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Catholic Liturgy and the Language of Worship

20 Oct 2003
Paul Mankowski, S.J.

I remember being taken, as a child of three years, to the local parish church during the Holy Week Triduum, and being deeply moved in seeing that the crucifix above the altar and the other images of the saints were covered in dark cloth. I recall the feeling of loss and of a peculiarly sombre emptiness which the veiling provoked: something important, and benevolent, was gone.

I remember too that, at the same age, I was fascinated by my father’s 1949 Nash-Rambler, interested in what made it go. At one point I opened a large red can in our garage and sniffed the fluid inside. The fumes stung my nostrils, and I deduced from the burning sensation in my nose that the motive power in gasoline was nothing other than this capacity to sting. The engine under the hood mysteriously extracted the vital essence, the sting factor, from the fuel, and that made the car move.

As I grew older I learned how an internal combustion engine really works, and my earlier imaginings were recognised for what they were - wrong guesses - and discarded. Once my error was exposed, the infantile picture simply disappeared without remainder. It had no further effect on my thinking or on my attitude toward piston engines.

I also came to learn my catechism in time, and found out the reason for the veiling of the crucifix and statues during the triduum. And yet it isn’t true to say that later understanding obliterated the work of my childish imagination here. Although my early apprehension of the veiling was ‘pre-discursive’, catechetical knowledge only confirmed and deepened what I had already grasped before I had words to express it. There was nothing I need to let go, nothing I believed that I had to cease believing. When I heard the account of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, deposition, and burial, I didn’t need to be ‘coached’ into the proper emotional responses, for these were already in place long before I understood what I was responding to. Much later, when I encountered the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who erected a comprehensive Theology of Holt Saturday with the empty tabernacle as its keystone. I recognised in his insights a consummation or union of discursive reason, intelligibility, with much deeper promptings that were as old as my oldest memories. The fact of the matter is that the Church taught me about God before I was teachable.

What I wish to propose this afternoon is that the difference between these two naive and juvenile experiences points to something more than a lucky guess in one instance and a bad guess in another.

The Catholic faithful are rightly urged to deepen their capacity for sentire cum ecclesia - an expression which means both ‘to think with the Church’, to believe what she teaches, to take her side in dispute, but also to respond as the Church responds, to love and mourn what the Church loves and mourns, to have as our own the heart of the Church as well as her mind. Our worship of God is, or should be, the pre-eminent occasion of sentire cum ecclesia, when our human faculties are engaged in such a way that intellect, will and emotion are not at war with each other but make a single, simple gesture of adoration.

The Church’s liturgical worship is the school of ortho-pathy. I use this pedantry by way of contrast to ortho-doxy, i.e., having the right opinions. By ‘ortho-pathy’ I mean the right responses, even the right receptivity. The liturgy teaches us about God not (primarily) as a catechist does, by drilling us in true propositions, but rather by inviting us to react as the Church reacts to Calvary, to respond as the Church responds to Easter, to be receptive to Isaiah, or to St. Luke, the way the Church is receptive to them.

I am not arguing, nor do I believe, that right feelings must precede right doctrine or that liturgy is a kind of kindergarten for dinning in the former. It doesn’t always work like that. Most of us had a sound doctrinal grasp of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ long before we possessed the emotional equipment in virtue of which it becomes important. By the same token, perhaps a simple phrase in the Eucharistic Prayer, which we have heard and understood perfectly well for twenty or thirty years, may go off inside us like a forgotten landmine, at a time we least expect it, filling us with a radiance of profound spiritual satisfaction. Not all worshippers are taught the same lessons in the same order. A second grader might be given an orthopathic grasp of the lavabo, the priest’s ceremonial washing of hands, which eludes the systematic theologian for much of his life.

