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Praying the liturgy

30 November, 2012

Cyprian Love OSB traces developments in the Church’s understanding of the role of liturgy in the life of the faithful.

Cyprian Love OSB traces developments in the Church’s understanding of the role of liturgy in the life of the faithful. In particular he observes the emergence in the 20th century of the conception of Christ, in the depth of his saving action, being made mysteriously present in liturgy.

By the term ‘prayer’ most of us would first understand a kind of mental activity in which my interiority somehow reaches out towards God. This view of prayer is certainly true. It represents the central aspect of the encounter known as prayer.

However it is only true as far as it goes. If we restrict our understanding of prayer to this model, it will be easy to accept that there is a mental, interior ‘I’ who prays, and a supernatural Divine Mind to whom I pray, but difficult to see what role any intervening factor – such as liturgical ritual and symbolism – could possess in the context of this relationship. Might not externals simply distract me in my supposedly privileged state of interior withdrawal with God, distract me from the true dynamics of prayer, which I have represented to myself as something exclusively mental, spiritual and immaterial?

Union of interiority and outward ritual
As Catholics, presumably we do not believe liturgy distracts us from prayer in this way. The Catholic tradition likes to see spiritual realities set forth through symbolic forms and rituals. Yet Catholics still need to be able to bring together the interiority of the mind and the exteriority of liturgy, and to be at peace with the mysterious union, indeed, pray the union. Praying the liturgy means praying a union of interiority and outward ritual. Otherwise we are only praying at the liturgy.

Surprising as it may sound, for a long period Catholic tradition did not attach any value to praying in union with liturgy. In his Treatise on the Divine Office and its Connection with Mental Prayer (1686), the seventeenth-century theologian Louis Thomassin seeks to clarify the relationship between liturgy and prayer. It is evident from the way he approaches the subject that for him praying a union was not a recommended way of praying at the liturgy, at least as far as the laity were concerned. As he puts it, liturgy need not impede their prayer, since there are plenty of silences in the liturgy in which they can pray. (1) Thomassin also notes with relief that most of the laity are fortunately not prevented from prayer even during the spoken part of the liturgy because, not understanding the meaning of the Latin, the words of the liturgy do not distract them. (2)

However, for Thomassin prayer and liturgy are not disconnected. For him, liturgy derives its spiritual value and excellence, not from its intrinsic nature, but from these prayers which people say while it is going on, creating liturgy’s essential ‘connection with pure mental prayer’. (3) Despite this connection, it is clear that, for him, praying in conscious union with the liturgy plays no part. A person prays privately at the liturgy.

Liturgy as prayer of the Church
Similar ideas lingered until Vatican II. Liturgist Louis Bouyer, publishing in 1956, only a few years before that Council, drew attention to the fact that liturgical handbooks at the time he was writing typically regarded liturgy as no more than the official form of the external worship of the Church. (4)

This of course is simply another inflection of idea of the separation of personal prayer from liturgy. Just such a separation will be verified from memory by many Catholics who remember the time before the Council, when private devotions preoccupied lay people during Mass. Although in the 1950s people were doubtless praying at or in the liturgy, they could not generally be said to have been praying the liturgy or in union with the liturgy. For them, liturgy was a public act and external formality to be performed by the priest and into which some prayers might nevertheless be fitted. Bouyer points out that that, if such a theory of liturgy as exclusively official and external worship were true, then we should not expect to find in the liturgy any training in prayer, nor would the liturgy even be prayer in the proper sense. (5) Therefore Bouyer proposes a more acceptable definition of the liturgy. He calls liturgy the ‘system of prayers and rites traditionally canonized by the Church as her own prayer and worship.’ (6)

Active participation
The Liturgical Movement of the 1950s, and subsequently Vatican II, reacted officially against the retrograde idea that prayer was something people did on their own while the Mass went on its way. In the documents of Vatican II we read that the Church ‘earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy’. (7)

The phrase ‘active participation’ here in the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy encapsulates the theme of praying the liturgy and needs close attention. Even if it has often been understood in practice more narrowly in terms of vocal responses, it meant, for the Council fathers, primarily prayer. (8) This recovery of a sense of active, participative prayer in union with the liturgy reflected work initiated from the start of the twentieth century by a number of theologians concerned to get back behind the seventeenth century and its influence. They included such men as Lambert Beauduin, Maurice Blondel, Odo Casel, Romano Guardini, Louis Bouyer and Henri de Lubac. For these men not only was praying the liturgy a core value, but another core value was a sense of liturgy as a mystery communicated to us by God. One might speak therefore of the phrase ‘active participation,’ understood by the liturgical revival and the Council, as meaning active prayed participation, but also participation receptive to mystery, a kind of ‘intensely active receptivity: the receiving and giving of the self in prayer’. (9)

