rites.

Christian worship is symbolic because, first of all, the world itself, God’s own creation, is symbolic, is sacramental; and second of all, because it is the Church’s nature, her task in “this world,” to fulfill this symbol, to realize it as the “most real of realities.” We can therefore say that the symbol reveals the world, mankind and all creation as the “matter” of a single, all-embracing sacrament.


The New World Of The Sacraments – Fr. Alexander Schmemann

December 13, 2011

The sacraments were instituted by Christ and were part of the Liturgical Tradition of the early Christian Church. The Church celebrates in her liturgy the Paschal mystery of Christ, his Sacrifice on the Cross, Death and Resurrection. The Greek word μυστήριον or mystery in the Greek New Testament is translated into sacramentum in the Latin Vulgate Bible, from which we derive our English word sacrament (examples: Ephesians 1:9, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:27). The saving effects of Christ's Redemption on the Cross are communicated through the sacraments, especially in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist. The sacraments to this day are called mysteries in the Eastern Churches.

“…as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint one for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.
Luke 22:29-30

Fr. Alexander Schmemann (13 September 1921 – 13 December 1983) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian priest, teacher, and writer. He is especially valued for his meditations on the Eucharist.


If assembling as the church is, in the most profound sense of the term, the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration, its first and fundamental condition, then its end and completion is the Church’s entrance into heaven, her fulfillment at the table of Christ, in his kingdom. It is imperative to indicate and to confess this as the sacrament’s end, purpose and fulfillment immediately after confessing the “assembly as the Church” as its beginning because this “end” also reveals the unity of the Eucharist, its order and essence as movement and ascent — as, above all and before all, the sacrament of the kingdom of God. And it is no accident, of course, that in its present form the liturgy begins with the solemn blessing of the kingdom.

Today we particularly need to remind ourselves of this “end” because our school teaching on the sacraments — which took hold in the Orthodox East in the “dark ages” of the Church’s western “captivity” — makes no mention either of the “assembly as the Church” as the beginning and condition of the sacrament or of her ascent to the heavenly sanctuary, to the “table of Christ.”

The sacrament was reduced to two “acts,” two “moments”: the change of the Eucharistic gifts into the body and blood of Christ and the communion itself. Its definitions consisted in answering the questions of how, i.e., on account of what “causality,” and when, i.e., at what moment, did the change occur. In other words, our school theology determined for each sacrament a consecratory formula, inherent to the given sacrament and at the same time both necessary and sufficient for its accomplishment.

Thus, as an example, in the authoritative Longer Catechism of Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow, which was accepted by the entire Orthodox East, this “formula” is defined as “the pronouncing of the words that Christ spoke at the institution of the sacrament: take, eat, this is my body… drink of it all of you, this is my blood. . . and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of the gifts, the bread and wine that had been offered. … When this takes place, the bread and wine are changed into the very body and very blood of Christ.”

The influence of the scholastic theology of the sacraments that underlies the “consecratory formula” is unfortunately evident in our own liturgical practice. It is expressed in the patent desire to single out that part of the Eucharistic prayer that can be identified with the “consecratory formula,” to make it, so to speak, independent and self-contained.

With this end in view, the reading of the Eucharistic prayer is as it were “interrupted” by the threefold reading of the Troparion of the Third Hour: “O Lord, who didst send down Thy Most Holy Spirit upon Thine apostles at the third hour: Take Him not from us, O Good One, but renew Him in us who pray to Thee” — a supplication related neither grammatically nor semantically to the anaphora. [Vocab: Anaphora: “a carrying on high”. Every liturgical celebration is an anaphora because it shares in the present movement of the Lord’s Ascension. More precisely, the anaphora is the central movement of the Eucharist (the “Eucharistic prayer” of the Latin liturgy) and consists of the thanksgiving, the anamnesis, the epiclesis, and the intercessions.]

With this same intention we ritually and verbally single out from the Eucharistic prayer a dialogue between the deacon and the priest whose essence lies in separate consecrations first of the bread and then of the cup, and finally of the gifts together. Further testimony to the fact that we are dealing with a “consecratory formula” is the completely illiterate transferral of the last words of the benediction, “Making the change by Thy Holy Spirit,” from the anaphora of St John Chrysostom to that of St Basil the Great.

As far as the other rites of the liturgy are concerned, they are either generally ignored — since they are unnecessary for the accomplishment of the sacrament and are thus not a subject for theological comprehension — or, as in the above-cited catechism, they are construed as symbolic “illustrations” of one or another event in Christ’s ministry, whose recollection is “edifying” for the faithful in attendance.

We will have to return later to this doctrine of a “consecratory formula.” For now, in this initial stage of our work, the important thing to note is that it isolates the Eucharist from the liturgy, and thus separates the Eucharist from the Church, from its ecclesiological essence and meaning.

This separation is, of course, external, for the spirit of tradition is too strong in the Orthodox Church to allow a change in or betrayal of the ancient forms of worship. Nevertheless, the separation is a real one, for, in this approach, the Church ceases to perceive herself not only as the “dispenser” of the sacraments but as their very object: they represent her fulfillment of herself in “this world” as the sacrament of the kingdom of God, which “has come in power.” The very fact that the Eucharist’s beginning, the “assembly as the Church,” and its end and fulfillment, its realization as “that which it is,” the manifestation and presence of the kingdom of God, simply dropped out of the experience as well as the explanations and definitions of the Eucharist amply demonstrates the truly tragic damage of this approach and of the reduction it contains.


What is the cause of this reduction, and how did it penetrate church consciousness? This question is of immeasurable importance not only for an interpretation of the sacraments and the Eucharist but above all for an understanding of the Church herself, her place and ministry in “this world.”

We can best begin our analysis of this reduction with a concept that, although occupying an enormous position in all “discussions” of church worship, remains vague and obscure. This is the idea of the symbol. It has long been normal to speak of the “symbolism” of Orthodox worship. Indeed, even apart from these “discussions,” one can hardly doubt that it is in fact symbolic. But what is understood by this term, what is its concrete content?

