[The following are the program notes for First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, to be celebrated Monday, December 31 at 5:15 p.m. We hope that many of you can join us and ring in the new year with this beautiful celebration!]
Articles tagged with holiness
The concept of kingship, considered throughout history and in multiple cultural contexts, varies quite a bit. Contemporary Americans tend to equate kings with tyrannical figures wielding huge amounts of arbitrary governmental power, whether it be the power of taxation exercised unhappily by George III at the expense of the Colonies, or the power of complete policy control as brandished by the Sun King, Louis XIV (“I am the state,” “L’état, c’est moi,” was his memorable way of expressing it).
At one point in yesterday’s Oblate meeting, we discussed the difference between devotional pictures and icons. This discussion took place in a conference based on Pope Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. And so it was noted that icons and devotional pictures might share themes, and composition. Pictures might even be of icons. But icons are always liturgical. The way an icon is prepared, the fasting that an iconographer undergoes, the forty days that an icon traditional rests upon a consecrated altar, and the final blessing of the icon by an ordained priest using holy water marks this object as part of the liturgy. A reproduction of an icon, such as those that adorn our home page, are not liturgical objects in this sense, but are devotional. As such, they extend from the liturgy and should lead us back to the liturgy. Reverence for an icon is a liturgical act, pious thoughts and prayer before a devotional picture is not–though these are perfectly good, even necessary, activities when one is not able to attend the liturgy itself.
I open with this reflection to draw attention to the breadth of what we mean by the liturgy. In the previous post, I noted that I needed to say something about what the liturgy is. I’ve spent a good amount of time explaining the liturgy’s interior, spiritual reality. From this vantage point, the liturgy is the work of Christ the high priest, bringing us to the Father in the Spirit, mediating for us and by means of us, His Body, for the salvation of the whole of the cosmos.
But how does this happen, and how do we know that it is happening? The liturgy also has an exterior, incarnated reality, in that it takes place by means of certain types of persons (the baptized generally, the ordained ministers in a more specific sense), at certain times, in certain places (mainly churches, but also anywhere that the faithful gather in Christ’s name), by means of certain texts and ritual actions, and with certain instruments (bread and wine, water, oil, stone, incense, vestments, icons, crosses, candlesticks, wax, etc.).
Catholics are apt to the of the Mass when someone says, “liturgy.” And this is a good impulse, though a truncated one. The liturgy’s center is indeed the Eucharist, but to reduce the liturgy to Mass is quite problematic. The liturgy includes all of the sacraments. It also includes the whole Divine Office. This is not an obligatory part of the liturgy for the laity. However, since it is the liturgy, the Divine Office possesses an efficacy for uniting us in spirit to God that non-liturgical prayer does not have (I plan to write about how to pray the rosary in a ‘liturgical’ manner, and why this is the deeper spirit of this beautiful–almost indispensable–devotional prayer).
But…I’m still not finished listing the events that make up the liturgy. Blessings pronounced by a priest are part of the liturgy, and blessed objects retain a connection to the liturgy. So what I said above about icons falls in here. So do meals (!). Exorcisms, processions, religious professions, oblations and promises are all part of the liturgy. The marriage act itself is liturgical, since it is intrinsic to the confection of the sacrament of matrimony (this is also why same-sex marriage, whatever merits there might be to bestowing recognition on a stable partnership of love, cannot be considered Christian marriage).
So the liturgy is actually quite extensive. In the West, we have had a tendency to shorten and narrow what we mean by the liturgy, as I mentioned above. This has some problematic effects. The good news, however, is that recovering the richness of the liturgy can be a life-altering project, a real point of foundational renewal for the Church, and the basis any genuine ecumenical effort. As I mentioned in the last post, the corporal works of mercy are not therefore dispensable. They will be efficacious, I would suggest, to the extent that those ministering in this way are clearly grounded in the liturgy. The acts of healing and love, the active life, will be seen to be the work of Christ Himself and not simply that of human do-gooders. In fact, we can throw ourselves into all kinds of activities, without fear of falling into Pelagianism, if our source of energy and strength is Christ Himself, uniting us to Him and to each other in the liturgy, He “Who has made the two one.”
From this standpoint again, we have a way of understanding the Church’s traditional teaching on the centrality of the consecrated life, especially the contemplative life. Contemplatives have the duty to live the liturgical life to the fullest, to invite others to the vision of the liturgy, and to give witness to Christ’s triumph and mission of reconciliation. “A monk is he who directs his gaze towards God alone, and who, being at peace with God, becomes a source of peace,” said St. Theodore the Studite. Christ made peace by the blood of His Cross [Colossians 1: 20], that is, by the unique sacrifice which is extended and re-presented at every liturgical event. And immersion in this reality changes us into eschatological persons.
