Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

Sermon Lengths Should Vary

A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows the rather unsurprising fact that sermons at Catholic masses are much shorter than those at Protestant and Evangelical services. The Catholic News Agency reports:

An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons, given across a variety of Christian denominations during the months of April and May this year, found that the median length of a sermon was 37 minutes, but for Catholic priests, the average length was just 14 minutes.

Pew found that historically black Protestant sermons had the longest median length of 54 minutes, while mainline Protestant sermons were an average of 25 minutes long, with evangelical churches falling in between at 39 minute [sic] per sermon (CNA).

Catholic clergy are generally considered to be poorer preachers than their Protestant counterparts, and I would argue that the shorter sermon length has something to do with that. The expectation that a sermon be brief, about twelve minutes, affects what is said and how it is said. It also makes a number of forms of preaching, some of them among the most satisfying for the congregation, impossible.

Some years ago, a brother priest asked one of his parishioners who had left for a large Protestant denomination why he had done so. “They teach the Word,” was the man’s answer. We can certainly lament that the man would not have left the faith had he understood the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but people also have a hunger for God’s Word effectively taught and presented. For this reason, a good sermon deeply rooted in a biblical text is very satisfying. Long before I was ordained a priest, I listened to recordings of Protestant preachers like Adrian Rogers and Tony Evans. I marveled at how these men could take a text and teach from it line by line, creatively applying it to life. Even if I did not agree with every point they made or thought that they missed something that a Catholic would see, they saw the text as full of meaning and served up rich spiritual fare for their listeners.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen had this ability, too. He’d find a crucial point most others would miss and develop it beautifully. I remember once he noted that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat and emphasized the detail in the text that said, “They had only one loaf with them in the boat.” With the authority that only Sheen could command he proceeded to say, “And the loaf was Christ, who alone is our necessary Bread.” From this insightful teaching he went on to develop four aspects of it.

This sort of teaching and preaching takes time. I would argue that the relative inferiority of Catholic preaching isn’t just that Catholic clergy are poorly trained; it is also the limited time tolerated by the faithful. With such an abbreviated length, Catholic sermons tend to present a single principle drawn from the readings without being able to fully develop it. Good biblically based preaching usually involves going through a passage in the following steps: read it, analyze it, organize it, illustrate it, and then apply it. This sort of preaching isn’t likely to happen in a twelve-minute homily.

I also am told by many Catholics that priests need to teach more from the pulpit. There is a very long list of topics that they want to hear preached about more. I would argue that this also requires more than a mere twelve minutes.

I do not say that every member of the clergy should preach longer. Some simply don’t have the skill to do so. Others are in situations were a longer sermon is not possible due to the overall Mass schedule. There are also going to be ethnic/racial differences that factor in. So, neither do I argue that longer sermons teaching in depth out of a biblical text should be used in all situations. However, I do argue that if they want the “better” sermons of the denominations noted for excellent preaching, more Catholics might want to consider tolerating a longer sermon, at least at certain Masses.

I have spent most of my priesthood in predominantly African-American parishes. In such congregations, longer sermons are assumed. The people have high expectations of the sermon; they also interact with the preacher through encouraging interjections such as “Amen” and “All right now.” In these settings I routinely preach about thirty minutes; it is a great luxury. This permits me to preach through a biblical text examining its stages or exploring several aspects of the teaching it sets forth. Most of you who read my Sunday sermons posted here or listen to them online know this. One sermon might cover four aspects of discipleship derived from a Gospel pericope. Another might explore the stages of faith the man born blind goes through in the Gospel of John. Most of my parishioners would be surprised if I gave a ten-minute sermon, wondering what had happened. Once when I gave a short sermon a woman playfully rebuked me, saying, “Father, you left too much fruit in the tree this morning. We need a better harvest next week.”

Some Catholics have told me that they think long sermons are a mistake no matter who is in the pulpit because the purpose of the Mass is not to be a glorified bible study; it is an act of worship. Perhaps, but isn’t the Lord being worshipped when the faithful are attending to His proclaimed and preached Word with devotion?