The most prevalent, “current” answer to this question consists in an identification of the symbol with a representation or illustration. When someone says that the “Little Entrance” “symbolizes” the Savior’s coming out to preach the gospel, he understands by this that the rite of entrance represents a certain event of the past. And this “illustrative symbolism” has come to be applied to worship in general, whether taken as a whole or in each of its separate rites. And since this interpretation of “symbolism” (the flowering of which had begun already during the Byzantine period) is undoubtedly rooted in the most pious of feelings, it would occur to very few that not only does it not correspond to the basic and original Christian conception of worship, but actually distorts it and provides one of the reasons for its present decline.

The reasons for this lie in the fact that “symbol” here designates something not only distinct from reality but in essence even contrary to it. Further on we shall see that the specifically western, Roman Catholic emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic gifts grew primarily out of a fear that this presence would be degraded into the category of the “symbolic.” But this could only happen when the word “symbol” ceased to designate something real and became in fact the antithesis of reality.

In other words, where one is concerned with “reality” there is no need for a symbol, and, conversely, where there is a symbol there is no reality. This led to the understanding of the liturgical symbol as an “illustration,” necessary only to the extent that what is represented is not “real.” Thus, two thousand years ago the Savior came forth to preach the gospel in reality, and now we illustrate this act symbolically in order to recall for ourselves the meaning of the event, its significance for us, etc.

I repeat, these are pious and legitimate intentions in and of themselves. However, this type of symbolism is not only quite frequently utilized arbitrarily and artificially (thus, the entrance at the liturgy is turned into a symbol of Christ going out), but in fact reduces ninety percent of our rites to the level of didactic dramatization — not unlike acting out a “procession on a donkey” on Palm Sunday or the mystery play of the “youths in the furnace of Babylon.” Such reduction deprives the rites of their inner necessity, their relation to the reality of worship. They become “symbolical” settings, mere decorations for the two or three acts or “moments” that alone provide, so to speak, “reality” to the liturgy — and which alone are necessary and therefore “sufficient.”

This is demonstrated by our school theology, which long ago in fact dismissed the entire ordo of the Eucharist from its field of interest and attention and concentrated entirely upon a single moment: the isolated consecratory formula. On the other hand, it is also demonstrated — however strange it may seem — in our very piety.

It is no accident, of course, that an increasing number of people in the Church find this piling up of symbolical representations and explanations disturbing to their prayer and to their genuine participation in the liturgy, distracting them from that spiritual reality the direct contact with which is the very essence of prayer. The same “illustrative” symbolism that is unnecessary for the theologian is also unnecessary for the serious believer.


This separation, this contraposition of symbol and reality is the foundation of that perception and subsequent definition of the sacraments — and above all of the Eucharist — whose focus is the consecratory formula. This approach came to us from the West, where, in contrast to the East, the sacraments quite early became a subject of special teaching and definition.

Particular attention should be given to the scholastic treatise De sacramentis, in its progressive development, for the peculiar estrangement of the sacraments from the Church. This estrangement, of course, is not to be understood in the sense that the sacraments were established and function outside or independently of the Church. Rather, they are given to the Church, they are performed within her and only through the power given her to perform them and, finally, they are performed on her behalf.

Yet while being accomplished in and through the Church, they constitute — even in the Church herself — a special reality, distinct unto itself. They are special in their being established directly by Christ himself, special in their essence as the “visible signs of invisible grace,” special in their “efficacy” and, finally, special as the “causes of grace” (causae gratiae) .

One result of the setting apart of the sacraments as a new, sui generis reality was the scholastic definition of the sacraments as being established only in view of man’s fall and his salvation by Christ. In the state of “original innocence” man had no need of them; they are necessary only because man sinned and requires medicine for the wounds of sin. The sacraments are precisely this medicine: quaedam spirituales medicamenta quae adhibentur contra vulnera peccati. Finally, the sole source of these medicines is the passio Christi, the suffering and sacrifice of the cross, through which Christ redeemed and saved mankind. The sacraments are accomplished by the power of the passion of Christ (in virtute passionis Christi) which they apply to mankind (passio Christi quaedam applicata hominibus).

Summing up the results of the development of western sacramental theology, the Catholic theologian Dom Vonier, in his well-known book The Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, writes: “The world of the sacraments is a new world, created by God entirely apart from the natural and even from the spiritual world…

Neither in heaven nor on earth is there anything like the sacraments…. They have their own form of existence, their own psychology, their own grace…. We must understand that the idea of the sacraments is something entirely sui generis.”


A Liturgical Vocabulary — Fr. Jean Corbon

November 8, 2011

Your Brain, Running More Smoothly, Using Liturgical Vocabulary

I have another vocabulary page  that I made an attempt to create but seemed to have failed at. This is a couple of pages from Fr. Corbon’s wonderful little book called The Wellspring of Worship  and features his writing on these terms. I was looking up online sources and featuring how the vocabs were used when I encountered them. Eventually I will phase in Fr. Corbon’s definitions here but in the meantime here is a great intro to reading on the liturgy.


IN THIS BOOK, in which we shall be contemplating the mystery of the liturgy from within, the reader will rarely find the learned terminology proper to formal theology or the human sciences. On the other hand, biblical revelation as actualized in the spiritual experience of the early Church could not but employ a new vocabulary to express the newness found in the liturgy. These new words cannot be translated without distortion into our modern languages, which are based more on objects than on the mystery and are more descriptive than symbolical. The old wineskins of a rational vocabulary cannot hold and contain the new realities suggested by such words as Christ, Holy Spirit, Gospel, Pentecost, Church, baptism, and Eucharist.

We must therefore acquaint ourselves with certain biblical and patristic words if we are to participate in the mystery that they reveal. The liturgical renewal has already made most of them familiar to us. I give here a list of the most important and frequently occurring ones, even though I explain them again in the text when they appear for the first time. Readers should not hesitate to let these words fill and permeate them, for, while the Gospel reveals the kingdom to us in parables, the liturgy gives us an experience of it in symbols.

