Beauty of the Liturgy, Beauty of the Soul: An Essay by Dom Karl Wallner, O. Cist.

Dom Karl Wallner, O. Cist. is a monk of Heiligenkreuz Abbey and former Rector of the Pontifical University of Heiligenkreuz (1999- 2017), where he is currently a professor of Dogma and Sacramental Theology. In this essay, consonant with the themes he invoked in “The Profanation of the Sacred and the Sacralization of the Profane,” Dom Wallner reflects on the ways that the beauty and order of liturgical celebrations form the soul toward God.

The editors and the translator, Tobias Philip, an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, have added several footnotes and slightly modified the text, putting the pontificate of Benedict XVI into the past tense. The piece is translated and published with Dom Wallner’s permission. A version of paper delivered in German may be found here.

Beauty of the Liturgy – Beauty of the Soul

by Dom Karl Wallner

Balthasar (The Creation, Fouquet)
The Creation, God Introducing Adam and Eve, from ‘Antiquites Judaiques’, c.1470-76, Jean Fouquet, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France

 

1. The Fight for the Beauty of the Liturgy

I.I The Meaning of the Liturgy

In Benedict XVI, we had a pope who was profoundly a German intellectual. It is worth our while to ponder his essential message, in order to discover where the Holy Spirit is working in it. Benedict XVI very clearly saw how the Christian Faith is in danger of ruin, and to this crisis he opposed his broad education, keen intellect, and the authority of the Petrine office, inviting us to rediscover the essence of the Faith. Indeed it was a matter of the substance of the Faith. Considering this focus, it is notable that it was Pope Benedict’s personal wish for the first volume of his entire corpus, which has now been published,[1] to have the liturgy as its theme. For the pope the liturgy was not an ornamental detail, but the key to the future of the Christian Faith. The Christian God is indeed not an abstract system of speculative terms, or an airy fantastic image, but one who willed to approach us in person and in history. We are the religion of God made man – of the God who expresses himself in a particular earthly existence as universal love. And this religion of the God who has drawn near to us in finite form necessarily appropriates the sensible world – hence the liturgy. In what we call the Liturgy, the divine Logos, who has expressed himself in human form by becoming man, has left his church nothing less than himself: “Do this in memory of me!”

My subject is the beauty of the liturgy in its relationship to the beauty of the human soul. I do not want to give you an overly speculative or scholarly presentation, but simply to offer you a few theses; I think that the liturgy can affect the soul in a way that uplifts, broadens and heals it, and that the soul can affect the liturgy in the same way. But I must begin by saying that I am not using the term “soul” philosophically, as Plato’s “psyche,” nor as Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, with his “anima” and “animus.” I am not interested in the specialized meaning of the “forma corporis,” as Thomas Aquinas defined it, either. In the end, what I mean by “soul” is not exclusively that which occupies the attentions of a psychotherapist or a confessor.

That there is an interaction between inwardness and outwardness, between ritual and emotion, is an experience that I, as a monk, am able to have daily within the world of a God-focused life, whose ordering frame is the liturgy. Through these experiences I subsequently speak less as a theologian and more as a monk and, moreover, the long-serving Master of Ceremonies for a monastery that has for centuries taken a special care for the beauty of the liturgy in its form and its chant. Therefore, I would also like to tell you how I myself experience the effects of the liturgy on my soul – and vice versa.

I.2. Beauty in Danger

Balthasar 1
Hans Urs von Balthasar

First, it is rather astonishing that it has become possible once again to speak about the “Beauty of the Liturgy.” Astounding, because a few decades ago my subject “Beauty of the Liturgy – Beauty of the Soul” would have been no subject at all. In the mid-1960s, in both church and society the post-war sense of triumph suddenly collapsed into a cold, concrete-gray-colored modernity, and within theology the only one who concerned himself with the theme of “Beauty” was the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In 1961, the first volume of his magnum opus came out as a “trilogy,” which he actually concluded with the 15th volume in 1987, a year before his death. Balthasar describes the fact that he was not invited to be an advisor at the Second Vatican Council with some regret, but regarded it as a blessing, since it gave him time to write this theological summa, which is organized according to the three transcendentals – beautiful, good, and true. What is astounding about this first part of the work, unparalleled in the history of theology, is that its theme is beauty. It is entitled “The Glory of the Lord,” and the two other parts are the “Theo-drama” and “Theo-logic.” It is notable that he didn’t choose to call the first part the “Theo-aesthetic” or the “Beauty” of divine Revelation, since “aesthetics” always has a sense of the purely external, ornamental or decorative. For Balthasar, God’s beauty centered on the “kabod,” the Hebrew expression in the Old Testament for the “splendor” with which God shines upon man and enlightens him in his Revelation. Beauty’s power of fascination in the natural world is a universal sign that God grants us. He places it also at the summit of revelation, allowing his own beauty to stand out as the most beautiful object of all and to be comprehended in the ugly unbeauty of the scorned crucified one.

