June 8, 2017, Thursday
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

“The whole history recounted in the books of the Judges and Kings… is intended to show precisely this, that the land, considered just in itself, is an indeterminate good. It only becomes a true good, a real gift, a promise fulfilled, when it is the place where God reigns. Then it will not be just some independent state or other, but the realm of obedience, where God’s will is done and the right kind of human existence developed.” —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Chapter 1, p. 17. The underlinings were made by my father in his copy of the book, which I am reading in order to see the cardinal’s work and message also through my father’s eyes (here below is an image of that page)

“Promised Land: The realm of obedience where God’s will is done.” —A brief note written by my father, now 90 (the same age as Joseph Ratzinger) in the upper margin of Ratzinger’s great book on the liturgy, showing my father’s agreement with the cardinal’s judgment on this point: that the “Promised Land” is indeed the “Holy Land,” but that this “land” is not simply a territory of earth and stone and rivers and desert, but rather an “interior” land, a “spiritual” land, a land of the heart where one gives oneself over to God, where one submits one’s will to God’s will. But how does one enter this “Promised Land” of the soul, and what kind of life will a person who has entered this “Promised Land” live, what kind of joy, or sorrow, will he or she experience?

“Earthly contemplation means to the Christian, we have said, this above all: that behind all that we directly encounter the Face of the incarnate Logos becomes visible… Contemplation does not ignore the ‘historical Gethsemane,’ does not ignore the mystery of evil, guilt and its bloody atonement. The happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness; but it is founded upon sorrow.” ―Josef Pieper, the great German Catholic Thomistic philosopher, Happiness and Contemplation

“Israel [after leaving Egypt and traveling to Mt. Sinai] learns how to worship God in the way he himself desires. Cult, liturgy in the proper sense, is part of this worship, but so too is life according to the will of God; such a life is an indispensable part of true worship. ‘The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God,’ says St. Irenaeus (cf. Adv. Haer. 4, 20, 7), getting to the heart of what happens when man meets God on the mountain in the wilderness. Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.” —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Chapter 1, p. 17-18 (here below is an image of that page)

“The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that being, qua being, is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is ever-flowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences.” —Josef Pieper, from his great work Leisure: the Basis of Culture

“Everything in our life, today just as in Jesus’ time, begins with an encounter. An encounter with this Man, the carpenter of Nazareth, a man like all men and yet different. The first ones, John, Andrew, and Simon, felt themselves to be looked at into their very depths, read in their innermost being, and in them sprang forth a surprise, a wonder that instantly made them feel bound to Him, made them feel different.” —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 a book by the late Don Luigi Giussani, L’attrattiva Gesù [The Attraction That Is Jesus] (link)


(My father’s annotated copy of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pages 16 and 17)

(My father’s annotated copy of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pages 18 and 19)


What is the liturgy? It is, Ratzinger tells us… the true worship of God

I have embarked on a reading of Joseph Ratzinger’s great study on the liturgy, The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000).

To assist me in this task I have a special help: an old, much-thumbed book.

It is a book once owned by my father, his own personal copy of The Spirit of the Liturgy.

He read and re-read the book because the liturgy fascinated him.

In the 1940s, before entering the Marine Corps, he spent two years in minor seminary near St. Bonaventure, in western New York. He was following in the footsteps of his older brother, Robert Moynihan. The older brother had also studied at Callicoon, then had joined the Marines and was shipped to the South Pacific. He was a gunner on the U.S.S. Hornet. When he returned home safe to Haverhill, Massachusetts, he promptly entered the Franciscan Order. He was ordained a priest. When I was born, my father gave his older brother’s name… to me.

“Rough,” my father once said of his minor seminary days. “I still remember the cold gruel at 6 a.m. But also, in many ways, a very happy time…”

So my father, in part because of his own experience at Callicoon, imbued in me a sense of the grandeur, and mystery, of the liturgy.

Precisely as Joseph Ratzinger’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, imbued in me this same sense of grandeur, and mystery.

For my father, this ritual we called the Mass was “the still point in the turning world.”

It recalled events from 2,000 years ago, confronting all of us in a regular weekly cadence with solemn, profound words and hymns chanted in dignified, mysterious languages. (I mean Greek — Kyrie eleison — and Aramaic — Alleluia — as well as Latin.)