Agape: “love”. The last and most beautiful name for God in the New Testament: “God is agape” (1 John 4:8, 16). Agape is love that springs from goodness, from pure grace, without any nonvolitional cause; it is life giving; it renders its object lovable and gives it a participation in the communion that is the Blessed Trinity. This is why agape is the mystery at the heart of the Church and why the Eucharist, which is the liturgical reality of the Church, is likewise called agape.

Anamnesis: “reminder, remembrance”. In the liturgical celebration the Church remembers all the saving events that God brought about in history and that had their climax and fulfillment in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But the paschal event, which occurred only once in history, is contemporary with each moment of our lives, for now that Christ is risen, he has broken through the wall of mortal time. The liturgy is thus a “memorial” of an utterly new kind. We do the remembering, but the reality remembered is no longer in the past but is here: the Church’s memory becomes a presence. (May I interject here with “That is one helluva sentence: please reread, rewrite on a post-itTM note and place on your refrigerator.) From this we can gauge the unsurpassed realism of the event that is the liturgy.

Anaphora: “a carrying on high”. Every liturgical celebration is an anaphora because it shares in the present movement of the Lord’s Ascension. More precisely, the anaphora is the central movement of the Eucharist (the “Eucharistic prayer” of the Latin liturgy) and consists of the thanksgiving, the anamnesis, the epiclesis, and the intercessions.

Doxology: simultaneously “singing of the glory” of God and “profession of the faith” of the Church. “God’s glory is man fully alive”, but “the glory of man is God” (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons). The economy of human salvation becomes doxology in the liturgy.

Economy: see Ephesians 3:9. The economy is more than simply the “history of salvation”; it is the dispensation, or wise arrangement by stages, whereby the mystery that is Christ is brought to fulfillment. From Pentecost on, the economy has become liturgy because we are in the stage of response and of the synergy (see further on) of Spirit and Church.

Energy: this word, which says more than “action” or “operation”, has to do with life-giving power; in our context it is the life-giving power of the living God and more particularly that of the Holy Spirit. When the energy of man is brought into play by the Spirit and linked to the energy of God, there is a “synergy” (see below). The liturgy is essentially a synergy of the Spirit and the Church.

Epiclesis: “calling down upon”. It is an “invocation” addressed to the Father that he would send his Spirit on the Church’s offering so that this may be changed into the Body of Christ. The epiclesis is the central moment in every sacramental anaphora; it is that which gives the Christian liturgy its new and distinct efficacy. Ordained ministers are there primarily to serve the epiclesis, for they are servants of the Spirit, who acts with power. “Epiclesis” is a very important word throughout this book. The epiclesis is the vehicle of the mightiest synergy of God and men, both in the celebration and in the living out of the liturgy.

Kenosis: see Philemon 2:7. The noun is derived from the verb “he emptied himself” or “annihilated himself” that is used in this passage. The Son remains God when he becomes incarnate, but he divests himself of his glory to the point of being “unrecognizable” (see Isaiah 53:2-3). Kenosis is the properly divine way of loving: becoming man without reservation and without calling for recognition or compelling it. Kenosis refers first to the self-emptying of the Word in the Incarnation, but this is completed in the self-emptying of the Spirit in the Church, while it also reveals the self-emptying of the living God in creation. The mystery of the Covenant stands under the sign of kenosis, for the more far-reaching the covenant, the more complete the union. Our divinization comes through the meeting of the kenosis of God with the kenosis of man; the fundamental requirement of the Gospel can therefore be stated as follows: we shall be one with Christ to the extent that we “lose” ourselves for him.

Koinonia: a word often used in the writings of Saint Paul and Saint John. It means the “communion” of the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the Father through Christ. It is a participation in the divine life. The Church is essentially a koinonia. See also agape.

Mystagogy: “action of leading into the mystery” or “action by which the mystery leads us”.

Synergy: along with epiclesis, one of the key words of this book. Literally: “joint activity”, combined energies. This classical term of the Fathers attempts to express what is novel in the union of God and man in Christ and, more specifically, what is novel in the energy of the Holy Spirit that permeates the energy of men and conforms them to Christ. The full realism of the liturgy and of our divinization has its source in this synergy. See also energy, economy, epiclesis, and kenosis.

Time: the familiar word, but transfigured by biblical revelation and liturgical experience. The economy of salvation includes several “times”: the beginning of time; the course or unfolding of time (beginning with the promise); the fullness of time (see Galatians 4:4); the last times (or “eschatological” times), which are the time of the Church and the liturgy; and, finally, the consummation or fulfillment of time (the Second Coming of the Lord). The language of the Bible also distinguishes “decisive moments” (kairoi) within the time of the economy.


A Reading Selection from “Living with the Triune God” by Eugene Peterson

October 26, 2011

The Foot of the Cross

A few paragraphs from a book review I read recently. I think it has less to do with “spiritual theology” as much as Theologia prima or the liturgy of the Church (the Catholic Church anyways) and Theologia vivendi (Theology of Catholic Life). See if you don’t like it.


So — spiritual theology, lived theology — not just studied, or discussed, or written about; not “God” as an abstraction but God in a participating relationship; not God as a truth to be argued; not God as a weapon to be wielded in the culture wars. Rather, the conviction that everything of God that is revealed to us is to be lived relationally in the dailiness of our human lives on this local ground on which we have been placed. Nothing disembodied, nothing impersonal, nothing in general.

And spiritual theology. God (theos) is the subject — not primarily me, not my potential, not how I can leverage some supernatural assistance into getting ahead, not using God as ticket to heaven, or to a better job, or to a compliant spouse, or to peace of mind. Rather, God in whose love I practice love, God in whose holiness I become more human, God by whose forgiveness and grace I become the person I am created and saved to be. Julie Canlis writes, “The purpose of this book [Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension] is to consider what koinonia (participation, communion with the triune God) might mean for us in a century fractured by individualism, reductionism, and fundamentalism, and to consider what it might signify for a comprehensive, embodied, re-personalizing Christian spirituality.”

What follows is a theologically astute, exegetically brilliant, and pastorally sensitive recovery of Calvin’s metaphor of the ladder: Jesus’ descent in the incarnation so that we can grasp and participate in his work of creation and redemption, followed by Jesus’ ascent to the Father, bringing us with him in all our humanity, living the life of Jesus completely and robustly.