Moreover, what St. Gregory the Great said about the monastic Rule of St. Benedict is even truer of the Liturgy, that ‘lambs can wade in it and elephants can swin in it’ : that is, beginners in the Christian life are never drowned, but can participate in the Church’s worship with total confidence that the authentic teaching of Christ is the flooring beneath the entire enterprise; while the very greatest theologians and mystics can sport in the liturgy, throwing themselves into it entirely, and never touch bottom, never plumb the full depths of the mysteries it contains.

The linchpin of orthopathy is the nature of Christian worship itself. Our worship is God’s initiative. He prepares us to receive him, much like the gardener tends the soil. When we worship with the Church we are prepared to make us receptive, so that we can accept what God wants to give us, and yield the right fruit in due season. And here it is worth remembering that the ‘audience’ of the liturgy, the one to whom it is addressed, is pre-eminently God the Father and only secondarily the members of the assembly. This is plain from the structure of the liturgy itself and from the vocative reference of individual prayers that make it up. Hence the prime purpose of liturgical language is not ‘communication of information’ to the assembly; rather, liturgical offering should be ‘a pleasing offering’ to God ritually lifted up from the midst of the worshippers.

In principle, there is no aspect of our experience of worship that does not, or cannot, have some meaning pertinent to life in Christ. The architecture of our place of worship, the music that accompanies the liturgy, the shape and colour of priestly vesture, the progress of the eucharistic action, and of course the words spoken by the celebrant and the people can all contribute to the act of worship. Most elements of worship are the way they are for a reason; most ‘do their work’ even when, as in the case of children, the reason is not explicitly known. And they should be left to do their work. The overwhelming majority of celebrants must strive for this and not adapt, not depart from the text or the rubrics. C.S. Lewis once wrote of Christian liturgy that even if the celebrant’s vestments are not heavy, they should look heavy. That is, they should make it clear to the worshipers that his part in the service is not an extension of his own personality but is a munus, a responsibility laid on his shoulders the way a chain-of-office was laid around the shoulders of a mayor. The priest as celebrant should appear obedient to the Lord’s eucharistic command, ‘Do this’ in vitue of which he is the presider. To disturb the form of the ritual is to disturb the worshipers who cannot perform two tasks at once: either they are worshipping or they are being distracted by adaptations, by pointless innovations in the rubrics, chatty intros of the readings, the tendentious alteration of collects or eucharistic prayers, and, unless one is especially blessed, the music. Some find this exhausting.

A friend who attends a fairly middle-of-the-road church told me recently: ‘It would be great if parish liturgy were done as it should be, but the fact is that it’s not. And for my own spiritual health I just can’t keep going to mass every time with my dukes up’. Point taken. How can we speak of cultivating right receptivity when one is forced to choose between ‘going with the flow’, which means complicity in silliness, or fighting against the current, which excludes receptivity to court? It would seem that the model of the Church’s worship as a school of orthopathy is a pipe-dream, or at best a favour reserved to the happy few.

Though tempting, this view neglects one vital theological consideration: every mass which has ever been said, with the barest minimum validity, is an entirely perfect mass. It is perfect for two reasons: because the victim that is offered is perfect, and because the priest who performs the sacrifice is perfect. It is Jesus Christ who is both victim and priest: and this means that every mass is an offering no less effective, no less pleasing to the Father, no less redemptive of us sinners, than the sacrifice made on Calvary, because every mass is the sacrifice of Calvary. This is true when the celebrant is in mortal sin or has lost his faith. This is true when the rubrics are slovenly, the readings inaudible, the homily purest heresy. This is true when mass is said on the hood of a jeep, in a Quonset hut or in the kind of hyper-illuminated warehouse in which architecture and liturgist have conspired to ensure that no stray thought fly heavenward.

Still, God is there, nurturing and tending. At each mass we pray to the Lord. ‘Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church.' Surely, it is not too much to believe that God grants this petition; that in our worship he sees not the putting and stubbornness of men, but his Bride, the Church, at prayer; that contemplative nuns, and theologians, and steelworkers and even three-year olds face-to-face with an empty tabernacle are formed by this consummate priesthood into a single, acceptable Body: without spot, without wrinkle, without apricot Dacron polyester.