 

His work is important because Balthasar and Ratzinger were friends, and we may suppose that, as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger encouraged Pope St. John Paul II to make Balthasar a cardinal in 1988. In the early 60’s, when Balthasar discusses

Christian Revelation from the point of view of beauty, it is a direct provocation. At that point, under the influence of the Zeitgeist, theology was about to dissolve into a highly contested battleground, and the contest became visible most of all in the realm of the Liturgy– where it can still be seen. In the subsequent decline of the beautiful in the liturgy two false models were proposed: formalist rubricism and destructive anti-aestheticism.

  1. Rubricism

One false model is formal rubricism. “Rubrum” means “red” in Latin and the “rubrica” are the red texts that explain the formal instructions for carrying out the service – where the priest stands, where he goes, how he holds his hands, and so on. They tell him which gestures and rituals he has to perform, as well as how, when, and where to do so. Precise observance of these rubrics in the post-Tridentine liturgy leads to an impressive sacral liturgical magnificence. Precise instruction in the often complicated rituals was a point of difficulty in seminary education. Psychologically, rituals always provide a sense of home. Like a skeleton, they carry the body of the soul along the road of its inward conversion towards the divine. At the same time, they can become a constraining corset. But this rarely happens when one goes beyond their exterior form to their inner meaning.

One consequence of rubricism was a certain psychological defect, one that today has almost entirely died out, but which before the council was prevalent among clerics and was supported by Tridentine rubrical rigorism: I am referring to liturgical scrupulosity. Rubrical scrupulosity was a symptom of viewing the liturgy as the exact fulfillment of a ritual that was owed to God more than as the expression of a love-filled prayer of God “in spirit and in truth.” There were priests who anxiously pronounced the words of consecration very slowly, and even repeated them several times, but these have largely disappeared today. There are numerous anecdotes, which despite their humorous content still show that a deformity existed. The formulas of speech from that time are demonstrative, like the “persolvere” (completion) of the Breviary and the “perficere” (carrying out) of the ceremonies etc. Rubrical ritualism is wrong, because it one-sidedly makes the effect of the liturgy on the soul dependent only on outward form; it transforms the liturgy into the legalistic pharisaism that Jesus rejects.

  1. Anti-aestheticism

The second erroneous development came in the 60s: the exchange of formalistic aestheticism for its opposite. I am not a philosopher or a scholar of the period, but couldn’t the entire development of the 60’s be summarized with the catchphrase “Distrust of Beauty”? or “Distrust of Order”?[2] I believe that the agenda of the council was to give the liturgy a soul again, to purify the rampant formulas regulating speech and action by reducing them to the essential, and thus once again to give back to the divine liturgy its original spiritual and spiritualized form. An observation made by the great Romano Guardini from 1922, “A process of unforeseeable consequence has begun: the church awakens within souls” seems to me to be talking about the liturgy! The famous quote actually represents the forceful echo, which his short first book “On the Spirit of the Liturgy” had triggered in 1921. The council wanted an internalization of the liturgy and clarified the “participatio actuosa, conscia et plena” as the active, conscious, and full participation of the people of God, the main agenda of the reform. The council fathers, prepared by the Liturgical Movement and its popular expressions, wanted to renew the liturgy, moving away from a liturgy often made up purely of clerics, musicians, and servers toward a liturgy of the conscious participation of all the celebrating faithful. Liturgy would no longer be only the externally beautiful celebration, in which those present passively take part just once, and which they have the priest celebrate, the servers assist, and the musicians play. The “cultural revolution” that began after the council, however, was not the realization of this project; the destruction of the “beauty of the liturgy” was not “post-conciliar” but “anti-conciliar.” It was not the council, but the mentality of 1968, that ultimately governed the implementation phase of the Second Vatican Council and denounced the categories of beauty and order.

 

Balthasar (seige)
Pompey Enters the Temple of Jerusalem, Jean Fouquet

There inarguably existed a cold-spirited pre-conciliar aestheticism, which assumed the community would simply passively consume the well-choreographed ceremonies and poorly-understood rituals of the cleric. Still, I deny that it was the will of the council to push through an ideology that, above all else, was about blurring the boundaries between the sacred and the profane under the motto of active participation of the faithful in liturgical events. For Catholics today, the ecclesiastical “Woodstock” generation’s idea that church architecture must resemble the banal world of everyday life sounds scandalous! At the time, however, importing the profane – and with it the “unbeautiful” – was the order of the day. That was also when devotional images disappeared, since they was judged to be “kitsch.” Cryptic abstraction and provocative ugliness took their place. Today we may well ask ourselves ourselves: haven’t we introduced so much of profane life into church building, music, gestures, dress etc., that, as a result, people would just as rather remain outside in the profane world? Alternatively, they make for themselves a secular sacro-world.