Moreover, the wider reason why liturgical prayer is participative is that liturgy is Christ’s prayer, and we are participating in union with the prayer of Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. There is a mystery whereby Christ prays in us, offers himself to the Father at our hands in the Mass, and, therefore, he too prays the liturgy. Everything we pray there we pray ‘through him, with him and in him.’ It is in fact Christ’s eternal self-offering on our altar which invests our liturgical prayer with meaning, whether we are speaking of the Mass itself, or of all the other liturgies which exist solely in view of the Mass.

Praying the liturgy with Christ
At the start I mentioned trying to integrate the inner dimension of prayer with the outer dimension of liturgy. The inside/outside connection is just this united prayer: Christ praying to the Father through the outward rite, we inwardly joining with him in conscious involvement, he and we praying the liturgy together. He prays in us and we pray in him. Here outside and inside are one, in the one prayer. Liturgy is Christ’s priestly prayer which he shares out to us as his Mystical Body. The Church is Christ’s Mystical Body and not simply a social body concerned with or open to mysticism. As the Church, we are in liturgical union with Christ not just open to him. For St Augustine we, as the Church, are alter Christus, another Christ, or better, Christ in his otherness.

For hundreds of years, really up to about the 1930s, this sense of us and Christ as one mystical, liturgical Body was submerged. (10) This partly explains the pre-Vatican II idea of liturgy as radically external to us, a place where the laity pray as before a spectacle. The mystical bond between outer and inner was forgotten.

The view that liturgy is radically external to us Bouyer characterises as a liturgical distortion typical of the seventeenth century. (11) It is largely from inheriting this type of distortion as part of our cultural furniture that we, as Western Europeans, retain a residual prejudice against the external expressions of personal prayer and tend to dwell on its mental aspect. Somewhere deep inside us we still suspect that liturgy cannot be fully integrated with our personal prayer, that there cannot be a unity of self and liturgy.

Enter Descartes
A foray such as the present one into the attic of liturgical ideas and practices is, therefore, a beneficial exercise for our self-understanding, to identify the retrograde ideas which can linger unconsciously. The exaggeration of the distinction between the mental and the external which influenced conceptions of liturgy in seventeenth-century Catholicism, drew heavily on the philosophy of Descartes, for whom the reality of the human person was essentially mind, and the external or extra-mental largely dissociated from the person. Descartes was the originator of the influential maxim ‘I think therefore I am.’ Descartes considered this dictum ‘can be used to “establish that this I which is thinking is an immaterial substance with no bodily element”.’ (12) Elsewhere Descartes writes:

Indeed, I do not know whether I have a body … it is possible to doubt it … Yet … this will not prevent me from being certain that I exist. (13)

Here we see the philosophical foundations of a severance between mind (res cogitans) on the one hand, considered as the self-sufficient manifestation of the existence of the human person, and body together with the external world (res extensa), on the other hand, marginal and peripheral to human identity. For Descartes, mentality defines the person; materiality is peripheral.

Mental/material dichotomy
When this dichotomy was translated into the context of Christian worship, naturally the prayer of the person became confirmed as exclusively mental. Liturgy, being material, was confirmed in a function peripheral to the prayer of the person. As external, liturgy cannot really be part of my prayer life or part of me.

This is the position we heard resonating in Thomassin’s work of 1686, not many years after Descartes’s Discourse on Method appeared in 1637, and his Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641. Thomassin was well versed in Descartes, though admiring Augustine above all, (14) and the plot thickens when we discover that he was a near contemporary at the French Oratory of Nicholas Malbranche who attempted a famous synthesis of Augustine and Descartes. (15) Liturgical theology was making its own the distinction of res cogitans and res extensa.

If we sometimes find ourselves surprised by misgivings at the idea of praying the liturgy, rather than embracing this idea effortlessly, we are the victims of this mind/body dualism. From the seventeenth century to the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theology and spirituality were steeped in influences from Descartes, influences which may still have hidden power over us. This is why the phrase ‘praying the liturgy’ may still appear to some extent as a problem, a paradox or an oxymoron.