The words and gestures and actions introduced us into a relationship with the deep mysteries of our own being and personality, of our sins and guilt, of God’s mercy and forgiveness, of mortality, of death, of hope…

So my father read Ratzinger’s book very carefully, in the years after 2000, took notes on it, wrote in the margins, underlined key phrases.

Then, a few weeks ago, my father, who will turn 91 this summer — he is almost 10 months older than Joseph Ratzinger, who is 90 — gave the book to me. “Take the book, it will be one less thing to deal with when the time comes,” he said.

So I took up the book, and several days later I opened it in a cafe on via delle Fornaci in Rome.

I began to read it, and realized that the pages of the book prompted memories… memories from my childhood, memories of my father, memories also of encounters with Joseph Ratzinger, memories of other encounters which in various ways transformed my life.

I realized that, without seeking it, I was immediately engaged in a complex double dialogue.

I was in dialogue with the writing of Joseph Ratzinger, in a certain sense one of my “spiritual fathers.”

And I was in dialogue with my own father’s reading of Ratzinger’s text.

And this “double dialogue” rippled forward, including my own sons and my relationship to them and their faith.

St. Augustine once said, “I learn by writing.”

So, if you will permit me, I will make an effort to follow Augustine’s model, and to learn about the liturgy by reading Ratzinger’s book, and by writing these letters.

I began the first letter by saying that the end is already clear, even at the outset: to see the face of Christ.

But in the journey toward that end, we must follow along a complex path of argument, step by step.

And as we do so, we will come to discover that a seemingly “marginal” matter like the liturgy is actually a central matter, that understanding the liturgy, as it truly is, is the single best way to confront the enormous injustices, cruel oppressions, and horrifying poisonings of our world and of ourselves that characterize our age.

In other words, a study of the liturgy, of what the liturgy truly is, is in a profound sense the best way to begin to try to heal the diseases ruining our communities, and ruining our souls.

A New Approach

I left off the last letter by saying that Ratzinger himself felt that the suggestion of some in the Liturgical Movement in Europe that we should understand the liturgy in terms of “play” was… “insufficient.”

And I noted that my father wrote: “It was worse than insufficient. It sends us in a totally wrong direction.”

But Ratzinger was himself aware of this “insufficieny,” and he began to deal with it himself immediately.

Ratzinger first considers “another aspect of this theory of play.” He says this “other aspect” will bring us “closer” to “the essence of the liturgy.”

What is this “other aspect”? It is that “play,” especially children’s play, is “a kind of anticipation for life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity.”

We can understand this: children “pretend” to be policemen and soldiers and mothers and so on, in a sort of “anticipation” of someday carrying out such roles in reality.

So, Ratzinger says, by analogy, “the liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children… in relation to that true life toward which we yearn to go.”

Here is the point: “Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation of… eternal life, which St. Augustine describes, by contrast with life in this world, as a fabric woven, no longer of exigency and need, but of the freedom of generosity and gift.”

So, liturgy would then be “the rediscovery within us of true childhood, of openness to a greatness still to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life.”

In other words, the liturgy is “a concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life — the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our fellow man.”

Yet Ratzinger is immediately critical even of this line of argument.

He says: “This analogy still lacks something, something essential.”

So he is going to distance himself from this whole theory of “play” as a way of understanding the liturgy in a true and profound way.

The problem, he says, is that this entire theory is imprecise, misty, theoretical: “The idea of a life to come appears only as a vague postulate,” he writes. “The reference to God, without whom the ‘life to come’ would only be a wasteland, remains quite indeterminate.”

He is saying that this “play” theory of the liturgy lacks concreteness, lacks historical context, lacks, in a word, reality.

The God of this theory is “indeterminate.” He does not have an identity, a face, a “personhood” to encounter, to engage with, to love, to serve.

So, Ratzinger says, “I should like to suggest a new approach, this time starting from specific biblical texts.”

“Let my people go!”

Then Ratzinger turns to biblical history, sacred history, in his search to explain what the liturgy is, in its essence.

So we know already that his argument will be that the liturgy is somehow related to actual historical events.

That is, that the liturgy has a specific content, based on specific real events, and is not based on a philosophical theory, or on myths.

Ratzinger begins his argument — and here is the real beginning of the book, it gets interesting from this point on — by saying that “the Exodus [from Egypt] appears to have two distinct goals.”

What were these two goals?