And here I stand again with Balthasar and also indirectly with Benedict XVI: the “beautiful” is a transcendental, i.e. a property that we intuitively perceive and that can be found on both sides of the division in being: it reigns between the divine and finite. If even worldly beauty gives me joy, comforts me, fascinates me, sweeps me away, makes me shudder, uplifts me… then how much more impressive must the beauty of God be, which indeed is not beautiful “in some way,” but is “kabodglory,” according to its very essence? When natural reason and its judgement are rightly disposed so as to see that the heights of beauty extend ultimately to God, then the denigration or even banishment of beauty from divine worship becomes an error. In other words: if the liturgy is not meant to be beautiful, then what is?

Balthasar (Hundertwasser)
The Hundertwasserhause apartment in Vienna

Perhaps I could have spared myself these preliminary observations, since indeed we find ourselves in the wake of an internal paradigm shift in the Church. Just as the old concrete-colored modernity has transitioned to the colorful hodgepodge of a Friedensreich-Hundertwasser-postmodernity,[3] so the subject of “The Beauty of the Liturgy” has become a welcome subject once again. It is clear that the times have already changed, that it is almost exclusively older priests who wear potato-sack albs over their vintage turtlenecks, while chaplains appear in the priestly collared shirt, which, in fact, they combine with fashionable jeans often without any inhibition. Everywhere seminars, lectures, and retreats on the theme of “Ars celebrandi,”” are filled to capacity. And, as an educator of priests, I joyfully experience the new generation of young religious and priests, people who value the aesthetics of the liturgical forms, not out of rubrical strictness, but out of an emancipated will and spiritual maturity. (I do not understand why those still living on in the year 1968 are so unhappy about this, since their whole lives have been about un-conventionality and liberation. The young are just “alternatively modern”” in the sense that the children of 1968 would define “modernity”…).

Balthasar (the trinity in its glory)
The Trinity in its Glory, Jean Fouquet

But back to Benedict XVI. He was not only incidentally friends with Balthasar, author of the “The Glory of the Lord.” Sacramentum Caritatis, his post-synodal exhortation on the subject of the Eucharist (22 February 2007), shows how important the aesthetic dimension of the liturgy already was for him. A passage in this text addresses the theme “Beauty and Liturgy”; the pope describes beauty as a theological and liturgical value.[4]

The beauty of the liturgy…is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. The memorial of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice contains something of that beauty which Peter, James and John beheld when the Master, making his way to Jerusalem, was transfigured before their eyes (cf. Mark 9, 2). Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.

Later that year, Benedict XVI took up the same theme on the occasion of his visit to Heiligenkreuz monastery on September 9th, 2007. In his address, he elaborated a theology of the liturgy and of the monastic service in particular. With reference to the phrase “operi Dei omnino nihil praeponere – let nothing be preferred to the service of God” from the Rule of Saint Benedict, the pope formulated the following task for us and for the Church:

            Your first service for this world must hence be your prayer and the celebration of the Mass. The meaning of every priest, of every person consecrated to God, must be ‘to put nothing before the service of God.’ The beauty of such a sense will express itself in the beauty of the liturgy, so that there, where we sing with one another, praise God, celebrate and pray, will be present a piece of heaven on earth. It is really not a false assessment when one sees a likeness of the eternal in a liturgy concentrated on God in its rites and chants.[5]

Our dear God showed his sense of humor a few months later, when he allowed our choral prayer, in the form of the Gregorian choral, to reach the top of the charts in the secular music business in the form of a CD entitled “Chant: Music for Paradise.” We had this sentence from the pope printed on all the CDs: “Where we sing with one another, praise God, celebrate, and pray, a piece of heaven is present on earth.”

After this very contextual introduction, as a thesis I would like to name three points of convergence between the aesthetics of the liturgy and one’s spiritual state. The beauty of the liturgy brings about in the soul detachment, transcendence, and spiritualization.