Overcoming dualism
Everything in Christianity cries out against an understanding of the human person as pure mentality, the intuitionism of Descartes’s ‘I think therefore I am’. The Incarnation, the Word-made-Flesh, affirms the status of the body to a pre-eminent degree as intrinsic to personhood and integral with the work of grace and revelation. Yet Descartes’s philosophy became pseudo-natural in Western culture for hundreds of years, overleaping the boundaries of the academy to affect popular consciousness and the outlook of many theologians. Nowadays, upholders of Descartes’s view of the person are increasingly on the defensive. Contemporary thinkers more often see that we are actually dependent on what is outside our minds precisely for our self-understanding. This absolutely reverses Descartes’s position. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes this transformed perspective which repudiates Descartes’s outlook. He writes:

[M]an understands himself … by interpreting the signs of his humanity hidden in literatures and cultures [and this] calls for … a transformation of the concept of subject … [T]he subject … takes the roundabout route via the world of signs (and images) in order to understand himself. (16)

According to this new model, my sense of self ceases to be drawn wholly from a state of introspection, as in Descartes, and becomes, in a sense, circular. I go out of myself into the world in order to take this world back into myself and understand myself more fully. I thus owe my awareness of identity not to unimpeded introspection, immediate self-reflection, as Descartes said, but to a retrieval of myself in a detour through – for Ricoeur – external symbol, myth, culture, narrative. I am not my own subjective project, but, rather, am mediated to myself by the world which surrounds me.

Bringing thought and world together
In life, then, we discover our self-hood as situated beings nested in culture. The Church also understands our spiritual life, in a parallel way, as mediated to us and fed by liturgical symbols and rituals, rather than as feeding solely off our own inner life. Perhaps it is possible to think of this human nestedness in life and liturgy rather as a process of mental breathing in and breathing out. Just as my body breathes in and out, so my awareness of self is a dialectic in which I am conscious both of my inner thought processes and also of the world outside me, in an ineffably subtle and fluctuating interaction. Reality for me is both inside and outside. I do not have to confuse myself with wondering whether I am defined by my thoughts as Descartes said, or by the things which impact upon me from outside. This is like asking whether I breathe in or breathe out. I do both. And just as I must breathe in and breathe out, these two spheres, thought and world, rock to and fro and interact flexibly in my experience: therefore I am.

Just as in my ordinary natural existence I am mediated to myself in this way through culture and symbol – as Ricoeur would say – I need also, as a creature of grace, to embrace this circular movement of self moving out into liturgy, and liturgy being taken back into self. Liturgy is the cultural environment of the Christian just as natural cultures, myths, narratives, symbols are the natural environment of all human beings. I should aim to live with liturgy in the best sense effortlessly, and allow it to assume its role as a natural medium for much of my prayer. I need this detour though rite and symbol for a normal Christian existence. I cannot understand myself transparently as pure mind in self-present autonomy as Descartes liked to think, but my very being is constituted in this mental movement in and out of the world, in and out of liturgy.

Turning to the Fathers of the Church
I mentioned above the names of six twentieth-century theologians responsible for making available the insights which led to the teachings of Vatican II on praying the liturgy. The method adopted by these men shared a major feature, a belief that the great saints and theologians of the first thousand years of the Church were a privileged source of insights concerning how the liturgy should be renewed. Such recourse to the Fathers of the Church as a theological source is founded upon the fact that they lived at the period when the Church was comparatively undivided. Indeed, Yves Congar is content to refer to the ‘undivided Church’ (17) of the early centuries and says this era ‘is the point of reference for the changes to which the churches are called, second only to Holy Scripture.’ (18)

Christians then widely and implicitly acknowledged the validity of the beliefs and ritual expressions of other Christians. This acknowledgement was expressed in the largely uninterrupted eucharistic communion which was a feature of this period, in Congar’s words, an ‘organic, sacramental or mystical unity of the body of Christ.’ (19) This entailed that, at a social level, exchanges between theologians across the whole Church were more open and fruitful than they were to become after the Church’s major divisions between West and East in the Middle Ages, and at the Reformation. In this sense the patristic Church was more fully one, and breathing in harmony.

After the East-West schism, and later, the Reformation confrontation, it became more and more the case that on all sides the views of the opposing camp dictated the standpoint from which theological positions were polemically consolidated. Without idealising the unity of the patristic age, there was a greater sense of communion, or koinonia. Theology for the Fathers was somehow less confrontational, more balanced and exploratory than what came later, although, regarding the degree to which this is true, there exists room for interpretation. Exploration is the primary function of theology, whereas confrontation is a special function imposed by special circumstances and likely to engender hastily conceived, rigid attitudes. The liturgical thought of the patristic era reflects this primary exploratory trajectory of theology more richly than later, more confrontational styles.

