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Seasons of Celebration
By Thomas Merton
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1965 Abbey of Gethsemani
All rights reserved.
LITURGY AND SPIRITUAL PERSONALISM
1. The Personal Aspect of Liturgical Renewal
The Second Vatican Council, while recalling that the liturgical worship of the Church "accomplishes the work of our Redemption," especially emphasizes the fact that the Liturgy is the chief means "whereby the faithful may express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." (Constitution on Liturgy, Introduction, n. 2.) For this reason the Council attaches very great importance to liturgical renewal, considering it to be essential to the frankly admitted aim of the Council: the reform of the entire Church by a renewal of Catholic life in all its depth and all its manifestations. This renewal is itself essential for another aim expressed by the Council "to promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church." (Ibid., n. 1.)
The Constitution on Liturgy does not merely show the Church's approval of what has already been done by the Liturgical Movement. It is the beginning of a broad and general Liturgical reform which, it is hoped, will accomplish the most striking and significant changes in every form of Catholic Worship. This is to be, and in fact already is, the greatest development in liturgy since the Patristic age and the most thorough reform in liturgy the Church has ever known.
This reform starts from a basic idea of the nature of Liturgy as public worship, as an activity of the Church carried out by Christ Himself in union with His Church. The very nature of this activity demands the "full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful." Not only that, but the task of bringing every Catholic to participate actively in Liturgical Worship is one that takes priority over everything else since a liturgical reform imposed by means of constraint from above would lack all genuine significance. Indeed no such authoritarian reform is envisaged by the Council. On the contrary, the Constitution on Liturgy foresees that the great liturgical renewal is to be carried out by the faithful themselves — Bishops, clergy and also laity. Therefore "in the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else."
The present essay is concerned with the meaning of liturgical renewal not only as participation in new modes of worship, but as the creative joint effort of all Catholics to attain a new understanding of worship itself.
Liturgy is not just the fulfilment of a natural duty. It is the celebration of our unity in the Redemptive Love and Mystery of Christ. It is the expression of the self-awareness of a redeemed people. If the people themselves are not aware of their status and of their nobility as sons of God in Christ, how can they convincingly affirm and exercise their full spiritual rights as citizens in the Kingdom of God?
To understand this we have to go back to the classic Greek concept of Liturgy.
Liturgy is, in the original and classical sense of the word, a political activity. Leitourgia was a "public work," a contribution made by a free citizen of the polis to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis. As such it was distinct from the economic activity or the private and more material concern of making a living and managing the productive enterprises of the "household." Political life was the public and responsible domain of the free citizen — and was restricted to him alone.
Private life was properly the realm of those who were not considered to be fully "persons," like women, children and slaves, whose appearance in public was without significance because they had no ability to participate in the life of the city. As far as public life was concerned, they did not exist. In the days of the Athenian republic, public activity was at the same time political and religious, since the life of the city-state was basically religious.
The earliest notion of liturgy does not rest on a distinction between "sacred" and "secular." An example of "liturgy" in the Athenian democracy, would be the act of providing for the dithyrambic dance and procession, or the representation of the religious drama-cycle which developed out of the dithyramb. Note that here too, "art," "culture," and "religion" all coalesce in Leitourgia.
It is important, for our present purpose, to replace the term "liturgy" in its classical, hellenic context, where it is most clear and meaningful. Liturgical celebration in this ancient and original sense is a sacred and public action in which the community, at once religious and political, acknowledges its identity in worship.
This is essential for our theme, "Liturgy and spiritual personalism." Unless we begin by returning to the root meaning of liturgy, we will be led astray by the repercussions and confusions of modern controversy. Indeed, the superficial opposition so often created between liturgical prayer and "personal" prayer — an opposition which has no basis in reality — makes all genuine understanding of either liturgy or meditation practically impossible: as if liturgy were thinkable without some meditation, and as if meditation did not presuppose and complement the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of our redemption.
