In a recent post, I suggested that we can learn how to pray by listening attentively to the prayers of the liturgy. I used the example of the long, and quite beautiful closing prayer of the Major Rogation. The idea of learning prayer from the liturgy is not at all new; I’m stealing it from the Church Fathers. It’s just their thinking can be remote from us. There has been a linguistic drift over the centuries, and traditional words have slowly taken on slightly different meanings, making it more difficult to understand traditional teachings.
Let me give an example. Many Catholics have heard the phrase ‘lex orandi lex credendi‘, which means ‘the law of worship is the law of belief’. This fifth-century saying hold that we believe what we believe because we celebrate the liturgy in the way we do. This seems to suggest that changes in the liturgy should be approached with extreme caution. More than that, to reorient the liturgy based on the latest ideas in theology is precisely to put the cart before the horse, to found the law of worship on the law of belief.
When someone tries to clarify what we believe, that person is doing theology. Theology is one word that I’d like to focus a bit more on, since its meaning has drifted quite a bit. Another famous saying from the ancient church comes from the great monk Evagrius of Pontus. “He who prays is a theologian.” In the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar gave renewed expression to this idea by urging that theology be done ‘on one’s knees’. I am grateful that von Balthasar (who was a scholar of Evagrius, among many other subjects), brought back the notion that perhaps theology is best practiced in the milieu of prayer rather than in the academy. Nevertheless, he misses an important part, I think. Really to pray requires that we have clear ideas of the God Whom we address (especially as we get older and face challenges to our faith; the prayer of a child can be very lovely and theological astute, as children tend to trust naturally, but as we age, we need to learn to pray as adults). From where comes these clear ideas? From the liturgy, Lex orandi lex credendi.
The decline of the liturgy in the West I would place in parallel to the rise of the philosophical ideas of voluntarist nominalism. I won’t try to demonstrate that here, since I’d like to wrap up for now. But one of the great insights of Laszlo Dobszay, the recently deceased dean of musical liturgists, makes this more plausible. Most people date the decline of liturgical observance to the reforms that followed Vatican II. Dobszay claims something else quite startling: that the reforms of Trent were already driven by a kind of expedience, by a centralized bureaucratic mindset that sensibly prevailed in the halls of the Roman curia, but was somewhat tone-deaf to the rich, local traditions that had been the warp and woof of liturgy since the Early Church. Thus the liturgy, as traditionally practiced, was already ceasing to make clear sense, even to sixteenth-century bishops. And this is, I would argue, because they were all formed, to a large extent, by the university system of the day, one that stressed voluntarism at the expense of a more integrated Thomism. I have to ask you to trust me on this one for now, and obviously I’ve got a bunch more posting to do to fill in the blanks.
My main point in this last paragraph is this: when we think of the decline of belief that has correlated with confusion in the liturgy since Vatican II, those who think that we’ve gone the wrong direction tend to look back to Trent for guidance. What if the Tridentine Fathers (affected by more than two centuries of nominalism) were already suffering from a slightly problematic understanding of the relationship between theology, prayer and liturgy? What if we need to return, not to 1950, but to 1150? Or 650? Obviously Benedictines will have a certain preference for the latter two years. Something to think about.
God’s blessings to you!