Affirmation of medieval model at Trent
By contrast, historic strife and confrontation lay close to the heart of the theology underlying Thomassin’s seventeenth-century liturgy where, as we saw, the laity no longer prayed the liturgy participatively, but were restricted to praying at the liturgy. Confrontation, because Thomassin’s liturgy would not in fact have existed at all but for the sixteenth-century Council of Trent in its battle with the Protestant Reformation. It is true that, in the West, well before the Reformation, indeed since the ninth century, restricted participation by the laity had already become a feature of most of the many divergent liturgies. However, apart from the Reformation schism, this unsound medieval concept of liturgy, radically divided between priest and people, might arguably have been discarded before long, as quietly as it arose. The death of this unsatisfactory medieval liturgy might perhaps have been hastened, if the Roman authorities had discerned and conciliated at an early stage, before the schism, certain valid elements within the Reformers’ position, such as insistence on the vernacular and lay participation.

Instead, Trent, acting in desperation to oppose the Reformers after they broke with Rome, injected new life into the corrupt medieval liturgical style. Trent developed it further to become the new liturgy of 1570 and enacted it into universal legislation at the highest level with a flourish of trumpets. Thus a dubious style of liturgy was given a new lease of life to meet the needs of Catholic ideology within the Reformation context, and so it remained until Vatican II. As Trent remodelled it confrontationally in 1570, this liturgical style functioned as much as an anti-Protestant liturgy as a Catholic one, for it was well adapted to emphasising not what in the Catholic faith was of the greatest intrinsic importance, but what in the Catholic faith was being attacked.

For the Reformers, ‘[t]he ministerial priesthood … was a mere invention of power-seeking men.’ (20) Accordingly, the Council of Trent’s new liturgy had power to emphasise the importance of the clergy over the laity. The Protestants also claimed that the priesthood of the laity was the only true priesthood and thus arose the Protestant idea of increased active liturgical participation by the laity. (21) This, of course, implied an attack on the whole hierarchical organisation of the Catholic Church, with the threat of a certain subversion of the laity’s subordinate position as then perceived. In countering this threat, the Catholic Church was able to use the same restrictive liturgical precedent to reinforce the suppression of lay participation in the liturgical rites. Officially now, throughout the whole Roman Catholic Church, from the time of Trent’s 1570 liturgy, the laity were no longer people who prayed the liturgy, but merely in or at the liturgy. Later, this tottering conception of liturgy was shored up by Descartes’s retrograde philosophy of the person, as we saw.

There is no way in which such a culturally constrained form of liturgy, encoded with silent polemic and truncated humanity, could be a permanent basis for the Church’s worship. The twentieth-century liturgical revival saw that we needed to get back behind the Reformation and Descartes, and indeed the Middle Ages, in order retrieve a balanced rite.

Patristic theologians represent a rich source of balanced wisdom for us, and, to return to our main subject, were the basis for liturgical renewal as promoted by Beauduin, Blondel, Casel, Guardini, Bouyer and de Lubac. Although there is no space here to show how these man drew on the theology of the Fathers, it is essential to understand that they regarded themselves as returning to these early sources rather than inventing new theories of the liturgy.

Mysterium tremendum
Odo Casel, a Benedictine monk of Maria Laach, is particularly worthy of mention for imparting new dynamism to liturgy with his retrieval of the centrality of the idea of mystery in worship. For Casel, the past saving events are actually made present in liturgy, though without repetition. Liturgy transcends time, and the believer, rather than simply receiving the grace of Christ, actually meets Christ in the depth of his saving activity in every liturgy. (22)

A striking idea of Casel’s own gives the flavour of his vision. Speaking of the eucharistic real presence of Christ, Casel says that ‘this presence, called “real” is so called not by an exclusive title, as if other presences were not real, but in virtue of its excellence as a substantial presence …’ (23) In Casel’s thinking, liturgy is in fact a whole kaleidoscope of sacred real presences of ‘different intensities.’ (24) Casel wrote:

The inner kernel around which the generations of liturgical history have revolved, seems to be found in the mysterium, that is to say in the recognition that the Christian liturgy is the ritual carrying-out of Christ’s redemptive work in the Church and through the Church, in other words, that it is the presence of the divine redemptive act under the veil of symbols. (25)