2. Three Theses on Transformation

2.1 Detachment through “Opus Operatum

There is cult and ceremonial in all religions. All religions recognize something like a liturgy, and the Greek word “leiturgia” is indeed etymologically derived from the stem “leit” (which in turn comes from “laospeople”) and “ergon – work” with relation to “service.” Liturgy in the general sense is thus publicly-managed cult, religious service in the realm of the divine or the gods. Benedict calls it “opus Dei – work of God/work for God,” and from there comes our word “divine service,” (Gottesdienst) that can be translated as a objective genitive just as well as a subjective genitive. The term also resonated with the pagans, with their notion that one must keep the innumerable gods in good humor through the “leit- ergon” or “public cult.” The Greek word for the cultic victim is “hilasmos,” from the root “hilaros” meaning “cheerful.” Cult is about keeping the gods in a good mood through the savor of the sacrificial victim.

In any case, although in the external religious service positions of prayer, actions, sacrificial gestures, chants, and movements may be similar, in the most inward sense they are different from one another, since the liturgy expresses to the faithful and vice versa: “lex credendi lex orandi.” From this it is true that everything lies outside of our doing, for it is the penetration of God into our world. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth formulated it thus in his book The Epistle to the Romans, that God comes “vertically from above.” The religion of biblical revelation recognizes one God, who from himself – on his own initiative, surprisingly and overpoweringly – steps over the abyss from his infinitude to our finitude. God breaks into our world, he enters the realm of the finite. He perpetually adds himself to the measurableness of this world in such a way that he tips it over into the measureless: where the glory of God is present in this world, what is used in the Old Testament as a substantive sign for God actually occurs. God is “kabod – magnificence.” This is not merely the beauty of a sunset, or the beauty of a brain wave that can activate itself in reflection and philosophizing, or the beauty of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “Take off your shoes, the place on which you stand is holy ground,” he called out to Moses from the burning bush. It is the “Ehye asher ehye,” the “I am who am.” God is ungraspable in his magnificence; rays proceed like stigmata from the face of Moses, who survives his encounter with the incomprehensible magnificence. In Psalm 72:19 it says that the magnificence of God fills the whole world. And the psalmist stands completely in awe of an incomprehensible being when he cries: “The voice of the Lord whirls up to the oaks, it tears the entire woods bare. In his palace all cry: O magnificent God!” (Psalm 29:9); the magnificence of God means being overwhelmed through something “de arriba from above.” What is contained in this experience is both more and different from the sort of experience induced by self-suggestion or group dynamic.

The Church has liturgical chants in which she sings to Christ as the “most beautiful Lord Jesus.” Dogma knows of Christ, that he is word made flesh, the world mind, who wants the beauty of the essence of God to shine out in the form of a particular human existence. God makes his absolute beauty shine out in the ugliness of the crucifixion. In the Gospel of John the cross already glows with the nimbus of beauty once and for all: the disturbed soldier is so struck by the lightning from the divinity of the Crucified One that he discovers faith. According to Luke the curtain of the temple, which up to then hid the glory of God from the eyes of men, was torn apart. In the Apocalypse, which takes Johannine symbolism and fashions it into a fantastic painting, the image of the slaughtered Lamb is empty of its distaste: as victor it stands on the throne, as all light itself it illuminates the City of God.

The Liturgy celebrates this already-effected beauty. And thus it is for the first time at once psychologically liberating. There is nothing more contradictory to the Catholic liturgy than the desire to force a way through to the divine through magical ritual. We do not have an intense desire to be transported by grace through an experience of calm, ecstasy, and divination. The only activity and astonishment is over the genuine advent of God. The church emphasizes this fact in the scholastic doctrine of “opus operatum,”” which Luther and the Reformers sadly thought they had to replace with the belief of the faithful. The “ex opere operato” expresses our confidence that the innermost heart of our Faith is set forth in our religious services: not that we must desperately clutch for and seek out the divine, but that we must only open the space for it, for us to be near. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” The opus operatum means that there is a predominance of grace, a priority of the holy work of God. Joseph Ratzinger characterized our zeitgeist as “Neo-Pelagian”: we have adopted a hands-on approach, convinced we are able to manage our relationship with the divine all on our own. New Age and Esotericism are the pseudo-religious flowerings of the Neo-Pelagian mentality. In them, a person is able to direct his own experience of the divine through various practices of meditation and techniques of physical self-mastery.