The metaphor of the ladder has a long pedigree, beginning with Plato but then picked up by Greek philosophers and Christian theologians to describe the ascent of the soul to God. The metaphor continues in many contemporary secular forms: “fulfilling my potential,” “staying true to myself,” various and assorted three-step/seven-step/twelve-step programs. But Calvin’s Ladder demonstrates how Calvin radically re-imagines the metaphor. It is not about our ascent to God but our participation in Christ’s ascent. As Canlis puts it, “In one deft move Calvin has relocated ‘participation’ from between the impersonal (the soul in the divine nature) to personals (the human being in Christ, by the Spirit.”

The narrative of Jesus now becomes our narrative, or, to put it differently, our narrative gets continued in the Jesus narrative. We become more human as we live the Christian life, not less. Just as the very humanity of Jesus is the means by which he reveals his salvation to us, our humanity is the means by which we enter into communion with the persons of the Trinity.

We don’t fit Christ into our lives by fashioning programs of ascent, schemes sometimes designated “spiritual formation,” getting closer to God, making our way to heaven. Rather, we are fitted into Christ’s ascent. In him and by his Spirit we ascend to the Father. Apart from Christ we do not have an “in” with God. Calvin has only disdain for non-christological schemes of ascent: “All who, leaving Christ, attempt to rise to heaven after the manner of the giants are destitute.”

The ladder now becomes a metaphor that controls the entire Christian life. The programs and structures that we try to fashion in order to make something of ourselves turn out to look something like “playing house” compared to living in the large household of God, in which the Spirit provides the means through our presence and obedience to ascend to the Father. The Christian life in its entirety is marked by a return to God in the company of Jesus as we find ourselves included in the triune God of love.

Two features are critical in the ladder metaphor. The first is that the Christian life is relentlessly and persistently personal: words such as relational, mutual indwelling, sharing-in-being, participation, and communion collect around what George Hunsinger names koinonia-relations: “Kononia means that we are not related to God or to one another like ball bearings in a bucket, through a system of external relations.

We are, rather, something like relational fields that interpenetrate, form, and participate in each other in countless real though often elusive ways.” Nothing impersonal, nothing abstract, nothing in general; no role-playing, no posturing, no pretense, no condescension.

The second is that the Christian life is fundamentally a human life. God revealed in the flesh, Jesus, was very man, not disguised as human, not temporarily human. We do not live the Jesus life by minimizing humanity, either his or ours. We are not angels. Everything in Jesus’ life, his human life, is livable by us. In the ascent and ascension, the Spirit takes us into the humanity of Jesus, bringing us with him in all his humanity, in all our humanity, to the Father.

For all who give direction or leadership in the Christian community, Calvin’s Ladder is a superb rehearsal of what is involved in spiritual theology. In this culture, impoverished as it is in both spiritual and theological imagination, we need all the help we can get..


The Church – Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

October 14, 2011

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hid." Matthew 5:14

Judaeo-Christianity has never been overly concerned with idioms of religious experience which are exclusively rural. It has been hostile to fertility rites performed in fields at springtime. It has rejected out of hand religious preoccupations with time as a closed cycle based on the inevitable recurrence of natural seasons of growth and decay.

This reserve regarding rural idioms has suggested to some, in particular those romantics who exalt the noble savage afrolic upon the breast of Nature, that Judaeo-Christianity is a religion which stands in opposition to Nature and to World; a religion governed by a God-idea expressed in oppressive commandments against natural enjoyments at its beginning, by an alien Savior-God who pops in and out of the World at its middle, and directed by a mirthless series of hierarchs toward its end, an end administered at last by Darwin and given coup de grace by Einstein and modern Science.

This perception is mistaken. Judaeo-Christianity is not uncaring about whales and organic farming. It merely regards them as not the Problem. Judaeo-Christianity regards humanity and its City as the Problem at the center of the World. It has addressed this Problem with sustained intensity for some 4,000 years in a discourse which is all but erotically entwined with things, and with images of things, during the whole time. The discourse has been on the whole tougher and more disciplined than the average romantic has been able to detect. Jews and Christians have tended not to talk so much about the meaning of things in themselves, but rather to presume that their meaning is contained simply in their creaturely existence, to revere that existence, and then to bless their Creator for it. “Blessed be the Lord God, King of the universe, for the fruit of the vine. Blessed be he.”

But Jews and Christians start talking very much indeed when it comes to imaging things, because the act of imaging is itself a human construction with which we endow things in our necessary use of them, and the act of imaging may be for worse or better. It seems to be at this point, where a created thing is raised by us to the level of human artifact, that Jews and Christians become concerned. When grape drippings become wine, when grain becomes bread, when color and surface become icon — that is, when the human civitas makes — then the discourse heats up. When things get put into relationships with other things and with us under our agency, they become capable of freeing us or of reducing us into bondage. At this point they take on meaning which is no longer only the Creator’s but ours as well. And here is where the snake, our household pet, joins the transaction.

I am saying that a completely “natural” grasp of created things — from neutrons to suns, from cabbages to whales — is relative and illusory; that we make of things what we will; that it takes so high a discipline to keep from perverting them to our own doom that we cannot carry it on without significant help from beyond ourselves (which is about as circumlocutory a way of saying “grace” as one is apt to get).

A human artifact is necessarily to some extent sacrament, that is, an artificially induced relationship of goods which human agency freights with significance vital or fatal. Judaeo Christianity is in this perspective a religious tradition which is not only wordly and urbane but immersed in artistic discourse. This is one way of saying that the common tradition is thoroughly sacramental. It may not be altogether hostile to other forms of discourse. It just does not find them very interesting. What it does find interesting is how we keep our necessary but artificial agency in creation from doing us in.

This may be regarded as a fairly arrogant thing to say, so I should perhaps contrast sacramental discourse with another sort of artistic discourse, painting. Leonid Ouspensky has noted that according to the laws of optics the dimensions of objects decrease with distance and the lines of perspective cross each other at the horizon. Every painter knows this and uses it to suggest depth, a third dimension in only two. But the icon painter inverts this. His point of departure in perspective is not found in the illusory depth of the image which attempts to reproduce visible space, but before the image, in the spectator himself.