First, to reach the Promised Land. A promised region of territory, with secure borders, so the people can live in freedom and independence.

Second, to serve God in the wilderness.

Ratzinger quotes Exodus 7:16. God’s original command to Pharaoh, Ratzinger reminds us, is: “Let my people go, so that they may serve me in the wilderness.” He notes that these words are repeated four times, with slight variations, as Aaron and Moses meet with Pharaoh.

So, negotiations occur. Pharaoh wants to have the Israelites stay inside the borders of Egypt. “Go,” he says, “sacrifice to your God within the land.” (Exodus 8:25).

But Moses insists that they must go out “three days’ journey into the wilderness.”

Pharaoh refuses. Plagues come. Pharaoh then relents a bit. He says the men can leave, but the women and children and animals must stay in Egypt. Moses does not agree. Finally Pharaoh says the women and children can go, but not the animals. Moses does not accept, because he may need the animals for the worship the Lord will ask of them. “We do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there,” Moses says. (Exodus 10:24)

Ratzinger notes that “in all this the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the game of political compromise.”

And then Ratzinger gives us this profound insight: “Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all the others; it departs in order to serve God.”

This is a profound appreciation of the nature of the election of Israel. It explains why Israel is “different” from every other nation. Israel is “chosen” by God for one reason: to serve Him.

Ratzinger makes a brief digression here (bottom of page 16 to the top of page 17) to assess a possible “objection” to his reading of these passages.

“Now,” he writes, “the objection could be made that focusing on worship in the negotiations with Pharaoh was purely tactical.”

There is an underline under these words in my father’s copy of the book.

“Now, the objection could be made that focusing on worship in the negotiations with Pharaoh was purely tactical.”

In other words, that Moses and Aaron really did want land, and merely pretended that they had to worship God outside of Egypt in the desert. They wanted their new land, and were not serious about the worship.

Ratzinger quickly answers this cynical suggestion: “I do not think that this does justice to the seriousness that pervades the texts.”

And he adds: “To oppose land and worship makes no sense.”

Then Ratzinger makes several additional points worth citing here.

“The land is given to the people to be a place for the worship of the true God,” he writes. “Mere possession of the land, mere national autonomy, would reduce Israel to the level of the other nations. The pursuit of such a goal would be a misunderstanding of what is distinctive about Israel’s election.”

And then he gives the lines that I have quoted at the opening of this letter above: that the land is, by itself, not a complete “good,” but only a partial one, an “indeterminate” one.

“It only becomes a true good, a real gift, a promise fulfilled, when it is the place where God reigns,” he writes.

The “Promised Land,” he stresses, is precisely that land where “God’s will is done” and that means… where God is rightly worshiped.

“The kind of sacrifice God wants”

Now Ratzinger develops his argument further.

He says that Israel “discovers the kind of sacrifice God wants, not after three days, but after three months.”

This happens when the people finally reach Mt. Sinai.

On that occasion, God comes down “onto the top of the mountain.” He appears to Israel. He speaks to the people. He makes known his will in the Ten Commandments. He makes a covenant with the people. And the covenant includes “a minutely regulated form of worship.”

So now Israel has learned “how to worship God in the way he himself desires.”

And this is where Ratzinger comes to his first profound conclusion: “Cult, liturgy in the proper sense, is part of this worship, but so too is life according to the will of God; such a life is an indispensable part of true worship.”

Here we have a fusing of liturgy and life.

A fusing of worship in special ceremonies in a temple, and moral action in everyday life.

In other words, liturgy is not conceived of as a single ritual ceremony separate from life. It is conceived of as including actions in life of justice, of honesty, of kindness, of self-sacrifice.

And here, Ratzinger cites a phrase that I myself appreciate very much, and have been including at the end of each of these letters for some years now. The phrase is from St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in modern-day France, writing in about 180 A.D.

“The glory of God is the living man (or: “is man alive”), but the life of man is the vision of God.”

A beautiful, circular thought: that God’s “glory” is “man living” — that, by simply living, human beings are “God’s glory.”

But, at the same time… that human beings cannot “live” unless they have, or receive… a glimpse of God, a vision of who the Almighty truly is.

So, men and women become “glorious” when they see God; having seen Him, they become fully alive, and being fully alive, they are in and for the whole physical universe “God’s glory.”

Ratzinger understands the meaning of this passage this way: “Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.”

(to be continued)

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