This idea caused a considerable stir in the Church of the 1920s. Casel was countering the received view of the time that most of the liturgy is purely a recalling of, or a celebration of, God’s past deeds in history, or a setting forth of saving events in heaven. For Casel, the liturgy is Christ’s action here in the present: he could say with St Ambrose, ‘I find you in your mysteries’. Thus, for example, at the Easter Vigil, Casel would say that the Resurrection is not merely commemorated as a historical event, or a heavenly event, but made fully present in the liturgy, albeit without repetition. Casel in fact seems to be adopting a highly literal interpretation of ‘When two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.’ Liturgy does not simply recall or celebrate the mystery: it makes it present. (26)

Casel’s idea of liturgical ‘mystery presence’ echoes in paragraph 2 of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which asserts that ‘the liturgy … is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.’ (27)

This treatment of Casel brings me finally to address the question suggested initially by the title of the paper, in which I have sought to provide a definition of praying the liturgy, or in union with it, the ‘active participation’ (participatio actuosa) of which the Council speaks, and to give this definition a historical/cultural context. I would define it as active receptivity to – following Casel – the presencing of the mystery.

REFERENCES
1. See Louis Bouyer, Life and Liturgy, 1956, London: Sheed and Ward, p. 3.

2. See ibid.

3. See ‘Thomassin, Louis.’ In Dictionnaire de la Theologie Catholique, vol 15 (part 1), 1946, Paris: Letouzey et Ane, p. 818 Citation from H. Bremond, Metaphysique des saints, t. vii, p. 386.

4.. See Bouyer, Life and Liturgy, p. 3.

5. See ibid, p. 1.

6. Ibid.

7. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, In The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II, Boston: St Paul, para 14, p. 21.

8. See Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp. 171-177.

9. Stratford Caldecott, ‘The Heart’s Language: Toward a Liturgical Anthropology.’ Antiphon 6, no. 2 (2001): 27-34; p. 28.

10. See Adrian Hastings, ‘Body.’ In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, Hugh Pyper, with Ingrid Lawrie, Cecily Bennett (eds.), 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 77. Major names in the revival of mystical body theology are Johann Möhler, Henry Manning (both nineteenth century); Émile Mersch (Mystical Body of Christ, 1933); A. G. Hebert; Gregory Dix; Lionel Thornton; Eric Mascall; Pius XII (Mystici Corporis); Henri de Lubac (Corpus Mysticum, 1944). See ibid.

11. Bouyer, Life and Liturgy, pp. 1-9.

12. Peter Markie, ‘The Cogito and its Importance.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, John Cottingham (ed.), 1992, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, p. 142.

13. From René Descartes, The Search for Truth by Means of the Natural Light (1701). Cited in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol 2, John Cottingham, Dugald Murdoch, Robert Stoothoff (eds.), 1985, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 412.

14. See ‘Thomassin, Louis,’ p. 787.

15 See Tad M. Schmaltz, ‘Descartes and Cartesianism.’ Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Hastings, Mason, Pyper, with Lawrie, Bennett (eds.), p. 161.

16. Paul Ricoeur, ‘Man and the Foundation of Humanism.’ In Main Trends in Philosophy (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1979), p. 369. Cited in Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: from Husserl to Lyotard, 1991, London: Harper Collins, p. 180.

17. Yves Congar, Diversity and Communion, 1984, London: SCM Press, p. 21.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Clifford Howell, ‘From Trent to Vatican II.’ In The Study of Liturgy, Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold (eds.), 1978, London: SPCK, p. 243.

21. See ibid.

22. See J. D. Crichton, ‘A Theology of Worship.’ In Ibid, Jones, Wainwright, Yarnold (eds), pp. 15-16.

23. See Burkhard Neunhauser, ‘Preface.’ In Odo Casel, Le Mystère du Culte dans le Christianisme, 1983, Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, p. xxiii.

24. Ibid.

25. Odo Casel, Jahrbuch für Liturgiewissenschaft 8 (1928): 145. Cited in Burkhard Neunheuser, ‘Mystery Presence.’ Worship 34, no. 3 (1960): 120-127; pp. 122-123.

26. Burkhard Neunhauser wrote: ‘This presence is, according to Casel, the presence of the historic, non-recurring saving action (oikonomia); not of some eternal, extra-temporal salvific will, nor of an event in heaven; yet, a presence, of course, whose mode is sacramental and non-historic, not for example a repetition of the past event.’ Burkhard Neuenhauser, ‘The Mystery Presence: Dom Odo Casel and the Latest Research.’ Downside Review 76, no. 245 (Summer 1958): 266-273; p. 266.

27. ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,’ para 2, p. 15.


Cyprian Love OSB is a monk of Glenstal Abbey. This article is based on the text of an address he gave at the Easter Retreat, 2002. It is reprinted here from Doctrine & Life (Nov. 2002), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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