By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published noviembre 27, 2014 | Available In English
Of all that I have to be thankful for at Thanksgiving, my Catholic faith is among those things for which I am most grateful.
That is not a pious statement. It is true.
When I came into the Church almost 22 years ago, I entered into an entirely new way of living, worshiping and understanding the world and my place in it. I came as a Christian, one who already believed, but I came to Catholicism not as a rejection of my Baptist upbringing, but as a means of fulfilling it, broadening it. In Protestantism, I sensed, something was missing, and the crucial factor that was absent was the liturgy.
A parish priest once told me that the only difference between a terrorist and a liturgist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist! I bristle, therefore, when I hear people say things like “I don’t get anything out of the Mass; it’s all the same.” I cringe when the responses at Mass are muffled and muddled, if they are even audible at all. How can anyone take this for granted, I wonder. How can anyone not feel completely alive at Mass?
Of course, I’m like many people who have made the Mass a habit. Sometimes my mind wanders. Sometimes I forget to make the correct new responses; it is difficult, for example, not to respond, “it is right to give him thanks and praise” when one has been saying it for 20 years! And I’m a traditionalist when it comes to sacred music; the older the better.
So sometimes, like all of us, I need to revive my appreciation for the gift of the Mass.
Two recent books—Scott Hahn’s “The Lamb’s Supper” and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s “The Mass”—are excellent examples of accessible and insightful texts that illuminate the marvelous essence of the Eucharist, but neither they, nor the multitude of contemporary books on Catholic worship, quite capture the joy of the Mass that is explained in Romano Guardini’s classic book, “The Spirit of the Liturgy.”
I encountered Guardini, as I have discovered so many treasures from the Catholic intellectual and aesthetic tradition, in my reading of Flannery O’Connor’s letters. O’Connor was a great fan of Guardini’s book “The Lord,” and my experience of that book led me to other works by Guardini. The one that I most appreciate is “The Spirit of the Liturgy.”
Guardini was an important 20th century Catholic theologian and a leading voice in the liturgical movement as the Church grappled with modernism and its own place in the modern world. Born in Italy in 1885, he moved to Germany while still a baby and was educated in German schools. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1910, became a German citizen the following year and earned a Ph.D. in theology in 1915. After World War I, in which he served in hospital ministry, he completed the final requirements to become a German university professor.
Guardini was not just an academic, however. He was very good with people—particularly young people—and he excelled as a preacher. “The Spirit of the Liturgy” emerged from Guardini’s alliance with the growing liturgical movement and was published in 1918. His first book, it became quite popular, especially in the United States when it was published in an English translation in 1930.
Guardini’s book appeared at a time when the Church was struggling with a number of external forces, including the spread of both secular modernism and an increasingly fragmented Protestantism. Though much has changed in the world, and in the Catholic Church, since Guardini’s death in 1968, “The Spirit of the Liturgy” still has relevance for the contemporary reader, primarily because Guardini’s book was a crucial contribution to an organic and ongoing dialogue. An appreciation of his book affirms that the Church is not static and immovable, but that it is always growing—informed always by tradition and the Magisterium—but moving as well through time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The book is divided into seven short chapters, all of which read like individual essays; in fact, the book can be read in small portions, rather than from beginning to end. The seven chapters describe the liturgy as prayer and fellowship, while also discussing the style and symbolism inherent in the Mass. Further, Guardini juxtaposes the seriousness of the liturgy with what he refers to as its playfulness, and he concludes with a thesis that argues for understanding the primacy of Logos over Ethos within the liturgy. Throughout, Guardini emphasizes the liturgy’s connection to Christ and therefore to the Church as His Mystical Body; he further stresses the communal participation in, and response to, the Catholic liturgy as opposed to a Protestant perspective that views worship as an individual experience.
Indeed, as Guardini explains, “The liturgy does not say ‘I,’ but ‘We.’ … The liturgy is not celebrated by the individual, but by the body of the faithful. This is not composed merely of the persons who may be present in the church; it is not the assembled congregation. On the contrary it reaches out beyond the bounds of space to embrace all the faithful on earth. Simultaneously, it reaches beyond the bounds of time, to this extent, that the body which is praying upon earth knows itself to be at one with those for whom time no longer exists, who, being perfected, exist in Eternity.”
This profound statement is an encapsulation of Guardini’s style and purpose. His language is beautiful, his prose fluid, yet at the center of the sometimes long and lofty paragraphs is a readable and compelling truth. In affirming repeatedly that “The Catholic liturgy is the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life (that has) developed in every direction, and in accordance with all places, times, and types of human culture,” Guardini also asserts that this liturgy incorporates the best of human nature, the truth of Scripture, and the working of the Holy Spirit.
Guardini explains that the liturgy is like a work of art, that in some ways it may be appreciated as art, but he is careful to warn against an appreciation of the Mass that is purely aesthetic. In one particularly relevant passage, he states, “The care-worn man who seeks nothing at Mass but the fulfillment of the service which he owes to his God; the busy woman, who comes to be a little lightened of her burden; the many people who, barren of feeling and perceiving nothing of the beauty and splendor of word and sound which surrounds them, but merely seek strength for their daily toil—all these penetrate far more deeply into the essence of the liturgy than does the connoisseur who is busy savoring the contrast between the austere beauty of a Preface and the melodiousness of a Gradual.”
Many converts come to the Catholic faith because they are drawn to the formality and careful design of the Mass; they are indeed attracted by “smells and bells.” How could they not be? As Guardini says, the movements, the objects, the appeal to the senses afforded by the Mass contain “great opportunities of expression, of knowledge, and of spiritual experience that are emancipating in their action and capable of presenting a truth far more strongly and convincingly than can the mere word of mouth.”
Yet to focus primarily upon how the Mass makes us feel, to place our emotional response before our spiritual sustenance, is to make the Mass a theatrical work and not a profound expression of salvation. Moreover, to concentrate only upon our unique individual response means that we miss the larger emphasis upon Christ and the individual’s relationship to Christ and his Church.
As Guardini explains, “The Church has not built up the liturgy for the pleasure of forming beautiful symbols, choice language, and graceful, stately gestures, but she has done it for the sake of our desperate spiritual need.”
The next time you find yourself going through the motions at Mass; the next time you grimace at the cry of a baby in the middle of the church, or wince at the feeble ringing of the altar servers’ bells, or mumble without any conviction the recitation of the Gloria or the Creed, think about what Guardini’s book reminds us: “Beauty is the splendor of truth … and beauty is the triumphant splendor which breaks forth when the hidden truth is revealed, when the eternal phenomenon is at all points the perfect expression of the inner essence.”
Because of our human nature, and in spite of our human nature, the Mass exists in perfect form both in and out of time and regardless of our attitudes toward it. Failing to recognize that fact means a decline of dogma, tradition and true communion with our fellows. “The Spirit of the Liturgy” is a beautiful reminder of why we should not only participate in the Mass, but cherish it.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.