Over the years, I have found that people have pretty strong opinions about sermons, both length and content. I suppose the best way for me to end this piece is by saying that perhaps we can all make a little room for one another in the Church. Some priests preach longer and are good at it. Some are not and better off keeping the sermon short and to the point. Other priests preach brilliant, memorable homilies that are quite brief. Vive la différence! Even in my own parish, not every liturgy is the same: our 11:00 AM Mass runs well over an hour, while our 7:00 PM Mass is no longer than forty-five minutes. Hence, in my own sermons, both content and length vary.

The one thing that is most clear to me is that rigid declarations that no sermon should be longer than a certain number of minutes (8, 10, 12, or whatever) are disrespectful of legitimate differences across cultures, liturgical traditions, and even personal temperaments. Pastors and congregations can and should work out their own situations and provide variety even there. Live and let live.

This sermon clip shows that, when I have to, I can preach in under four minutes. This was a half-hour TV Mass and only four minutes for the sermon is allotted. I certainly don’t consider it one of my better efforts and would liked to have developed the possibility that St. John did have supernatural grace. But all that one can do in so brief a moment is to throw out a few thoughts and exit gracefully. In my written online sermon I developed, in three stages, going from the imperfect gift we merely want to the perfect gift that God is actually offering.  In my recorded parish homily, given the generous time allotted in that setting I was able to sample well from the Prophets as well as the Gospel text itself. 

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.

When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

Determination About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance … suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance … all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

Dignity When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship [The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

The Liturgy is More Than a Text

One of the greatest liturgical shifts in the last sixty years has been in the area of language and the spoken word. Although the almost complete disappearance of Latin is lamentable, the use of the vernacular has arguably had some positive effects. To my mind, the augmentation of the Scriptures used has been notable and helpful. In addition, greater emphasis has been placed on preaching and preparing the clergy to be able to preach well.

The most recent debates concern a thirty-year struggle in English-speaking areas to get authentic translations of the Latin texts promulgated. The emphasis on and debate about the texts of the liturgy is necessary and has had good effects.

However, this focus on the texts has tended to reduce the liturgy to its texts alone, as if the intelligibility of the vernacular text ensures that the Mass is understood. Supposedly, people can now “understand” what is going on and what is being said. Other areas such as architectural and aesthetic beauty, music, the ars celebrandi (the manner in which the clergy and ministers conduct themselves during the liturgy), and deeper theological understanding and appreciation of the liturgy have all suffered as a result. It does matter whether the church building is awe-inspiring or ugly, whether the music is inspiring and teaches sound doctrine or is mundane and devoid of doctrine (or even contains faulty doctrine). There is more to focus on that just making sure that liturgical texts are intelligible and the Homily “meaningful.” God is worthy of our best and His people respond to more than just words.

Perhaps a quote from Rev. Uwe Michael Lang would be helpful:

The sacred liturgy speaks through a variety of “languages” other than language in the strict sense. [These are] non-verbal symbols which are capable of creating a structure of meanings in which individuals can relate one to another. … It is my conviction that these non-linguistic or symbolic expressions of the liturgy are, in fact, more important than language itself.

This would seem especially pertinent in today’s world where images are omnipresent: on TV, video and computer screens …. We live in a culture of images …. Today the image tends to make a more lasting impression on people’s minds than the spoken word.

The power of image has long been known in the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has used sacred art and architecture as a medium of expression and communication.

But, in more recent times [there is] observed a tendency to see liturgy only as text. And to limit participation to speaking roles …. It certainly applies to a broad stream of liturgical scholarship that has largely focused on liturgical texts that are contained in written sources from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. … This approach is legitimate, at least to a large extent, because the Church’s public worship is ordered to the official texts she uses for it.

However, … it is sometimes forgotten that the liturgy is not simply a series of texts to be read, but rather a series of sacred actions to be done … words, music, and movement, together with other visual, even olfactory elements (Sacred Liturgy: The Proceedings of the International Conference on the Sacred Liturgy 2013, Ignatius Press, pp. 187-189).

Rev. Lang does not assert that the sacred texts are to be neglected but that things have gotten a bit out of balance and it is time to put more focus on other aspects of the liturgy for a while. Even a text translated authentically and well-delivered can fall flat in an atmosphere of sloppy liturgy, ugly and uninspiring architecture, and insipid music. Thus, we do well to spend some time now on visual and other non-verbal aspects.