For us the liturgy is so beautiful because we believe that Christ himself is present as the liturgist, and that he effectively grants his glorious grace when we give to him, in addition to our gestures, prayers, and rites, room for that grace to enter. A holy “mimesis” occurs, as the Greek Fathers put it: in this “imitation” there is a “making present” of salvation, which God has already accomplished in time. Mimesis also makes it possible for us to become, despite our imperfection and erring, subjects of a truly beautiful and pure activity. What a relief! Augustine formulated it this way: “When Peter baptizes, Christ baptizes; when Paul baptizes, Christ baptizes” and then comes his point, when he says: “When Judas baptizes, Christ baptizes.” The primary actor is thus always God, who encounters us in holy signs, gestures, and rituals.[6]

Liturgy is therefore never the self-affirmation of the liturgist or the self-celebration of the community. The priest is neither actor nor artist. Therefore he must never worry about whether he will receive affirmations of his ability backstage or at the theater exit, where fans surround him and clamor for autographs. After a worthily and transcendently celebrated divine service, the success of the service does not become a matter of question in the sacristy, or at least not a question of self-affirmation. When the master of ceremonies sidles up to the priest and playfully asks: “So, how was I today?,” something is amiss.

I claim, therefore, that the liturgical actions and chants work positively on our souls, since they teach us religious detachment. They are not simply human sets, human choreography, and human direction, with whose help we must win for ourselves a point of contact with the divine. Much more do we receive in them – whether we are relaxed or distressed – the becoming present of the beauty of God himself.

2.2 Uplifting through “Celebration”

Today we are witnessing the return of the irrational. There is a great attraction for and movement towards the mythical and occult, the secretive; there is a new fascination with cult and ritual. In the 70s the word “cult” was totally “out” in the secular realm; today it signifies something that it is totally “in.” Simply: “cult is a cult.” First of all there is a euphoric rediscovery of celebration. The show- and party-business loves a glamorous “celebration.” Perhaps the secular culture of leisure “celebrates” itself with such delight and mania for this very reason, that it has lost anything substantial to celebrate. Josef Pieper in his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture points out that “work,” or rather “business,” is simply the negation of “leisure,” which means “free-time” in Latin. “Leisure” is “otium,” business on the other hand is translated as “neg-otium,” i.e. the negation of leisure. Perhaps the desire for celebration is so great because today we are just as oppressed by “otium” as we are by “negotium”: where a final meaning of life fails, where the orientation? to a super-worldly transcendence does not exist, the resulting stress and anxiety even affect our “otium,” since in leisure we must get everything from smoking, lust, and liberation of which we are supposedly deprived in “negotium.”

Image result for david dances painting
David Dances Before the Ark, Pieter van Lint (ca. 1650)

Perhaps we have never been more estranged in our work- and life-culture as now. In these straits, the raw stimulus of celebration, the show, the ecstasy of rapture, is necessary to make us forget our finite sorrow. Worldly festivities—a beer tent, an evening show, a concert, or a game show, a football game or film premiere—can be impressive events. To achieve all these things requires a certain technical perfection. I have experienced many secular productions from backstage. Their preparation is meticulous, their timing flawless; the actor enters the stage made up, equipped with a microphone, and his every step is precisely choreographed. I have often wondered what we in the Church could achieve if, in celebrating our God, we used even a modicum of the enthusiasm and perfectionism that is employed in producing such staged celebrations, which vanish as quickly as a soap bubble! And I fear that much of what we experience today in worldly “celebration” consists of stolen, flattened, spiritualized and thus perverted elements of our liturgy.[7]

I claim that one of the effects of the beauty of the liturgy is the uplifting of the soul, an effect elicited by the festive “celebration.” In fact, this uplifting becomes an imperative at every Mass, since the “sursum corda” is a direct, military command: “Pay attention! Up with your hearts!” This uplifting, however, is something substantial, and not merely superficial. The limpid sources from which we draw in the touching celebration of our liturgy lie deeper than the level of musical perfection, or the rehearsed elegance, grace, and rhetorical talent of liturgists. The goal is not an aesthetic impression or even the emotion of ecstasy, but connection with the invisible God. That is what Paul understood in his letter to the Romans 12:1 with the famous formulation “leiturgia logike,” or “rational worship.”

Catholic liturgy does not work through the means of trance, auto-suggestion, and hypnosis; it does not come from the murmuring of incomprehensible mantras and the muttering of esoteric magic spells, but it is always a“leiturgia logike – rational religious service.” It is thus never the primary goal of the liturgy to turn off judgment or discursive thought, which is the explicit object of certain eastern forms of meditation. There, meditation aims at the intuitive feeling of becoming one with the whole. In the structure of a religion that knows no expressible personal God, this immersion must logically be the highest ideal. The way is through liberation from conceptual thought. Through the repetition of mantras the initiative feeling of unity with the whole should grow. How different, indeed, is the Christian way of prayer! Since we do not believe in a timeless myth, but in a God who works in salvation history, “contemplation” is called for. According to St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, “meditare” means to have a clear imaginative experience of the salvation of Christ in the center of one’s own thoughts and heart, while “contemplare” means that the individual ego becomes the “temple” in which the salvation of God is present. “Gustare” (taste) has meaning because the God who makes himself present can also be tasted inwardly.[8] Romano Guardini writes in On the Spirit of the Liturgy, which brought him to the heights of renown in 1918:

It is only truth–or dogma, to give it its other name–which can make prayer efficacious, and impregnate it with that austere, protective strength without which it degenerates into weakness (. . . .) Dogmatic thought brings release from the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion.[9]

Secular show-business may be able to produce emotions through dolled up festivity just as well as a creatively executed religious service. Lest I be misunderstood: of course the uplifting of the soul is also dependent on how well we prepare the liturgy, on whether we employ effort and care. Religious service must be prepared as well as possible; liturgical plans must be made; music must be practiced; ministers must be instituted, taught, and trusted as the most important and pastorally dedicated assistants to the liturgist … nevertheless the goal is not perfect staging or an impressive sacred show. This cannot be the goal, because emotions pop like bubbles. They are only ad hoc and then come to naught. In the Sacrament, by contrast, God comes “with light steps,”” but he comes on a much deeper and more inward plane than the most beautiful possible form. The divine Logos uplifts not only our momentary feelings, but our entire life.

2.3. Spiritualizing through “Ordo”

The third way the beauty of the liturgy affects the soul lies in its capacity to “spiritualize,” since it is itself, in all its perceptible sights and sounds, an act of “spiritualization.” We must connect it to the “leiturgia logike,” a Pauline expression from the Epistle to the Romans, in which Paul handles the themes of redemption through atonement and justification through faith, laying the intellectual foundations of soteriology. The “leiturgia logike” stands not only in contradiction to magic spells, trances, and irrational ecstasies, which were present in all antique cults, especially the mystery cults; the term “rational liturgy” interprets what is most inherent to the Christian cult. It describes the Christian cult through the death and resurrection of Christ as a sublimation of the Jewish victim-and-atonement ritual. Romans 12:1 says: “I admonish you, brethren, through the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, as your leiturgia logike, (rational service) to God.” The point of connection with “leiturgia” is unambiguous in Romans 3:25, where Paul symbolizes the “sacrifice of atonement” according to the ritual sacrifice of Yom Kippur: “God has established him, Christ, as sacrifice of atonement…”

Paul knew the sacrificial cult of the temple, he knew the daily slaughter of animals before the altar of burnt sacrifice, the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial animals, the ceaseless burning of the victims of sacrificial atonement with their skin and hair in order to remit sins, represented in the blood and the animal. Today we are scarcely conscious of the extent to which Judaism, (until the year 70 when Jerusalem was taken by Titus and the sumptuous Herodian Temple was burned to the ground,) was an outwardly sensual and extremely cultic religion. At the center of all was the sacrificial cult in the temple on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, the footstool of the invisible and unnamable God. The cult of the temple witnessed an endless succession of sacrificial rituals. Following the Gospel exegete Joachim Jeremias, we must imagine the halls as a great slaughterhouse. The animals were delivered to death, taking the place of sins. Their lives were taken, for only thus could the death of man’s relationship with God, which came about by a trespass of the law, be overcome.

Sanguis_Christi_-_Scuola_Bernini_Museo_di_Ariccia
Sanguis Christi – Scuola Bernini Museo di Ariccia

On Holy Saturday, the Church sings these words, put into her mouth by Christ:“O mors ero mors tua. – O death, I will be your death.” When the young Church recognized the cross of Christ as the moment of salvation, Christ himself as the sacrifice of atonement and the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, then it was clear for her that all the bloody cult of sacrifice had been abrogated once and for all. Christianity was a cult-revolution in antiquity. The bloodletting of Golgotha makes all man-made victims obsolete. There is now just the “leiturgia logike,” the spiritual, rational liturgy. It is telling that the Epistle to the Hebrews signifies the Christian religious service as “the sacrifice of praise” and “fruit of the lips.” And in the fact, inexplicable in itself, that early Christians refused to express their civic loyalty by sacrificing before images of the emperor, we can see a clear result of this spiritualization. There is no longer any other sacrifice efficacious before God, save the one of Golgotha. There are also no longer any priests in the plural, but only the one Jesus Christ.

The Council of Trent teaches that the Holy Mass alone makes the one and only sacrifice of Christ present, just as the consecrated priest is only a priest insofar as he participates in the one high-priesthood of Christ. The Mass of the Church is therefore always spiritual; it is always a form for the sake of its content and never the reverse; the sensible is called in to perform the task of displaying the spiritual. That also means that outward beauty is directed towards inward beauty. Our soul is ordered “per visibilia ad invisibilia – through the visible to the invisible.” In a phrase of the Preface of the Nativity, we are even “rapt” (rapiamur) into the sphere of the divine.