Referring to the seventh ecumenical council’s emphasis on the perfect correspondence between icon and holy scripture, by which the icon is regarded as calling one to the life which God’s Word reveals, Ouspensky points to an analogous inversion of things in the Gospel. There, everything is in the same inverse perspective: the first shall be last, the powerless rather than the powerful shall inherit the earth, and the humiliation of the cross is the supreme victory.

The lessons of the painter are learned from Nature. The lessons of the iconographer are learned in the City’s center, to be upended by grace and expressed by inverting perspective. Painting and icon are both artifacts, but the latter is raised to the level of high sacrament. It is a faith-made thing, the result of a supremely civil transaction with the real and done in the city center of the World changed in Christ. So too are bread and wine, oil and water. Every sacrament, being an act of faith, inverts the perspective natural to humanity’s city, putting the cross of Christ not on the distant horizon of possible human options but deep into the mind and heart of the spectator who comes close to it in faith. It kills in order that life might flow. Nothing else, in a sacramental context, is of such high interest, nothing else an option.

This suggests that I should hold three positions.

  1. First, I should hold that those who live close up to the icon of the Gospel by faith, and who are thus the focus of its inverted perspective, constitute the Church. The cross of Christ plunges into them by a conversion which they seal under God by baptism into the death of him who is by nature and vocation the World’s Good News and Anointed One, the Messiah-Christos of God. His cross embeds itself in them by grace and a faith-filled life consummated each Sunday as they banquet in thanksgiving upon his body broken and his blood poured out for the life of the world. This seems to imply that the Church as a faith-society is sacramental in its very constitution, and that it functions as a many-faceted, dynamic, and corporate sacrament in its own right. That is, it functions as a vast mystery which itself inverts perspective, projecting World out of Gospel rather than Gospel out of World.
  2. Second, I should hold that such a Church is the central workshop of the human City, a City which under grace has already begun to mutate by fits and starts into the City-of-God-in-the-making, the focal point of a World made new in Christ Jesus. It is a City whose populace is simul justus et peccator, filled with both saints and sinners, all of whom constitute the central workshop’s clientele. This is because it is not fundamentally the Church which has been redeemed in Christ but the World itself.

    A redeemed World makes its own peculiar City, a City which then stands as artifact and icon of such a World. And such a City requires that its central workshop do certain things in certain ways. The World sets the City’s agenda, an agenda which is then executed in the City’s workshop, the Church. The scope of this agenda is such that the Church must first of all be and act in a manner which is catholic, that is, Citywide and Worldwide in its nature and ends. Catholicity is a quality endowed upon Church by City and World. It is not a quality which the Church generates for itself, in its own self-interest according to criteria which are the Church’s own.

    If the Church is found to be concerned with reconciling its members, this is because the Church is servant of the reconciliation already accomplished constitutionally by Christ Jesus between his Father and this World, this human City. The Church and sectarianism are thus antithetical entities, and that the Church Catholic is one denomination among others, a sort of religious boutique in the suburbs, is an unthinkable proposition. When the Church fails at being catholic, it begins to fail at being one, holy, and apostolic as well. The Church as central workshop is crucial not merely to the wellbeing of redeemed World and City but to the very existence of both.

  3. The brunt of all this is that, third, I should hold that the work and discourse of the City’s central workshop, the Church, must be congruent with the work and discourse of City and World. This work and discourse is carried on by a vast interlocking series of transactions with reality, transactions consummated politically, socially, philosophically, and morally in continuity with what went before, so that what may occur in the future will happen for the good of the entire res publica.

    When an architect builds and a politician proposes, for example, they do so not merely in converse with themselves. They work to provide spatial and social order for people to act in. Their discourse is never asocial or value free, therefore, for all such orderings are acts of World-construction within a civil frame. To build otherwise assaults the World by violating the City’s iconic function. To secure the World by compromising the City is to secure nothing but one’s own alienation from the City, one’s own isolation in the World. The transaction can never be with one’s own creative impulse alone. It must be with nothing less than the real, both socially and universally perceived. The results of doing less are all around us in unlivable cities and in societies which endow their inmates with little more than pathological levels of anxiety and a sense of being somehow oppressed.

The Church cannot allow itself to do less instead of enough. To fulfill its obligation to the good of the entire redeemed res publica, the Church also must transact with the real — not with exclusivist urgings within its own sense of creativity, not with false cosmologies, not with dubious theologies. Its guide in the matter is primarily the Gospel perceived and received worshipfully as it stands before the living God in Christ; reverently, prayerfully, effacing itself by abnegation and candor.

To perceive and receive the Gospel this way is to perceive and receive it socially in the midst of graced believers, the saints and sinners who together are the corporate locale of Christ’s life-giving Spirit. The Church’s transactions, like those of all the City’s citizens, must be with nothing less than the real both socially and universally perceived, the social and cosmic dimensions of its work acting as effective controls upon its lapsing into self-aggrandizing solipsism. This last begins to occur precisely to the degree that the Church allows itself by pious fits to float free of World and City, becoming thereby unworldly, spiritualized, abstracted, idealized, sectarian, and gnostic.

When this happens, and to whatever degree it happens, the Church’s discourse about its work moves similarly from a worldly to an unworldly vocabulary. The discourse becomes precious, aseptic, notional. Adjectives increase as verbs and nouns decrease. The workshop relocates to suburbia and becomes no longer a civic affair but a series of cottage industries producing novelties and fads for passing elites. The workshop’s products cease to be plumbing systems which make the City work. They are rarefied into luxury items for the jaded, collectibles for the curious. As the Church withdraws to the City’s outskirts, moreover, the center of town is left in the hands of thugs and the disenfranchised. Farmers sell off their land and move into the inner city, where they are unemployable; city dwellers flee into the now vacant rures, where they do not know how to farm. The City collapses. Then the World becomes unknowable and inaccessible, a great dead corpse upon which the loathsome feed.