However, we must be careful not to go too far and reduce the liturgy to merely an aesthetically pleasing action rather than an act of worship.

For example, almost no one asks at the end of a Mass, “Was God worshiped?” Instead, many other questions and concerns occur to clergy. Were the lectors good? Did the Homily go well? Were the servers well-trained? The laity will often rate the liturgy on such things as the perceived quality of the Homily, the use of their favorite songs, the style of worship, and the hospitality level. But almost no one asks the key question: Was God fittingly worshiped? (or more personally, “Did I worship God?”)

Sometimes the honest answer is no. People largely went through motions and focused more on themselves and what they were doing, or on others and what they were doing, or on whether they “liked it” or not. God was barely considered at all. He may have been spoken to and referenced, but he was not really worshiped.

Yes, the liturgy is more than a text. Those texts are to be cherished and proclaimed accurately, but other sacred actions and dispositions are important as well. Beauty, reverence, and a manifest joy and humility before God are also to be cultivated. Above all else we must be able to say that we worshiped God fittingly.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Liturgy is More Than a Text

The Key Question of Every Liturgy

There is a legend that explains how the liturgy and the faith took hold in Rus (Russia):

Prince Vladimir of Kiev, seeking a right worship for his people, sent representatives to look into various faiths as well as liturgies. When emissaries went south to observe the Greek Christian Liturgy, they returned saying that they were not sure if they had been in Heaven or on Earth, so beautiful was what they had seen in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. They were sure that God dwelt there among men.

The roots of Christian faith among the Russians are obviously a lot more complicated. However, the legend does capture the fact that the Byzantine Liturgy of the Eastern Church was a significant factor in advancing Christianity among the people who populate what is today Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and other nearby lands.

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), although noting the legendary quality of the story, underscored that the Sacred Liturgy can and does have a missionary quality that can inspire and draw others to the one true God.

Exactly how the liturgy does this, however, is a matter of debate. Some say that it is essentially the beauty of the liturgy and its ability to draw us away from the mundane that leads people to God. Others emphasize the liturgy’s ability to teach; the elements of the liturgy must be intelligible and easily grasped by the faithful and made applicable to daily life.

Of course we want to avoid a false dichotomy, in which one vision must be chosen to the exclusion of the other. Both notions have important insights. Yet in our time it is clear that at least in the Roman Liturgy, the emphasis has fallen on making the liturgy more intelligible and “relevant” to modern life, than ethereal and meant to draw us up and out of the ordinary through sublime beauty.

Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in 2005, said of this trend,

The way of thinking about “missionary liturgy” that became widespread in the fifties is, at the least, ambiguous and problematical. In many circles, among people concerned with liturgy, it led, in a quite inappropriate fashion, to turning a didactic element in the liturgy, and its comprehensibility even for outsiders, into the primary standard for shaping liturgical celebrations. Likewise, the saying that the choice of liturgical forms must be made with respect to “pastoral” points of view betrays the same anthropocentric error. The liturgy is then being constructed entirely for men. … Thus suggestions for styling liturgy became profane models, drawn for instance from the way meetings are held … or socialization rituals. God does not actually play a role there; it is all concerned with winning people over, or keeping them happy and satisfying their demands. … No faith [is] aroused in that way (Theology of the Liturgy, p. 332).

His language is quite strong here. Yet the influence of anthropocentricism (the belief that man rather than God is the central or most important entity in existence) in liturgy remains a consistent, troubling trend. It is a hard mentality to break in a culture so centered on consumerism and “pleasing the customer.” This may work well in markets, but in faith and to some degree in education, it is a harmful trend. God, the liturgy, and truth itself do not exist to please us, but rather to summon us to challenging heights, beyond our mere pleasures and passions.

I have written about anthropocentrism in greater detail before (here). While we obviously cannot wholly abandon a notion of the liturgy being intelligible, we are ultimately being drawn into mysteries above and beyond us. Thus, the liturgy should have mysterious and sublime aspects.

