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.
To repeat my hypothesis: the discipline which capacitates a person for liturgy may be called Liturgical Asceticism. Let us return to the thought inspired by Jungmann: in order to do the action of eucharistia one must be capacitated as a eucharistos. And I submit that Evagrius’ eight passions would neutralize us as a thankful person. Though we are still doing the hour’s activity, the passions will neutralize all sorts of capacities that are necessary for committing that liturgy. The ceremonial activity is only the tip of the liturgy, like the tip of an iceberg connected to an even larger mass below (pun intended).
What we celebrate on earth includes the heavenly liturgy in which saint and martyr and angel participate, though invisible to us. What we celebrate now, is attached to the salvation history which God has been working across the human race.
The rite is only the part of liturgy above the water line. One reason I like Pius XII’s definition of liturgy from Mediator Dei so much is that it describes what is going on below the water line.
The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members. (¶ 20)
The power of the Holy Spirit is ushering creation into a redeemed, eschatological, and spiritual existence. The liturgy is our inclusion, made possible by the Holy Spirit, in a relationship between the Son and the Father.
(i) The Son worships the Father;
(ii) the Church worships the Son, her founder;
(iii) and through the Son, together with the Son, the Church worships the Father.
With him, in him, and through him, all glory and honor is the Almighty Father’s. Every liturgical assembly is as filled with the Holy Spirit as was that first assembly at Pentecost. Why are we content with less in our liturgies and spiritual life?
Our liturgical practices are supposed to capacitate us to be a temple for the Holy Spirit.
Lot went to Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
The interior spirit must find peace from the passions in order to stand before the burning bush to catch fire itself. The soul immersed in the passions is like a firecracker that is been soaking in water: it is a liturgical dud. Baptism drops the spirit of the Holy One into our veins, but there is no fire where there is not matter to burn. Askesis is the cost of making us combustible. On this matter I would like to recall a short reflection I wrote for Assembly once.
One Tuesday evening three unexpected guests appeared, and they had to me the startling quality of the three unexpected guests at the Oaks of Mamre. A health care facility knew of the regularity of our evening prayer on Tuesday, and on this particular Lenten evening three young people with cerebral palsy were brought in by their caretakers. I had not seen them before, nor have I seen them since, which is the way with theophanies, I suppose. They were strapped into large, oversized wheelchairs. These were not like ordinary wheelchairs, for these had to accommodate the various paraphernalia required to hold up heads and sometimes hold down limbs, because the tragedy of this disease is a sound mind but an uncontrollable body. The lasting impression I received was of three bodies writhing, thrashing, twisting in spastic fits. They lacked control over their bodies, and their bodies acted without the mind’s dominion. Yet, as is the way with this terrible disease, the minds were perfectly sound. And then I wondered:
- Did my soul look like their body, and my body look like their soul? I mean, their souls may have been calm inside although their bodies were unruly on the outside.
- My body may have been calm on the outside but was my soul unruly on the inside?
- Maybe they had still souls, but convulsive bodies; maybe I had a still body, but a convulsive soul.
- There they sat with palsied bodies, but maybe their soul was at peace. Here I sat with a calm body, under control, at peace, but maybe my soul was tumultuous.
Liturgical asceticism involves becoming by grace what Christ is by nature. Human nature has penetrated to sit beside the throne of God in the heavenly Jerusalem, and we, his brothers and sisters, are invited to follow the path he has blazed. Our problem is that we are of two minds: we have a divided heart. Part of us entertained invitation, but part of us resists, is selfish:
- it is unwilling to drop all the temporal baggage that weighs us down,
- it wants its fill of this earth, it is dismayed at the cost of discipleship,
- it will not join the company if that neighbor who irritates me is going too,
- and perhaps it is too vain.
The passions drag us down, and divide us inside. Evagrius used the word apatheia to describe the state of having overcome the passions, and when John Cassian translated it from Greek into Latin he used the phrase puritas cordes – purity of heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And purity of heart is to will one thing. So he said Augustine in the ancient church, Petrarch in the medieval church, and Kierkegaard more recently.
All I am doing is describing the consequences of baptism. Christians have already been mortified. In baptism the old Adam is put to death, and the new Adam is born, suckled, strengthened, healed and put into mission by the church’s sacraments, so that our reborn selves may grow from a baby image into an adult likeness of God.
In his foreword to Unseen Warfare, Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain describes the book’s ascetical subject matter like this:
It teaches not the art of visible and sensory warfare, and speaks not about visible, bodily foes but about the unseen and inner struggle, which every Christian undertakes from the moment of his baptism, when he makes a vow to God to fight for Him, to the glory of His divine name, even unto death.
If we remember that the word “sacramentum” meant the vow taken by a soldier upon enlistment in the army, then liturgical asceticism is simply the fulfillment of our baptismal vow.
I’m thinking one last time of Jungmann:
if to do eucharistia we must become a eucharistos, what other actions do we rehearse in the liturgy for which we need the right capacity? I will describe these on Friday.