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Entering into the ‘Spirit of the the Liturgy' with Guardini.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Guardini described the liturgy as a ‘sphere which is in a special sense free from purpose’ and a type of ‘spiritual world in which the soul can live according to the requirements of its nature.’ It is a ‘playful thing’ in which those gathered for the liturgy can be said to be at play—homo ludens—in the presence of God; it is like children’s play—it is ‘not there to achieve an end’ but is an end in and of itself. But if liturgy is play, then how does one ‘play’?

One should note that Guardini refers to the liturgy as ‘play’ and not as ‘a play’. This is an important distinction. Just as a film director may desire to visually imitate or re-create a scene from the past in order to re-present it to a new audience, transporting them, so to speak, to that era in which he is trying to depict, so too it can be said that a play imitates its object. The liturgy is celebrated not in the form of ‘a play’ but of ‘a liturgy’: ‘the object commemorated is not imitated, but translated into symbols’. Therefore, it can be said with confidence that Guardini would have little concern for trying to recreate the ‘set’ or ‘stage’ of the actual Last Supper: this is not the point of liturgy for him. The liturgy, also, does not have as the primary or exclusive aim ‘the individual’s reverence and worship for God’; nor is it particularly concerned with the ‘awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such.’ It is not even concerned with the bonding and unity of the gathered congregation, composed of various individuals, thus the liturgy is bigger than any one gathered group of people. The liturgy is primarily ‘the Church’s public and lawful act of worship’—the Church being that ‘body which infinitely outnumbers the mere congregation’. For Guardini, the liturgy should be seen as a gift, which is received rather than made. For this reason, the liturgy must be objective in nature. He describes the Catholic liturgy as ‘the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life’. It must be objective because the congregation gathers not to celebrate itself or any particular cause; rather it worships and ‘[discloses] its unity with Christ.’

To ensure the objective nature of the liturgy, Guardini says—consonant with Catholic teaching—that the liturgy is at the same time the lex orandi and the lex credendi; the liturgy is not the expression of ones feelings but instead is ‘nothing else but truth expressed in terms of prayer.’ In the context of Catholic tradition, truth is true for all times and places, unlike feelings, which come and go: they are contingent on an individual or group. If liturgy is for all, and is bigger than the ‘mere congregation’ gathered for Sunday Mass, it must be ‘primarily directed by thought, and not by feeling’; this will help ensure the objective nature of the liturgy. Ultimately, the liturgy ‘expresses the church as the body of Christ.’ In another book, Guardini says that participation in the liturgy ‘means to recognise Christ as the Logos, Creator, Redeemer’, most particularly at the consecration of the bread and wine, which are preceded ‘by the Epistle and Gospel, for each of the sacred texts is a clue to Christ’s identity’. Ultimately, for Guardini, recognition of the truth of Christ truly present in the Mass, translated into ‘gesture, act, word… in order for us to grasp it,’ is the essence of liturgy

One could be forgiven for thinking that the liturgy is a sort of cold, inhumane ‘exercise’, void of emotion in which the people have no real part: where is the ‘active participation’? Whilst it is true that Guardini emphasises the objective nature of the liturgy, this is not to say that one cannot experience the subjective through the objective; one can still encounter God personally, but that encounter is founded on objective truth and thought rather than ephemeral feelings. Guardini asserts that the individual enters into the liturgy by renouncing the ‘right of self-determination in spiritual activity’ and ‘spiritual isolation’. 

In the liturgy there is a ‘tension’ between the mind and body, an aspect key to grasping Guardini’s conception of ‘active participation’. Just as prayer is to be sustained and guided by religious thought, as noted above, so too in, a certain sense, bodily actions ought to be guided by a religiously informed mind; in this way, the bodily gestures expressed in the liturgy symbolise, or perhaps even incarnate, these ‘fundamental truths which above all fill the liturgy’. So for Guardini, action in the liturgy is not about doing something for the sake of doing something, or preventing boredom; bodily movement emanates from a meditation on the truth being communicated by the prayers of the liturgy.

As Guardini is concerned above all for the objective nature of the liturgy, he opines that ‘liturgical emotion is… exceedingly instructive’ whilst at the same time ‘as a rule it is controlled and subdued’—the ‘heart speaks powerfully, but thought at once takes the lead’; by this, Guardini indicates that ‘thought’, not ‘emotion’, has the final say in the liturgy. 

He compares the liturgy to art: the worshipper is like the artist who seeks to ‘give life to his being and its longings, to give external form to the inner truth’. The artist expresses his deepest thoughts and emotions, part of his being, through art; however, the canvas has boundaries and thus emotion has to be ‘restrained’. The form of the liturgy, it could be said, is the canvas, and the worshipper’s entering into the ‘spirit of the liturgy’ is that movement of the brush strokes of the artist, expressing that inner reality of the individual, the worshipping community, the wider Church. 

The key marks to remember are that for Guardini the objective character of the liturgy is paramount, and that the individuality of the congregants—and even of the priest—is subordinated to that of an objective order, which requires humility, charity and a ‘vigorous expansion of self’. The liturgy is a ‘sacred game’ for which ‘serious rules’ have been laid down and in which ‘the soul plays before God’.

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.


(Fr Martin J Clayton) commented on 03-Jun-2018 01:24 PM
Thank you. Much food for much-needed reflection. The liturgical pendulum needs to swing back from an over-emphasis on the 'subjective' dimension and a misguided form of 'creativity', not to mention the dominance of personality cults.
Liturgical leadership does not mean the imposition of personal taste and style, whether these be 'pre' or 'post' Vatican II - a point we priests need to remember !!
Robert commented on 04-Jun-2018 02:23 PM
Having looked Guardini up I am left wondering how it is that I had not heard of him. His Wiki entry describes Romano Guardini [1885-1968] as 'one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th Century'. A professor of Philosophy of Religion at University of Munich it is claimed he influenced both Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio. Apparently Guardini's book 'The End of the Modern World' was quoted eight times in Pope Francis' encyclical 'Laudato Si'.
He had great hopes for post-Conciliar liturgy that it would move away from 'ceremony' though important, to 'an act that embraced the whole man, body and spirit'.
The National Catholic Register [www.ncregister.com] indicates that his Cause for canonisation was opened was opened by the Archdiocese of Munich at the end of 2017.
Thank you, Br Joseph, for your introduction to this theologian/philosopher.

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