In the same essay, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote,

What persuaded the emissaries of the Russian Prince of the truth of the faith celebrated in the … liturgy was not … arguments that seemed clearer than those of other religions. What moved them was in fact the mystery as such, which demonstrated the power of the truth actually, transcending the arguments of reason … The Byzantine liturgy was not, and is not, concerned to indoctrinate other people or show them how pleasing and entertaining it might be. What was impressive about it was particularly its sheer lack of practical purpose, the fact that it was being done for God and not for spectators. … It was simply striving to be pleasing to God as the sacrifice of Abel had been pleasing to God … turning the gaze toward God was what allowed God’s light to stream down [and] … be detected even by outsiders (Ibid, p. 331-332).

And there is the money quote: it was being done for God and not for spectators. … It was simply striving to be pleasing to God.

How different this is from today, when the liturgy seems so focused on us! Everything must be understood (using the vernacular both literally and figuratively). Music must not be too taxing; it must be something the people can easily sing along with. Rituals must not be too elaborate. Ironically, in the one place where intelligibility is most important (the homily), it is often said that it should be brief, more exhortatory than instructive.

None of these things are intrinsically bad, but they are out of balance. There is little notion that the liturgy is directed first and foremost to God, that it is worship of God, that the rituals are for Him and are a sacrifice of praise, not merely a ceremony that pleases us.

It is fair to say that in the older form of the Roman Rite (especially low Mass) the people were so uninvolved as to be almost unnecessary, an afterthought. Everything was done by the priest and the servers. But perhaps we have overcorrected. Turning toward the people, introducing more vernacular, and simplifying the rites were seen as a way to involve and reintegrate the whole people of God, the whole Body of Christ, into the sacred action of Christ as Head and High Priest giving perfect worship to the Father.

Now may be the time for us to consider bringing back the balance we have lost, reintroducing sacred language, and teaching that God and the worship of Him are the essential focus of our liturgy. A gentle reintroduction of orienting especially the Eucharistic Prayer toward God through a unified posture and direction of all toward the cross may be helpful (under the guidance of the bishop). The Liturgy of the Word can and should remain directed toward the people, for they are the target of this proclamation.

Many will debate exactly what should be done and how quickly, but it seems clear that balance needs to be restored in most parish settings. The ultimate goal, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, is that our Liturgy be done for God more so than for man, that we simply strive to be pleasing to God. The inclusion of God’s people is important, but not in a way that neglects our collective purpose of worshiping God, who is worthy of our sacrifice of praise. The liturgy should not be reduced merely to what pleases us.

Pope Benedict observed elsewhere that for those who prefer traditional Liturgy there is also a risk in reducing the liturgy to mere aestheticism, in which what is considered beautiful and more ancient is preferred for only those reasons. The manifestation may be loftier and less worldly, but the error is the same: that the liturgy’s purpose is to cater to man’s tastes. Things in the traditional arena can get very particular, such that Roman vs. Gothic vestments, tabernacle veils vs. none, or a missed genuflection by the celebrant can become contentious issues and lead to uncharitable remarks after Mass.

There is not room in this post to lay out the essentials of liturgy as Scripture sets them forth. (I have done that on the blog in the past: here.) God gave at least the essentials to Moses on Mount Sinai, to His disciples at the Last Supper, and to John in Revelation 4, 5, and 8. From these essentials we build and set our focus on what pleases God.

The deepest questions to answer after any liturgy should be these: “Was God worshipped?” and “Was God the true focus of our hearts?”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Key Question of Every Liturgy

A Prayer for the Internet from the 1946 Roman Ritual? Sure, and It’s Wonderful!

telegraphThe old Roman Ritual (published in 1946) is a magnificent collection of blessings and prayers. It has some of the most amazing little blessings of things it would never occur to you to find in such a collection. Along with the blessings of expected objects (e.g., statues, religious medals) are blessings, often elaborately laid out, for things such as seismographs, typewriters, printing presses, fishing boats, fire engines, stables, medicine, wells, bridges, archives, lime kilns, automobiles, mountain-climbing equipment, and electric dynamos.