In such a perspective, the Church is not an option in a redeemed World any more than is the City. All three are necessities. To discourse about any one of them is to discourse simultaneously about the other two on distinct but inseparable levels. This is why Christian discourse is radically symbolic. Symbols fold in much meaning from different levels rather than exclude it. Such discourse is necessarily paradoxical and universal without falling into contradiction or illogic.

It has to say that, like Jesus, it comes to bring not peace but violence, that the incomprehensible has become knowable, that securing life requires throwing it away, that death lies behind rather than before a believer in Jesus the Christ. Poets, musicians, dancers, and artists know this sort of thing well because their craft cannot be practiced without such knowledge. That so many Christians have come to forget this is, it seems, one result of our having allowed the Church to withdraw into the suburban confines of our own minds, where it becomes our creation rather than we its creation.

Yet traditional Christian discourse has been far more rich, complex, and flat-footedly objective than any individual mind can comprehend. Its discourse is sacramental because it is symbolic, and it is this sort of discourse necessarily. I take this therefore to be utterly primary, basic, and fundamental for ecclesiology. This sacramental discourse transcends and subordinates the discourse of academic theological reflection on the Church, just as the law of worship transcends and subordinates the law of belief: lex supplicandi legem statuat credendi, [The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Church's faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles - whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition."] a civil and worldly statement if ever there was one.

It would be foolish not to recognize that placing sacramental discourse prior to, above, and in a role which subordinates theology in the modern academic sense is a difficult if not incomprehensible move for many people. We generally think of the two sorts of discourse the other way around, theology coming first and sacramental discourse very much later as a possibly implied excursus off the former.

Sacramental discourse in fact is often thought of as theological adiaphora [Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora from the Greek διάφορα "indifferent things") is a concept of Stoic philosophy that indicates things outside of moral law -- that is, actions that morality neither mandates nor forbids.] best practiced by those with a taste for banners, ceremonial, and arts and crafts. It is regarded as an academically less than disciplined swamp in which Anglican high churchmen, Orthodox bishops, and many if not all Roman Catholics and others are hopelessly mired.

A good example of this attitude is the following description in the catalogue of a certain academic institution for summer course 106, “Creative Worship”: “How to creatively use liturgy, liturgical robes, banners and stoles in both worship and church school. Discover exciting ‘tools’ for spreading the Good News!”

Besides being marginally literate, the description cannot bear much scrutiny, because the notion of Church which lies behind it seems to be that of an ecclesiastical boutique. The relationship of embroidery to the driving of a diesel locomotive seems easier to demonstrate than the connection between stoles and proclaiming the Gospel. Something here seems to have been enthusiastically trivialized. Incongruities are joined, reality warped, meaning maimed. Artifact becomes plaything, sacramentum a rubber duck.

Human language about wordly matters such as reality, life and death, City and Church, always goes “sacramental” when it gets beneath mere surface appearances. Scientists start talking about charmed quarks; Christians start talking about tombs and wombs. While the City may often seem little more than a cluster of stores and alleys, it is more than this because people live and work there, and their corporate aspirations image the City as exalted, timeless, with streets of gold and walls of precious stones, a heavenly Jerusalem. While the Church may often seem little more than an institution like all others, it has from the beginning been deemed more than that because its members are graced people. St. Paul called it a Body, a mysterious entity to which only the intimate metaphor of marriage between man and woman, that primordial human society, gives access.

In the case of City and Church, the need to image in order to know gives rise to special sorts of discourse which are more necessary than optional. The discourse thickens meaning found in reality and then increments that meaning with style. People do this sort of thing when statements of mere fact fail due to the complexity of what the statement needs to express. It is not poetry to report the fact that I love someone. It is poetry to say “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways ….” Meaning is being thickened and is about to be incremented with style. Again, it is not poetry to report that one stopped for the evening. But it is poetry to report that:

“My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.”

Another poet stops differently:

“I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
   laughing flesh is enough.”

One cannot imagine Walt Whitman stopping by cold woods or Robert Frost frolicking amid laughing flesh. Each has in his own way thickened the meaning he found in the reality of stopping at day’s end and then incremented that meaning with such exquisite style that everyone else is stunned by the reality being revealed with sharp precision, seduced into transacting more deeply with the real.

Thickening meaning and then incrementing that meaning with style is no easy task, and it does not happen by accident. It is a knowledgeable accomplishment of the highest order, moreso even than what goes on in laboratories, banks, and institutions of what is called higher learning. Writing a sonnet is at least as hard as figuring compound interest or teaching a course, which is why so few even attempt it.

Sacramental discourse is the same sort of enterprise. It is not mere garnish to a dull dish of Gospel. Sacrament is to Gospel what style is to meaning. Christian Gospel is, like reality itself, larger than any of its sacramental increments, just as redemption is larger than any one of Jesus’ own parables about it. But these increments render Gospel operational, effective, gripping, accessible. They thicken Gospel meaning and increment it with style, throwing it open for those to whom it is addressed, saying that it is like a prodigal son come home, a dinner among friends, a swim in the surf.

The Good News, which is what Gospel means, of God’s will to commune with a world reconciled to him, even to the point of pouring out his only Son into the strictures of space and time and alienated human malevolence, can never be left as a merely prosaic statement of fact anymore than Frost and Whitman could have left it at saying only that they stopped for the night. Sacramental discourse will bespeak Gospel in ways that embrace and articulate not just words but the whole wordly context in which such a pouring out occurs.

It must do this because the Gospel which sacramentum images and gives access to is just this all-encompassing. This is why sacramental discourse is primary for understanding the Church, why it transcends and subordinates theological reflection on the Church just as the law of worship transcends and subordinates the law of belief.

One cannot know the Church without having access to its paradoxical and inversionary nature, a nature no less paradoxical and inversionary than the fact of a Creator becoming creature, the Source of all becoming the child of an unmarried mother, the impassible submitting to suffering and death. And not to know the Church catholic is not to know the One who has called it into so odd an existence.