This ordering, this spiritualizing “ordo,” is the proper goal of the liturgical action. Hence the term “ordo” is an important category, since with this Latin expression we signify indeed not only the sacrament of ordination, but also the normative liturgical action: Ordo Missae (the rite of the Mass), Ordo Exequiarum (the rite of burial), Ordo Baptismi (the rite of Baptism) etc. The spitualizing element lies in the term “Ordo,” which is sadly not retained in the German translation: the Synod of Würzberg (1971-1975) concluded that the rituals of the sacraments generally should not be given the name “order,” but should be called “celebrations.” In place of “Ordo Missae” comes “the celebration of the Mass,” and thence elsewhere “the celebration of baptism,” “the celebration of ordination,” “the celebration of religious vows,” and even “the celebration of burial.” On the one hand this is gratifying, since no one would have expected so much “festivity”[10] from a synod in the 70s. Of course, what is at stake has nothing to do with festivity, but with another, very well grounded cause: the sense of community in the liturgical act, a sense which must lie at the foundation of every act worthy to be called a “celebration.”

The Roman sobriety that “ordo” connotes is better, in my view, because it points to the spiritual. Our liturgy, indeed, always takes its life from a prescription that God has set forth. The prescribed form is at the same time the subjective content. Paul reverently emphasizes it in the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians, where he repeats his great commission, saying that he only passes down “what he himself has received.” He then repeats a formulary from an early Christian Mass Canon that corresponds word for word to the report of the Last Supper in the Gospel of Luke. This spiritualizing power of the prescribed and pre-formulated is something that we monks are permitted to experience in choral prayer: we do not just pray some invented texts, but the psalms inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thus our prayer unites us with souls at prayer for the last three millennia, and with all their emotions and thoughts. Saint Benedict does not want us to make up our prayers, but to allow ourselves to be consecrated in the realm of what has already been given by the Holy Spirit: “ut mens nostra concordat voci nostrae.” The texts should form our souls, not vice versa.

It is proper therefore to the spiritual beauty of the liturgy to cleave to the liturgical “ordines.” Today we urgently require a liturgy that has the power to resist the cult of egomania, the idolatry of the “I-me-mine” and subjectivism’s reign of terror. Liturgical norms do not spoil the play, but rather free us for true play. Romano Guardini says: “To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight–not to create, but to exist–such is the essence of the liturgy.”[11] (We will hear more about this.)

As an example for priests, I must also point out that the value of the liturgical order also comes from its high character-forming value for the celebrant: it guards both from being subjectively uptight and from pietistic dawdling. There is a serenity that comes from fitting oneself into an ordo. It is important for young candidates for the priesthood to learn the ordo for the celebration and administration of sacraments thoroughly. The more one has learned to move in the postures, sequences, gestures, and formulations, the less he will be enslaved to himself. Then the whole thing does not depend on the celebrant, on whether he, as we say today, “gets along well with people.” Rather, something supernatural will happen: Christ enters with grace into the heart of the celebrant.

Indeed, I have experienced it myself as the master of ceremonies: self-abandonment to the form is precisely what makes one free for the essential. The formula detaches the soul, readying it for the substantial. The natural turns into the habit of the supernatural; the banal is overcome, and becomes the sacred, while movement and chant become art. I shall quote Guardini again, who put it this way: “The liturgy is art, translated into the terms of life”![12]

Balthasar (Heiligenkreutz)
Monks in choir at Heiligenkreutz Abbey

The ordo is therefore constitutive for the beauty of our spiritual experience of the liturgy, since it connects the liturgist horizontally with the present church, which is indeed the oldest “Global-Player,” which indeed universally (“kat’ holon”), embraces all cultures and races, all countries and continents. The content of the approved liturgical Ordo, however, puts us vertically under the authority of God, concretized and made contemporary through the apostolic authority of Peter and the successors to the apostles. Not for nothing do the post-conciliar documents warn against making the liturgy into a demonstration of private theology or even private teaching. “Quot sacerdotes, tot liturgiae – there are as many liturgies as there are priests” is a misleading statement, which we owe to the spirit of the times and certainly not to the Holy Spirit. Joseph Ratzinger says that the priest has the duty to lead the congregation in such a way that there is something inaccessible and not manipulable, into which he also fits, so that he is not a director, but only an actor, standing in as a tool in the hands of the divine director. Ratzinger in fact also warns of a new clericalism, where the priest becomes the artist behind the action, who has entertained the audience through his own doing. Liturgy celebrated in this way does not open the spiritual windows, through which our soul is not able to catch a glimpse of the realm of God’s beauty. Rather, through such actions our souls are locked away in the dungeon of the purely worldly. That is not beautiful, but at most entertaining.