In that old ritual (which it is permitted to use), there is a remarkable prayer for a telegraph—yes, a telegraph. It quite elaborately lays out psalms and antiphons, but I will only present here the prayer of gratitude at the end, just before blessing it with Holy Water.

To my mind, it is also applicable as a prayer, expression of gratitude, and blessing for a computer or for the extended “cloud” of computers known as the Internet. The prayer is both thrilling and fitting. It is a minor masterpiece if you ask me. Though written sometime prior to 1945, and likely after 1830, its basic structure fits well what we do now with the Internet.

Without further ado, here is the prayer, first in the original Latin, and then translated by Father Philip Weller:

Deus qui ámbulas super pennas ventórum, et facis mirabília solus: concéde, ut per vim huic metállo índitam fulmíneo ictu celérius huc abséntia, et hinc álio praeséntia transmíttis; ita nos invéntis novis edócti, tua grátia opitulánte, prómptius et facílius ad te veníre valeámus. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

O God, who walkest upon the wings of the wind, and alone workest wonders; by the power inherent in this metal, thou dost bring hither distant things quicker than lightning, and transferrest present things to distant places. Therefore, grant that, instructed by new inventions, we may merit, by thy bounteous grace, to come with greater certainty and facility to thee. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sign of the Cross + and sprinkling with Holy Water

Magnificent! It almost paints a picture in the mind. Yes, such beauty, and a picture of the swiftness of information going hither and yon, like lightning, or as on the wings of the wind. May this wondrous tool serve to draw us closer to God and not be corrupted by sinful curiosity, hostility, defamation, profanation, or prurient temptations.

One word, “metal,” may need adjusting in order to use it for a computer or the Internet. What word would you suggest (perhaps silicon)? Perhaps simply “computer” would work, but more is in mind: the whole Internet is part of what we are grateful for and ask blessings for. Of course we may not be in a position to bless the entire Internet, and our blessing or prayer of gratitude is only to be directed to our computer, our one portal to the vast communication network. Anyway, this is just a thought.

The video below of the history of the telegraph reminds us that the first telegraph message sent by Samuel Morse was “What hath God wrought?” This almost seems to have influenced the prayer in the ritual!

 

In Loud and Strident Times, the Sacred Liturgy Can Restore Us to Balance

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often-strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have recently been republished in a larger compendium of his works: Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. He paraphrased an insight by Gandhi, applied it to his analysis of our times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today—I would like to add—we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth. …

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. …

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the Liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, though, we are too often preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world.

Good and proper liturgy trains us in all three aspects (silence, shouting, and singing) and accomplishes the balance that is often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Recovering Reverence for the Lord

We live in times when many trivialize God or at least reduce Him to someone who can be managed and understood. God the Father has become more of a grandfather or a philosopher king than the Ancient of Days, dwelling in unapproachable light, surrounded in angelic praise and with fire going out before Him. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is just a quiet dove or a gentle force rather than the rushing wind and tongues of fire that stirred the early Church. Finally, Jesus is reduced to the laid back, harmless hippie talking about flowers and birds, or some social reformer who just “cares” for people rather one who challenges them and insists they accept His truths.

Even before His resurrection and ascension, Jesus was no pushover to those who really encountered Him: demons trembled before Him, religious leaders feared Him with an almost apoplectic reaction, people fell to their knees in front of Him, and His own apostles were described by Mark as amazed and afraid (Mk 10:32). Jesus’ words and answers left the crowds spellbound and even His enemies were afraid to ask Him any more questions.

The reworked Jesus of our dainty times bears little resemblance to the Jesus of Scripture, even before His glorification in the resurrection and ascension; after His ascension Jesus’ glory is beyond description. Even John, who likely knew His gentleness better than anyone, fell to his feet when he encountered the glorified Christ of Heaven:

On the Lord’s day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, saying, “Write in a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was One like the Son of Man, dressed in a long robe, with a golden sash around His chest. The hair of His head was white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. He held in His right hand seven stars, and a sharp double-edged sword came from His mouth. His face was like the sun shining at its brightest. When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man (Rev 1:10-17).