There is nothing novel in any of this. It suffuses the various theologies of the patristic period, where it is found focused in and arising from Christological concerns addressed in the first several ecumenical councils. These councils were not absorbed with maintaining a Christian platonism but a biblical incarnationalism. The sacramental principle derives from holding that God did in fact become a male of the human species in time and space by the agency of a female of the same species. This makes it inevitable that discourse about the no less human community of believers in him must also unroll in sacramental terms as well.

Christian orthodoxy has rarely if ever talked or acted in terms as exquisitely neat as Richard Niebuhr’s Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, and Christ transformer of culture. The tradition has talked and acted more in terms of a God-Man who infests human culture as inmate of it. Only thus could he be transcender, critic, and exorcist of it. He does not transform culture as such. He recreates the World not by making new things but by making all things new. He does this by divine power working upon all that is through the agency of a human nature he holds in solidarity with us. He summons all into a restored communion with his Father, not in spite of matter but through matter, even spit and dirt, thereby clarifying the true meaning of the material world itself. He summons all to his Father in time, thereby renewing both time and its spatial functions. He addresses all people not only in mind and soul but in body as well, thereby renewing the human person in his and her relation to matter, to time and space, and to the whole created world. Apart from this renewal, which is also revelation, we are left as we were — aliens in creation and congenitally alone.

The tradition has never seen the Church as having any purpose or work different from Christ’s own. The Church’s concerns have always been with the Gospel translated into act, matter, time, and space, with the various cultures the Church has touched being renovated as an inevitable result not directly striven for. Not only is there little conscious reflection on culture as such in the pre-Renaissance Church, but there is surprisingly little ex professo writing about the Church itself as distinct from World and City.

Thomas Aquinas, certainly one of the greatest theologians of the Church East or West, wrote no self-contained tract on ecclesiology. Rather, what he does say about the Church is almost wholly contained in the third part of his Summa Theologiae, which is about the sacraments. It is as though until the modern era, the Church was considered simply as the city center of a restored World, occupied with doing the business of God by faith in Christ.


A Christian in the Academe – Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

October 13, 2011

Fra Angelico THE CRUCIFIXION, 1437-46

The problem presented to me is how to express myself on Liturgical Theology while maintaining a credible objectivity according to modern standards of academic scholarship. These standards are relatively recent. To a large extent, they derive not from those in vogue until well into the Renaissance, standards which included not only truth but beauty and social congruence, but more from a concern which culminated in the elaboration of method in the natural sciences. This method requires dispassionate accuracy of observation, together with prediction of results verified by laboratory testing.

Discrete truths are attained successfully using this method and they work with a bang in boardrooms and on battlefields. They can be photographed, popularized, and purveyed by the mass media. They can also be applied technologically and commercially to satisfy mass demand for products and services, thus creating the consumer base upon which western states rest and for which other modern states yearn.

Significantly, however, natural scientific method focuses less on truth itself than on truths which are probative. Scientific truth is less metaphysical and strategic than it is pragmatic and tactical, its vocabulary increasingly the statistic — a “word” whose existence is as undoubted as its place and relevance in the whole grammar of discourse is debated.

Scientific truth is represented in a mushrooming lexicon which is as vast as its grammar is minimal. We seem to be sinking into a sea of “facts” which possess all the stunning power and incoherence of a novel by James Joyce or a play by Samuel Beckett. This makes it all the more difficult for those social agents of congruence — educational, political, religious — to accomplish their tasks and to maintain their credibility as they do so. Truth is Balkanized; a condition which in turn suggests to some that truth itself is relative. This, when combined with modern science’s avoidance of non-probative issues such as beauty and social congruence, yields a peculiar and unstable culture which ordains its high priests on condition of their being so objective in their lack of passion as to be faceless.

It is a culture in which everything works, but no one is willing to say why it ought to work; a culture which confuses truth with facts, builds machines to hold them, and then invests the machines with that numinousness which other cultures reserve for sages; a culture in which being wise means being smart about things which do not matter.

The intellectual ecology all this seems to cause is curious. It requires that a mind which lives in this ecology work at a distance from whatever the mind addresses. This is necessary in order that involvement with the object under study be avoided, lest accuracy in observation be compromised and prediction and verification collapse. Therefore anthropologists must study societies other than their own. What results is an outsider’s impression of what goes on inside an alien human group.

Tourists on a bus in Santa Fe have access through their books and guides to more facts about the rain dance they are watching through their windows than do the Indians themselves. But the tourists can never really know the dance as the dancers know it, and knowledge alone does not make tourists Indians. Yet our intellectual ecology pushes us to accept more readily the tourists’ than the Indians’ sort of knowing. Learned papers on the rain dance astonish no one more than Indians.

This is why what is done in divinity schools and seminaries is academically rather suspect, while what is done in departments of religious studies in state universities is not. Inmates of the former are Indians immersed in special pleading for facts they themselves create, predict, and verify. Their evidence on Christianity is not as dependable as that of a Tibetan Buddhist who visited one of them last year. The fact that he believes in reincarnation and prayer wheels somehow enhances his objective accuracy regarding Christian phenomena across the board.

It is patently ridiculous, and I do it myself all the time regarding my own tradition, so pervasive is the intellectual ecology in which I live and move and have my own academic being. It is why a respectable academician looks askance at Christian institutions in which tub-thumping fundamentalism is barely masked in caps and gowns. It is also why many unreligious moderns look at me and my colleagues in the same way. Perhaps all of us are not wholly in error. But it is clear that the modern demand for total, factual, and impersonal objectivity presents serious difficulties for one whose object of study is the faith in which one puts one’s trust and to which one has dedicated one’s life.

Which is to say that my colleagues and I have a problem when it comes to talking respectably about Church and World. I see three possible ways of handling this problem which may bear consideration.

  1. First, one could get out of academe. I could retire to a hermitage in southern Indiana to contemplate and pray. I do feel at times, as did Thomas Aquinas toward the end of his life (when he was my age he had already been dead six years), that academical stuff is straw compared to what one glimpses, however darkly, in contemplation. Thomas himself took this course, dying not at his desk in Paris but in an obscure little Cistercian monastery in southern Italy, where he was lecturing to its few burly inmates on the Song of Songs. Church history is full of such people. Some of them became advocates of a holy Know-Nothingism. Some of them died from sheer relief. Some of them discovered in their solitude the blinding Truth which had eluded them in worldly careers.

