Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame
Senior Advisor of NDCL, Co-editor of Oblation
This talk was given at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy’s June Conference, Formed for the Liturgy, Reformed by the Liturgy.
With this brief background I can easily state my hypothesis. The liturgical renewal has spoken at length about skills and activities. I do not say this as a criticism. Not at all. Liturgy is a collection of activities and can be said to be a ritual skill set. It is made up of speaking words, making gestures, adopting postures, going on processions, singing songs, and espousing declarations that make up liturgy. But in addition to skills and activities, I want us to think about the capacities required for liturgy.
And since capacities are not done by the hour, but by the lifetime, the thing I am trying to talk about is not something accomplished before the clock strikes noon on a Sunday morning. Rather it seems to involve what happens between one eighth day and the next. In addition to the liturgies that are done by the hour, what about the liturgy done over a lifetime?
Liturgies end, but the liturgy does not. Joseph Jungmann gives us some helpful vocabulary. He observes that the church of the first century clearly understood that what the Lord established at the Last Supper “is a eucharistia” and this is what the Church has been celebrating since.
“The word was suggested already by the eucharistesas of the New Testament accounts. In the linguistic usage of that time it means to consider and conduct oneself as eucharistos, that is, as one richly overwhelmed with gifts and graces.”
To translate into my shorthand, he seems to be saying that doing the activity of eucharistia involves being capacitated as a eucharistos. I am speaking about the slow accretion of sanctity. The lifelong effect of liturgies should be a growth in holiness. The liturgical life is like throwing a stone into a rock tumbler to be polished smooth, and it is a time-consuming process. Each tumble we take in liturgy is supposed to polish the truth the image of God to a clearer and brighter state. This requires repetition –
so here comes Advent and Christmas again!
Here is the feast of the Annunciation once more.
Didn’t we do Lent last year?
We step in and out of liturgies over the course of our lives, but I hope we never step outside of the liturgy. As Robert Taft says, “the purpose of all Christian liturgy is to express in a ritual moment that which should be the basic stance of every moment of our lives.” At the beginning of the Eucharist in the liturgy of the St. John Chrysostom, the deacon bids the Church
“Let us stand aright; let us stand with fear; let us attend, that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.”
We are supposed to go into each liturgy with this stance, and each liturgy further improves our posture. Standing aright in reverence before God means that our loves and desires have been properly aligned. It is what St. Augustine meant by ordo amoris – rightly ordered love. It is defined as a condition of the affections in which “every object is accorded the degree of love appropriate to it.”
But how does one reach ordo amoris? That takes practice and training, and this is what the great tradition meant by asceticism. I am afraid the word has a poor reputation among us. Asceticism makes us think of someone who is strict, stern, and pointlessly austere. We confuse it with masochism, or Manichaeism, and being unable to appreciate the delights of creation. But asceticism did once have a more positive meaning in the Christian tradition, and I am trying to contribute to the word’s rehabilitation. It comes from the Greek word askesis, which simply meant “training.”
It was used of athletes, so to lock it in my undergrads’ minds I say “the baseball players are on their way to Florida for their spring askesis again.” Asceticism is a kind of discipline, a physical exercise, a training regimen. From the realm of physical exercise it was came to the also applied to the realm of spiritual exercise. Asceticism consists of the small steps taken to align our love and reverence properly. Ortho means straight, true, correct; an ortho-dontist will tighten the wire to straighten my teeth; asceticism will tighten my dissoluteness so that I can stand straight and worship God with ortho-doxy.
This leads Paul Evdokimov to define askesis as the “reconstruction of the imago dei.” We have not lost the image of God in us; original sin does not have that power. But it has been rusted over, muddied, effaced. The fathers of the church spoke of baptism refreshing image of God in us, but this is not a 5 minute ritual task, this is a lifelong capacitation. Christian asceticism rubs baptisms sanctifying water into every nook and cranny of our life.
Fr John Behr’s study of asceticism in Irenaeus and Clement leads him to conclude,
“asceticism was not a detachable dimension of Christian life, a specialized technique … or the domain of the monastics. Rather, asceticism was the realization, the putting into practice, of the new eschatological life granted in baptism within the confines of the present life.”
A metaphor that he uses is an artist chipping away bits of stone to reveal a statue. Olivier Clement describes the positive character of asceticism like this:
Ascesis then is an awakening from the sleep-walking of daily life. It enables the Word to clear the silt away in the depth of the soul, freeing the spring of living waters. The Word can restore to its original brightness the tarnished image of God in us, the silver coin that has rolled in the dust but remains stamped with the king’s likeness (Luke 15). It is the Word who acts, but we have to co-operate with him, not so much by exertion of will-power as by loving attentiveness. …
Now, there are many motives for practicing an asceticism – athletes do it to win games, Stoics do it to control emotions, a good philosopher could do it in pursuit of a moral life –but I propose that if one undergoes an asceticism, a training, in order to be capacitated for liturgy, then we should call it “liturgical asceticism.”
Liturgical asceticism is the struggle to imitate what we see in each liturgy, namely, a human being in filial communion with God the Father. The goal of liturgical asceticism is for us to be conformed to Christ by the Holy Spirit. This places us before the Father in praise, and in the world as servants.
If liturgy means sharing the life of Christ (being washed in his resurrection, eating his body), and if askesis means discipline (in the sense of forming), then liturgical asceticism is the discipline required to become an icon of Christ and make his image visible in our faces.
To be continued on Friday…