Jesus seeks to reassure John, but He does not do so by offering him the ancient equivalent of a “high five.” Rather, He speaks out of His glory and to the assurance and obedience that glory should inspire:

But He placed His right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last, the Living One. I was dead, and behold, now I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of Death and of Hades. Therefore, write down the things you have seen, and the things that are, and the things that will happen after this (Rev. 1:18-19).

For all of us, a balance must be found between a cringing fear and the widespread trivializing of the Lord that has taken place in our times. Jesus is the ruler of the Kings of this earth, the Great I AM, and Lord of all, and he loves us and has died for us. All of this should inspire a deep love for him and a reverential spirit that is both docile and grateful.

In his book Humility Rules, Fr. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. writes,

I was visiting a church not long ago when I noticed a boy in line for Communion wearing a t-shirt that read “Jesus is my homeboy.” I guess I can see how that might help … when it comes to rediscovering one’s dignity as a brother of Christ; but remember, Jesus is also our King. If you don’t find his divine power a little intimidating, there is probably something wrong with you. … We should not be in the habit of thinking that Jesus would be grateful for our friendship. We should love him, but we should also be in awe of him. Don’t get me wrong, our ultimate objective is to discover the perfect love that “casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18), but be careful you don’t wind up sliding into a comfortable familiarity that drives out all respect … fear and love must go together (Humility Rules, pp 32-34).

Amen!

Liturgically in the last fifty years we have also reflected and reinforced a casual and overly familiar relationship with God. People used to dress up for church, keep a reverent silence prior to Mass, and be more serious about the state of their soul before approaching Holy Communion. Today, much of this is gone. Today many people dress casually at Mass, barely reflect on their worthiness to receive Communion, and seem more focused on the human dimension of the liturgy. Beginning in the 1960s the emphasis was on the Mass as a meal and so it should look and be like one. Thus, altars were turned around and made to look like tables (frankly not nearly as nice as my mother’s dining room table), and sacrificial language was lost. It also seemed a rather casual meal at that. The chalices were gone, replaced by pottery and ceramic vessels; the hosts got bigger and more “pita-like.”

Much of this was based on a mistaken notion that the Mass is a representation or reenactment of the Last Supper—it is not. It is the making present of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Even at the Last Supper, Christ pointed beyond it, to the cross and resurrection. And even if the Last Supper is recalled, we ought to remember that the Passover meal (the context for the Last Supper) was no casual affair. Only the best was used; formality and ancient customs prevailed for this night that was different from every other night.

Slowly we are (and must continue) regaining in the liturgy an appropriate formality that reflects the respect and reverence we should have for the Lord. Dennis McNamara, in his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, reminds us,

Liturgical imagery must rise above both the saccharine, porcelain-doll portraits of the 19th century holy cards and the hyper-realistic and overly optimistic imagery of Christ as a chummy first century Mediterranean blessing our children [and hugging us on judgment day] ….

The Liturgical Christ is Sovereign Mediator between God and man, the eternal High Priest, the divine Teacher, the judge of the living and the dead, caught up into the light of eternity, and [beyond] time and space. The Liturgical Christ cannot be domesticated (p. 75).

Yes, He is the great High Priest, judge of the world, and the Lord who is to come. He enters our assembly and walks the aisle as we sing a hymn of praise to Him. He teaches in the liturgy with authority and we stand in respect as His Gospel is announced. He dons priestly robes and enters on our behalf into the Holy of Holies in Heaven and we rightly fall to our knees. Scripture says, Let all the angels of God worship him (Heb 1:6). Scripture also asks, [T]o which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you”? (Heb 1:5)

There is too little of this appreciation in our modern liturgies. I do not claim that the only remedy is to use more ancient forms. There are modern forms that can and do capture the glory of God. Gospel music, for example, emphasizes a high Christology and a Christ who can do anything but fail, who can make a way out of no way, and of whose goodness “I cannot tell it all.” A modern Christian song by Hillsong speaks of the Lord as King over the storm, in whom I will be still and know that He is God. The more ancient forms have much to teach us as well, for they strongly emphasize the otherness of God and a reverential stance and silence before Him. He is above the latest trends and ephemeral issues.

To a domesticated notion of God, I can only cry, “May reverence, wonder, and awe be a gift to us in abundance!”

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:5-7).