3. The Therapeutic Power of Aimlessness

I conclude. Starting from the dogmatic foundation of God’s turning towards us, we assert that where the Liturgy is celebrated “beautifully” with all human devotion, a detachment, uplifting, and spiritualizing of the soul occurs. There follows a transformation, for though the beauty of the liturgy influences the soul, our worship is only truly beautiful when it arises from the purity of conviction, as Benedict XVI so forcefully taught us. Liturgy is only beautiful then and because of this, when the magnificent God shines in it as the subject of an event concealed from the senses. There it reveals even a therapeutic power. All of this presumes the right inner disposition of the liturgist, and his effort to worthily celebrate the ordo.

Pope Benedict XVI should have the final word. He says:

“With every endeavor for the Liturgy the glance much be decisively on God. We stand before God – he speaks with us, and we with him. Wherever one considers with liturgical consciousness how he can make the liturgy attractive, interesting, or beautiful, the liturgy has already fallen away. Either it is the opus Dei with God as the actual subject or it is not. I pray on this site: with the holy liturgy formed from viewing God in the community of the saints, of the living church of all places and times, may it become an expression of the beauty and sublimity of the God who loves mankind!”[13]

Source for German text:
Schönheit der Liturgie – Schönheit der Seele, in: ders. (Hg.), Fünf-vor-Elf. Beiträge zur Theologie. Band 2 der Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Dogmatik und Fundamentaltheologie an der Phil.-Theol. Hochschule Benedikt XVI. Heiligenkreuz, Be&Be-Verlag: Heiligenkreuz 2010, 137 – 154.


NOTES:

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, Collected Works, vol. 2, ed. Gerhard Ludwig Muller, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014.

[2] On the theme of liturgical form, see Martin Mosebach’s essays “Return to Form,” First Things, April 2017, “Holy Routine: The Mystery of Repetition,” First Things, September 2017, and his important book The Heresy of Formlessness, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2006. (Editors’ note)

[3] This is the nom-de-plume of Austrian artist and architect Friedrich Stowasser, which could be roughly translated as “Peace-Realm Hundred-Water.” He was famous for eschewing straight lines in his bold and colorful designs,.

[4] Benedict XVI., Sacramentum Caritatis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, 2007, Nr. 58-60. [Version taken from the Vatican website.]

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Address on September 9 2007 in Heiligenkreuz monastery.

[6] Tract 6 in Joannem, the sermon for the feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the Breviary of St Pius V and the Monastic Breviary. (Editors’ note)

[7] Modern entertainment in show-business, film, and radio are able to produce a variety of psychological effects. Sadness, joy, anger, fear, even ecstasy, arousal, inspiration, etc. are induced with great skill. A piece of entertainment may be funny at one moment and scary in the next. For an example, take the Youtube videos of the so called “Körperzellen Rock” [“Body-Cell Rock”], in which old and middle-aged people are so transported into ecstasy at the line “every cell is happy,” that they have to be dragged out of traffic by policemen, and all without the influence of alcohol. Indeed, group dynamic has a suggestive power. But, according to our understanding, the liturgy is the exact opposite of demagoguery and technically induced trance. Our liturgy is, in its essence, not a skillful production after which everyone congratulates one another in the sacristy — “Today we were great again!”– People who say this betray the fact that they only celebrate themselves and not God, whose love drives him to open his “tent,” his “tabernacle” among us.

[8] One may note the difference between the eastern mantra-meditation, in which the object is to avoid all thought and imagining, and the Christian rosary, which indeed is all about freeing thoughts from words. But not in order to be darkened in the cloud of the unimaginable, but “to contemplate the secrets” and make them contemporary to me in my imagination. Said differently: the rosary makes possible a true liberation from thought, and can also be edifying. But a return to the Logos is also possible at the same time and, above all else, to be desired.

[9] Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, translated by Ada Lane, 1933, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 126.

[10] Note that the German Feierlichkeit can also mean “solemnity,” which was not a popular theme in the 1970s. (Editors’ note)

[11] R. Guardini, 181.

[12] R. Guardini, 185.

[13] Pope Benedict XVI, Address on 9th September 2007 in Stift Heiligenkreuz.

One thought on “Beauty of the Liturgy, Beauty of the Soul: An Essay by Dom Karl Wallner, O. Cist.

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