    One such was Evagrius of Pontus, who fled the business and fame of being archdeacon of Constantinople, where he had earned the sobriquet Destroyer of Heretical Twaddle, to become a monk in the deserts of Egypt. Here he distilled the first true synthesis of ascetical theory, a synthesis which has influenced either directly or indirectly all deep Christian spiritual writing East and West ever since.

    It entered southern France and Italy through his disciples Cassian and Palladius, where it seems to have been picked up by Benedict and made the center of his Rule for Monasteries. And without these monasteries, learning in the West might not have survived to produce the medieval universities and their Aquinases, their Luthers, their Calvins, their Cranmers, and eventually their Galileos and their Newtons. In short, the modern world. In view of all this, perhaps one should not dismiss too readily the advantages which may occasionally accrue from Christians getting out of academe. Christian asceticism, like the prospect of hanging, concentrates the mind and clears the head.

  2. A second possibility is that a Christian might stay in academe and dissimulate (vocab: conceal or disguise (one’s thoughts, feelings, or character) belief. Such people are no doubt more numerous than those who get out of academe for ascetical purpose. They remain in academe and are worn down by it. Being worn down is often imperceptible in its slowness; it usually involves a transmutation of faith into one or more surrogates such as scholarship for its own sake, ideological distractions, or some form of involvement in activist causes of a political nature. The transmutation of faith into some surrogate is often accompanied, furthermore, by symptoms typical of transitions from one mode of life to another — symptoms of release, exhilaration, and freedom, a sense of new power, and feelings of having been “reborn.” The transmutation is thus easily perceived as a conversion. And so it is, for conversion is a two-way street; whichever direction one takes produces largely the same feelings in the moving subject.

    One often encounters students who came to a seminary seeking less ordination than faith, only to discover counseling or social action as faith surrogates. One even encounters colleagues who at some point rise, as it seems, above faith only to vanish into therapy, eastern religions, another marriage, or some new ideology.

    Such folks, worn down by the unmanageable welter of modern academe, and dissimulating faith all the while in order to appear respectable, finally succumb to the lure of works which occupy but do not save. As Walker Percy says, they began by blowing their minds and end by blow-drying their hair. They leave us with neither insight nor faith, but with trivia of a certain passing interest.

  3. A third possibility is that a Christian stay in academe and insist that his or her evidence be taken seriously. This is undoubtedly more difficult to do than the second possibility. It may even be more demanding in some ways than the first. It requires a high degree of ascetical study, disciplined methodology, a cold-eyed avoidance of sentimentality, prudent formulation of conclusions, steady regard of one’s students and colleagues, and often courageous witness.

    Such work cannot stop with being highly professional. It must have vocation at its center; one must be called to it if one is to bear its stress. It is a grace one prays to receive and to sustain. What the ascetic contemplates, the Christian academic communicates. And the last may be even greater than the first since, as Aquinas points out, it is on the whole better to illuminate than to glow. Communicate, illuminate, witness. All these are active verbs which inevitably take a lot out of a person, as can be seen when one remembers that the old Christian word for witness is martyr, and that the greatest witness of all remains Jesus the Christ.

To what does a believing Christian witness in academe? Not to a Jesus of piety, I think, nor even to the Christ who can be known only by faith. These two all Christians share only with each other as colleagues in piety and faith. We do not write professional treatises on these for academic consumption for the same reason that lovers do not write white papers for each other on their love. We and they commune truly and deeply about these matters, but not in the same way professional academics do. Many things we say to each other in faith neither can nor should be said professionally in public. This is not to be secretive. It is merely to acknowledge that not everything which is felt can be said, and that not everything which can be said ought to be said in every forum, as Paul found out on the Areopagus.

To what, then, does a believing Christian witness in academe? To those modes of God’s presence which are available to professional discourse and public bespeaking, namely, to Church and World. In these, and in all that each includes, the reality of God and his Christ becomes a public issue in a society’s life and therefore falls within the realm of public discourse. Church and World are not mere adjuncts stuck arbitrarily onto God in Christ, nor are they mere signposts marking where God in Christ has passed but abides no longer.

Rather, World is the fundamental mode in which the Creator manifests himself, infesting it with himself all the while. That infestation God brought to social focus slowly but elegantly first in humankind; then in a peculiar people, Israel; and finally within Israel to personal focus in his incarnate Son. It is this personal focus which became on the first Pentecost perduringly social in a wholly new way. No longer humankind in general nor an ethnic group in particular, this new society emerged from the astonished confusion of a closed room as a new mode of God’s focused presence in the World. It was the personal and “enfleshed” presence of the crucified and risen One given corporate form. As such, Paul saw this gathering, this ecclesia, so closely identified with him whom we all crucified that he felt compelled to call it his Body. By grace, faith, and sacrament, the Church is the fullness of him who is the fullness of the Godhead bodily.

If the incarnation of the Logos was God enhumaned, the Church is God in Christ enworlded. It is with such modalities that human discourse can and must deal. Despite the objections of the hopelessly pious no less than of the hopelessly agnostic, the Un-nameable in taking on such modalities becomes nameable, and human discourse is about naming.

This may serve as a pregnant if only initial clarification of how I regard what is possible for a believing Christian who does the academic thing. My non-believing colleagues and publics have no access, short of the grace of conversion, to the God and Christ of faith, while I do. But they and I together do have access to World and Church as concrete phenomena. I am obliged to be studious, methodical, unsentimental, prudent, and learned about both. And if I fulfill this obligation adequately, I see no reason why my evidence about both should not elicit similar address of Church and World from my unbelieving colleagues and publics. They may differ with my view of the World. They may remain dubious about the society I call the church.

But neither Church nor World are objects to which only the grace of faith gives access. Like Everest, obey are there and exert causality in human affairs. Each demands our attention and can be spoken of according to standards of discourse no different from those we use concerning politics or economics, cabbages or kings. Unbelievers have no more special right to speak on politics than I have on Church. Both these things can be known if not fathomed. If known, they can be discoursed about with high discipline and definite results.


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