June 6, 2017, Tuesday
The Spirit of the Liturgy: A Commentary

Part One: The Essence of the Liturgy (continued)

Chapter 1

Liturgy and Life: The Place of the Liturgy in Reality

“What is the liturgy? What happens during the liturgy? What kind of reality do we encounter here? In the 1920s the suggestion was made that we should understand the liturgy in terms of ‘play’. The point of the analogy was that a game has its own rules, sets up its own world, which is in force from the start of play but then, of course, is suspended at the close of play. A further point of similarity was that play, though it has a meaning, does not have a purpose [my father’s underlining] and for this very reason there is something healing, even liberating, about it. Play takes us out of the world of daily goals and their pressures and into a sphere free of purpose and achievement, releasing us for a time from all the burdens of our daily world of work. Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where for a moment we can let life flow freely. We need such moments of retreat from the pressure of daily life if its burden is to be bearable. Now there is some truth in this way of thinking, but it is insufficient…” —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Chapter 1, p. 13

“It was worse than insufficient. It was in a totally wrong direction.” —Notes scribbled by my father, a former U.S. Marine who is now 90 years old (the same age as Joseph Ratzinger) in the margin of Ratzinger’s book, showing my father’s disagreement with the cardinal’s judgment on this point

“But this is a mind game. It may explain why the Liturgical Movement led to the virtual destruction of the liturgy.” —Other notes written by my father in the margin next to these words of Ratzinger (here above is an image of that page)

“Thank you for this meditation; I, too, am a lover of Four Quartets. I’ll never forget — I must have been fourteen or fifteen — listening to them for the first time, read on the radio. I had tuned in late, so didn’t know what I was hearing — but I was enthralled. I waited with baited breath for the end, to find out what wonderful incantation this could be — then went to the library to get the collected poems of T. S. Eliot.
My own introduction to the Catholic Church couldn’t be more different from yours — and I must say yours makes me uneasy, because there is an all-too-human tendency to confuse tradition and nostalgia. Having been raised in a non-religious household, devoid of any contact with the Catholic Church, my introduction to it was reading Dante and Chaucer and St. Thomas Aquinas. As you can imagine, entering the Church “cold” in 1965 was quite a shock for someone looking for monasticism, Romanesque architecture, and Gregorian Chant!
But I was NOT looking for the trappings of 1950’s American Catholicism — which I had never known and for which I consequently felt no nostalgia. Looking back, I think the Liturgical Movement — before it went off the rails — was, well, on the rails. As for liturgy as ‘play,’ Ratzinger of course is referring to Johan Huizinga’s brilliant book Homo Ludens [‘Man Playing’]. If your father had read it, I don’t imagine he would dismiss the idea, because Huizinga’s thesis is that everything in life that is ‘of the utmost seriousness and solemnity’ can be understood in terms of ‘play.’
“Good luck on your trip to imperiled England; I hope the Tower will not be off-limits now.” —Email from a reader

“Maybe you just don’t understand anything about the word ‘play’ and its far reaching implications in a number of healthy and diverse directions. Maybe you are over-emphasizing old T. S. Eliot — and don’t forget — he also wrote poems about cats. Read some Gerard Manley Hopkins. Study Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and very importantly one of the great unacknowledged Saints of recent times — Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. You do seem to be a bit of a self-regarding pompous fool.” —Email from a reader

“I’ve never felt moved to write to you before, despite receiving your messages for a long time now… I am a columnist, alongside my work as a theologian, and I appreciate it when my postbag contains short messages, not long ones, so I’ll be brief: I just want to say thank you… I too am an evangelist and communicator of the faith, and I know the costs of this kind of work, both material and inward. And there are only a few I rely on to remind me of the essentials; a few who reliably convert me again to the faith of God’s Church, who lead me to the face of Jesus, in my life. But you are one of them.” —Email from a reader

“I am convinced that his (Don Luigi Giussani’s) thought is profoundly human and reaches man’s innermost longings. I dare say that this is a most profound, and at the same time understandable, phenomenology of nostalgia as a transcendental fact. There is a phenomenology of nostalgia, nóstos algos, feeling called home, the experience of feeling attracted to what is most proper for us, most consonant with our being. In the context of Fr. Giussani’s reflections, we encounter instances of a real phenomenology of nostalgia.” —Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, April 27, 2001, at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, the largest in South America, presenting the Spanish edition of L’attrattiva Gesù [The Attraction That Is Jesus] (link)


What is the liturgy?