Mass is often seen merely as an obligation, and the notion that even the laity would benefit from regular attendance at yet more of the liturgy is, in my experience, often shrugged off as an inconvenience, taking them away from more pressing concerns. From the perspective that I am outlining here, I hope that it is clear that this dismissal is skewed somewhat. Yes, Mass is obligatory for a baptized Catholic, but if we knew the gift of God that is the liturgy, we would welcome opportunities to participate more frequently, as our state in life permits. We would also learn to connect all of our prayer to the liturgical celebrations, to the vocabulary, priorities, and sentiments of the “work of God.” Then all of our prayer would be transforming us into women and men of Christ, into saints. Thus it is that the liturgy is the foundation for one of the most crucial insights of Vatican II, the universal call to holiness.
Much of the exasperation with what people term “organized religion” comes from the fact that the Christian church has often given so much weight to doctrinal accuracy that the life-giving potential of worship, and faith itself, gets lost in the shuffle, made all but inaccessible to the skeptical multitudes. The poet Jonathan Holden epitomized a common attitude when he stated in The American Poetry Review that because “religious doctrine delivers us an already discovered, accepted, codified system of values–official truth,” a truth he defines as “static,” it can never attain the authenticity of a well-made work of art.–Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
I for one am grateful to profit from the great work of the saints, theologians and philosophers who have gone before me and have done so much to clarify the teachings of the Church. But I see Holden’s point here.
There is a danger to inheriting an accepted, codified system of values. We Catholics can lose our hunger for the dynamism of faith, a dynamism that is fueled by challenges, doubts and arguments. It is a gift to have to hand well-thought-out stances from the Catechism and Canon Law, but how do I know if I understand them properly? How can I be sure that I am applying them in the correct contexts?
An example I like to use is the “universal call to holiness.” This is a good, solid teaching rooted in the one baptism that all Christians share. It became obscured with the rise of a type of clericalism in the Middle Ages, along with the rise of the religious orders. Before the Second Vatican Council, it could appear that the Church had two levels of holiness, the religious and ordained ministries, and then the laity. The Council Fathers stated clearly that all members of the Church are called to holiness.
In my experience since the Council, this teaching is often misinterpreted, ironically enough, because of a lingering bias toward clericalism. “The priests had their turn to be holy [meaning occupying privileged places at the liturgy and elsewhere] and now it’s the laity’s turn.” What should have been a call to greater self-renunciation and prayer appeared paradoxically to call for greater assertiveness and personal privilege for persons who “felt called.” The universal call could even be used by religious as an excuse not to engage in holy practices, since these might reinforce the distinction between religious and laity and suggest that we still had a two-tiered structure of holiness.
What went wrong? The term and the teaching are correct, but the context in which the universal call is heard and interpreted causes a distortion. What is this context? We can describe it in many ways. Our cultural situation inclines us to atomistic individualism and its attendant focus on personal rights and equality, and our ecclesial situation, at least in the years immediately following the Council, inclined us to a “professional” understanding of the charisms, an understanding based in an overemphasis on the Church as the “Perfect Society,” and exemplified by the priest as certified dispenser of sacraments, reporting to the bishop as CEO of the diocese.
What is the correct context, then, and how do we find it, if we have to live in a culture that causes these distortions? The answer is found in the liturgy. Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. “That the law of praying established the law of believing.” Often this more exact phrase is rendered more simply, “Lex orandi lex credendi,” the law of prayer is the law of belief. In either case, we see that the “already discovered, accepted, codified system of values” should be in-formed by the practice of the liturgy, in which we conform ourselves to the high priestly prayer of Jesus Christ. This is what Kathleen Norris is after when she contrasts doctrinal accuracy with “the life-giving potential of worship.”
This also connects with what I was attempting to explain in yesterday’s post. Church teaching has not recognized same-sex marriage, and the weight of tradition is against such recognition. But how do we understand and live the truth of this teaching? As I wrote yesterday, I don’t really know, and I’m not sure that anyone is all that sure. We are in uncharted waters, and the biases of my own culture are against me [see: The first engagement with culture is at the level of thoughts]. I need a renewal of my mind and heart and I need the power of God to do this. So I must be content with my weakness.
