St. Augustine described the fundamental ailment of the human person when he described man as curvatus in se (turned in upon himself). St. Augustine had the individual in mind but I think communities can also turn in upon themselves.
Indeed, we have been through a difficult period of this sort in the Church, especially in regard to the way we celebrate the Liturgy, where the fundamental premise of unity seems to have become highly anthropocentric. That is to say we have understood the source of our unity to be primarily ourselves, rather than God. We may not have formally taught this, but it is implicit in many of things we have done. I have remarked on this in another post over a year ago which you can read here: Anthropocentric Attitudes But allow just a few examples from Church life to illustrate.
1. The Tabernacle, once invariably at the center of our churches, was placed to the side or in some chapel. It was almost as if Jesus was in the way, somehow, of what we wanted to accomplish in the Mass. Increasingly what it seems our focus shifted to was our very selves. The principle of unity was thus to be found in us.
2. The Linear and cruciform orientation of the church building gave way to the fan shaped and even circular buildings of the past forty years. Again the message seems to be that we should look at each other, and the main goal seems to be that we be able to see each other’s faces. It would be this that would enhance and create greater unity. Hence anything like tabernacles, candles, crosses, even altars that blocked the view of others was to be eliminated. The unity was to be found within the assembly and by a physically inward arrangement free of any obstacles.
3. Thus architectural minimalism became essential since the people and their ability to see each other and thus find unity were the main point. Large impressive altars, statues, high ceilings etc., anything that tended to draw attention away from others or bock the view of others, was to be removed. Somehow these outside and “distracting” objects, even if they were images of our Lord, offended against unity which was to be found within the “gathered” Church. I remember rather humorously a now deceased liturgist from the 1970s, (Eugene Walsh), coming to our parish and telling us that the altar should be no bigger than a night stand or side table and that the priest should never stand behind anything. Even our rather radical pastor at that time thought that was going a bit too far! The altar stayed.
4. The priest must face the people at all times. The ancient and common orientation of priest and people in one direction, all looking outward toward Christ, was replaced with an inward focus, a circle. This was said to create and emphasize unity in the gathered assembly. The principle of unity was within, among the humans gathered.
5. Self-congratulatory salutations abound. We are endlessly impressed and fascinated by what we are doing and who is doing it. At large parish masses announcements and congratulatory accolades for musicians, visitors, youth et al. may last longer than the homily or Eucharistic prayer. This is seen as affirming and community-building and thus, once again, the impression is created that the we are the main point and that our unity and gifts flow from us, and exist for us. That the worship of God should be the main point seems to many to be a downer or a distraction.
Now community is an essential partof who we are and why we are at Church. We do not come to Mass as a purely private moment with God and the Church is not a private oratory. Neither is this a question of the old versus the new Mass, for many of these trends set up wel before the missal of 1970. But in our attempt to emphasize the important and essential communal dimension of the liturgy, it seems we may have over-corrected. It also seems that we have set up a false dichotomy wherein focusing on God, on the vertical and outward dimension of liturgy, is necessarily to offend against the human and communal dimension of the Mass.
Not only is this dichotomy false but it also destroys the very unity it clams to serve. For, if we do not communally focus on the Lord, we have no true unity. It may be argued that there is some vaguely human sort of unity, but it really no different that the unity that exists among the members of a bowling league. And even the members of a bowling league know that at some point it is important to focus on the act of bowling rather than merely on each other. Something outside themselves (i.e. bowling) ultimately unites them.
It is the Lord who unites us – Hence in the Church and in the Liturgy we must resist the false dichotomy of pitting the focus on the Lord against the focus on ourselves. There really is only one focus, the Lord. And our common focus on him unites us. He and his grace are the source of our unity. This will not exclude our unity with each other, but enhance and deepen it. This of course seems an untenable thought to those who see unity as essentially a human work, rather than a mystical or divine one. But ultimately the only lasting unity for the Church is the unity God creates.
The Old Latin hymn, Ubi Caritas has this to say: congregavit nos in unum Christi amor (The Love of Christ has gathered us in one). It will be noted that Amor Christi (the Love of Christ) is the subject of the verb congregavit (has gathered) and nos (us) is the direct object. That is to say, it is Christ who acts, and we who are acted upon. It is Christ who gathers and we who are gathered. The resulting unity is Christ’s work.
To focus on Christ, therefore, is to focus on the very source of our unity. Unity for two really requires a third principle or person. Consider these images from Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s book Three to Get Married (TTGM):
Two glasses that are empty cannot fill up one another. There must be a fountain of water outside the glasses, in order that they may have communion with one another. It takes three to make love. (TTGM Kindle version Loc. 137-39)
Love of self without love of God is selfishness; love of neighbor without love of God embraces only those who are pleasing to us, not those who are hateful. One cannot tie two sticks together without something outside the sticks; one cannot bind the nations of the world together except by the recognition of a Law and a Person outside the nations themselves. Duality in love is extinction through the exhaustion of self-giving. Love is triune or it dies. (TTGM Kindle version Loc. 831-34)
Yes, there it is, the great paradox: the true source of our unity is outside ourselves. The inward focus of modern times in the Church has led to very divisive times in the Church. The more we seek to find our unity in a purely humanistic, inward focused manner, the more we have argued, divided and diminished. The great paradox is that the more we look up and out, the greater our unity can be. It is like a man pointing to a wonder in the sky and the crowd around him also looks up to marvel. And in the shared experience of something outside themselves, they find greater unity than before he pointed out and up.
Consider too this image from Sheen:
Imagine a large circle, and in the center of it, rays of light that spread out to the circumference. The light in the center is God; each of us is a ray. The closer the rays are to the center, the closer the rays are to one another. The closer we live to God, the closer we are bound to our neighbor; the farther we are from God, the farther we are from one another. (TTGM Kindle version Loc. 910-12)
Yes, it is a paradox, but like most paradoxes, it is true. The anthropocentric premise of unity in modern times has ultimately offended against unity. In the world we sought brotherhood, and so, many, under a false notion of tolerance, kicked truth to the curb. We have not found brotherhood though, rather, extreme factions in our culture, strident demands and a battle of wills. For nothing outside us, such as truth, or God unites, we are left only to struggle for power. In the Church we sought community within. We turned inward to the merely human. And here too a battle of wills and tastes ensued. Liturgy more often divides than unites today, for in the current thinking, there is no one outside us to unite us: not God, not the Church, not tradition. What’s left is just us, and unfortunately we are a disagreeable lot. The promise of community falls flat.
The true source of our unity must be discovered outward and upward. Outward and upward to God, outward to the wider community of the Church and the voice of the ancient community that tradition is. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor!
I would like to finish with the words of Pope Benedict in his recent book The Light of the World. Here too he speaks with a clarity, that we have got to do a better job of getting outside ourselves if we are to find true liberation and unity in God:
Our preaching, our proclamation, really is one-sided, in that it is largely directed toward the creation of a better world, while hardly anyone talks any more about the other, truly better world. We need to examine our consciences on this point. Of course one has to meet one’s listeners halfway, one has to speak to them in terms of their own horizon. But at the same time our task is to open up this horizon, to broaden it, and to turn our gaze toward the ultimate. These things are hard to accept for people today and seem unreal to them. Instead, they want concrete answers for now, for the tribulations of everyday life. But these answers are incomplete so long as they don’t convey the sense and the interior realization that I am more than this material life, that there is a judgment, and that grace and eternity exist. By the same token, we also need to find new words and new means to enable people to break through the sound barrier of finitude. (Pope Benedict XVI Light of the World Kindle Edition Loc 2271-78)
Onward, outward, upward!