The last letter I sent seemed to touch a nerve. I received dozens of emails, some containing words of praise, others of blame.

Perhaps it was because the letter seemed to contain a criticism of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, and that in commenting on the very first page of his great work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, published in the year 2000.

Perhaps it was because the letter seemed to contain a still more all-encompassing critique, of that corps of theologians and liturgists who have labored in the various Liturgical Movements of the past century, leading us to the situation we experience in the Church today.

Perhaps it was because I quoted so prominently the words my father wrote in the margin of Ratzinger’s text: “But this (this understanding of the liturgy in terms of “play”) is a mind game” which “may explain why the Liturgical Movement led to the virtual destruction of the liturgy.”

What is the “mind game” that troubled my father — that he saw as something that has led to “the virtual destruction of the liturgy”?

It is the theory that the liturgy is a type of “play.”

For my father, as I understand his mind — he was a man who had studied in minor seminary as a teenager, at Callicoon, New York, and who, as I was groing up, spent every Good Friday alone in silent meditation from noon until three — something that involved commemorating the death of Christ, the sacrifice Christ made of his own life for the sake of a cosmic victory over moral evil (sin), ontological futility (meaninglessness) and physical destruction (death), could not usefully be comprehended under the category of “play.”

The sacrifice of the Mass could not be “play.”

And yet… and yet… the concept of “play” does offer — as Ratzinger rightly set forth in the first paragraph of his book, cited above — a way toward understanding the special category of the liturgy as something we engage in freely, voluntarily, not under compulsion, not with monotonous, rote recitations, but with attentiveness and profound joy.

One of my readers rightly wrote to me that Ratzinger, when speaking of the way the liturgical movement drew on the concept of “play” to understand the liturgy, was referring to a way of thinking which found its expression in Jan Huizinga’s famous book Homo Ludens, published in 1938 — six years before Ratzinger began to read Guardini’s 1918 work On the Spirit of the Liturgy.

Huizinga identifies five characteristics that play must have:

(1) Play is free, is in fact freedom.

(2) Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.

(3) Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.

(4) Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.

(5) Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

And the point Ratzinger makes is that many 20th century liturgists saw the concept of “play,” conceived of in these terms, as a useful way of regarding the Catholic liturgy, the Mass.

That the Mass was something like play, that it was something done freely, that it was not “ordinary” life, that it was separate from “ordinary” life in its locality and duration, that it followed an orderly ritual (rules, rubrics) which had not changed over decades and centuries, that it was connected with no material interest, and no material profit could be gained from it.

There was only a spiritual interest and, as it were, a spiritual profit…

And in this sense, the liturgy was like a game, play-like.

Huizinga’s concept of a culture-producing homo ludens (“man playing”) as opposed to or in addtion to homo faber (“man making” or “man the maker of things”) offered to scholars and thinkers of the past three or four generations an interesting way to understand human behavior, a way which helped to explain all of those voluntary cultural things humans do (art, song, liturgy) which “surpass,” which “transcend,” the necessary things we do simply to survive.

In other words, all those things we do which are distinctively human, that is, free — because they are not done out of necessity, out of compulsion, but freely, voluntarily.

Play is by definition something that we do freely. If we are forced to play, compelled to play, constrained to play, what we do is no longer “play.”

So, “play” is in the realm of human freedom, and freedom is, many would accept, among the highest goals of human existence — perhaps the highest goal.

So where are we? The nerve was touched. Yes, my letter did offer a criticism of the first lines of Ratzinger’s great book on the liturgy. And readers were upset, in varying ways. One said I seemed a “pompous fool.” Another said that my evidently “cradle Catholicism” was cause for unease because “there is an all-too-human tendency to confuse tradition and nostalgia.”

Well, here does not seem to be the place to defend my nostalgia, my “longing for the return” of something that has been lost.

Here may be the proper place, however, to note that Ratzinger himself criticizes this use of the concept “play” to explain the liturgy.

And we will consider his argument on this point in the next letter…

(to be continued)

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