The liturgy is the exercise of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. When we enter the liturgy, it is Christ Who is the main ‘agent’ (which is why so many discussions about ‘active participation’ are confused), and we are all participants in His action of praising the Father in the Spirit. We are caught up in a world being brought into being, a world in which the True Light enlightens our minds and hearts that we may discern what is God’s will and carry it out with courage. At the liturgy, it is alright to be weak, because there God is strong, and this becomes our default stance toward the world. Liturgy is also full of a lot of confounding rites, texts, vestments and stimuli at once disorienting and reorienting. In this space of conversion to a new orientation toward Christ in all things, we have the chance to reassess argument, to hear anew the Word instructing us. We also see and experience the persons to whom we must first submit our ideas for living a new life. The liturgy sets the bounds of the community of faith and gives us our first audience for a new understanding.
More to come.
Until this past November, I had served my entire monastic life under one bishop. We Chicagoans have been blessed with unusual stability in our leadership. The careers of Cody, Bernadin and George spanned the half century since the closing of Vatican II, and their three careers, in some ways, illustrate how the Church has gradually come to grips with the challenges issued by the Council Fathers.
Cardinal George won me over when, in his first interview with the Chicago press, he said (I paraphrase), “The faith isn’t liberal or conservative, it’s true.” And he continued to generate a wealth of penetrating insights throughout his time as Archbishop. He may best be remembered for his ‘martyrdom’ quote:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
Behind the many bon mots was someone who did not set out to be a wordsmith or copy writer. I had the pleasure of spending time with him in various contexts, usually big meetings, but occasionally just visiting, catching up on things, discussing the needs of the Church and especially religious life (it is often forgotten that he was a religious). Cardinal George was a man of deep faith, and this faith informed all of his thinking and gave it a marvelous consistency, a thoroughness that was quite rare. His sayings had solidity because they were deeply rooted in the conviction that the Faith is True. There were few ‘loose ends’ to the weave of his wide ranging thoughts. His homilies were frequently short, diving directly into the heart of the matter, connecting the gospel and current events. At the annual Archdiocesan meetings with religious leadership, he always set aside the last ninety minutes for a free-form question and answer period. He was not afraid of tough questions and in this forum at least, he never gave the ‘political’ answer (he learned from hard experience that this dodginess was unfortunately needed when dealing with a hostile media). He was amazingly well informed and prepared. Almost no questions took him by surprise. There was again no fear or defensiveness in this preparation: he paid attention to developments at all levels of the Church because he cared about her members.
This is the aspect of his life that will almost certainly arise in the media coverage and the reminiscences that we will be able to read in the coming days. He was a genuine pastor, who laid down his life for his sheep in imitation of the Lord Whom he served. He made a point of reaching out to our community when we went through some difficult times. He agreed to celebrate Mass here when I was installed as Prior three years ago, and he gave a fantastic homily in which he used the readings and the Rule of Saint Benedict to connect the monastic life and evangelization (when did he have time to read through the Rule in preparation?). One of my favorite memories of him came about quite accidentally. We happened to be in an elevator together leaving some kind of fund raising event. Thinking like the introvert that I am, I asked him if he ever got worn down by having to visit with big groups of people. “No,” he said thoughtfully, “I love being with the people. It’s the two hours of paperwork I have to finish before going to bed that tires me out.” This was at about ten at night.
Time and again, though, I saw the truth in his claim that he loved to be with the people. This was especially impressive because standing for long periods of time could be painful for him, and one rarely saw evidence of this as he smiled and asked questions. He frequently made a point of thanking others for their service to the Church, however humble that service might appear. And he was genuine in this gratitude.
A final part of his legacy that has received a bit more attention of late is his love of the liturgy, and the steps he took to make sure that the style of celebration was congruent with the realities celebrated. In this, our community felt very close to him. Our founders spent several years in the missions, during which time they recognized the necessity of a well-celebrated liturgy to the goal of evangelization. Had he had a similar experience in his years as a missionary? However it came about, one of his first big decisions upon arriving back in Chicago was to found the Liturgical Institute. He was also instrumental in seeing through the new English translation of the Roman Missal. He was criticized for making his preferences known to individual priests, but this is part of the job description of a bishop–he is the high priest of the diocese, and the presbyters are merely his assistants, authorized to celebrate the sacraments in his absence. His own presidential style was consistent with his character: reverent, understated, but confident. This confidence derived not from his famous intellectual gifts, but from the conviction that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that He loved us and gave His life for us, and continues to transform our lives and be with us through the sacraments.
May our God be praised for the gift of the Cardinal’s time with us, for his many sacrifices on our behalf, and for always raising up shepherds for His Church! And may our departed shepherd enter into the joy of his loving Master.