Liturgical prayer is, or should be, eminently personal because it is public. To judge by polemical statements made on one side or the other one would almost imagine that there were thought to be two opposing ways of prayer and Christian fulfillment: the one exclusively public and corporate and the other exclusively private and individual. No wonder that the results are confusing! In the Christian city, every mature individual is a free citizen; no one is prevented by a servile condition from participating in the life on the polis, the Holy City, or better, the People of God. Each person, as a member of Christ, has a voice in the public worship of the Church, in that "leitourgia" which is the most exalted and most excellent of "public works" and which is at the same time the most perfect expression of the "economy" of that household which is the family not only of man but of the Heavenly Father. In this family none are slaves, all are "sons" and all have the privilege of free and spontaneous speech (parrhesia) in the Father's Presence, either alone or in the company of the other children and heirs of the Creator.
Therefore in this essay we are not trying to settle the largely misleading dispute about "public" and "private" prayer. We are not concerned with it at all. Rather, we are concerned with liturgical worship as the action of fully developed Christian persons, free citizens of the Christian polis, which is the City and house of God, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Liturgy is an expression of their personality because in it they affirm their divine sonship and exercise their rights of citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem; the eschatalogical and redeemed community of those who are one in Love, freed from the bonds of sin and death.
2. Public Service
It is our contention that unless the liturgy is the activity of free and mature persons, intelligently participating together in the corporate cultus which expresses and constitutes their visible spiritual society, it cannot have a real spiritual meaning. That is to say, of course, that from the moment corporate worship ceases to be genuinely communal and becomes, instead merely collective — as soon as it ceases to be the collaboration of free persons, each offering his own irreplaceable contribution, and becomes the mechanical functioning of anonymous units, whose identity and individual contribution are of no special worth — then it loses its right to be called liturgy or Christian worship. It is no longer the public witness of free and responsible personalities — it has become a demonstration by mass-men, or slaves.
It is true that the Lord in the Gospel speaks of His faithful as "sheep," but that does not entitle us to assume that the liturgy is merely the organized bleating of irrational animals herded together by constraint and trained by an ingenious discipline until they can carry out seemingly human actions which they are not capable of understanding.
On the other hand, liturgy in the full sense of the word cannot be merely the performance of a group of specialists in the presence of passive spectators. It is not merely theater. Liturgy demands the intelligent and active participation of all the mature members of the Assembly. The only spectators and "listeners" are the catechumens or public sinners who join in the liturgy of the word, the foremass, in which presumably all participate by listening and responding, each according to his ability. After this, the catechumens originally left the Assembly, though today they remain as "spectators." But this does not mean that the faithful are mere spectators like the catechumens. They have work to do. They are free citizens, and they have something very important to say in what is going on. They have responded to a divine summons. They are in a broad sense "celebrating," together with the officially deputed ministers, the mystery which expresses the unity and the solidarity of all the members of the One Christ. They participate in the eucharistic sacrifice by sacramental communion, and by all the rites and symbolic actions which manifest their grasp of the meaning of what they do, thus bearing witness to their faith and charity. They vocally express their presence and active consent by responses and chants. They bring their gifts to the altar. They join together in the sacred meal in which Christ gives them His Body and Blood to unite them in His love. This is their active share in the mystery.
From the very first moment in which a man becomes a Christian and begins to express himself as a vocal and active member of the Body of Christ, the liturgy reminds him of his personal and we might say "political" responsibility in the City of God. The Church is the Assembly of those who have been called together by God. As the catechumen approaches the font, the liturgy asks him his name, and demands that he declare freely and personally what he seeks from the Church. On the threshold of his new life, the catechumen delcares that he, as an individual, has responded to the personal vocation, the call of Christ to enter into the Christian polis and to labor together with the other members of the Church to establish the reign of Christ's holiness, of the Holy Spirit, upon the earth, and to strive to bring all other men together with himself into eternal life.
Every liturgical act implies a renewed awakening of this basic Christian consciousness, and a fresh acceptance of this primal and personal responsibility. The Eucharist, the fulness of the Christian life and the center of Christian liturgy, is the great communal act by which the mystery of salvation is celebrated by the Church, and by her members, personally, together with her. It is the mystery in which Christ Himself, invisibly present in the midst of His faithful, spontaneously assisted by their free and sanctified love, and acclaimed by their unanimous consent, accomplishes His work of Redemption, announcing the full establishment of His Kingdom and sharing with all the fruits of salvation. The Second Vatican Council has stated this in the following terms:
The Liturgy through which the work of our redemption is accomplished ... is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the true nature of the Church.
(Constitution on Liturgy, Introduction, n. 2)
The Council especially emphasizes the presence of Christ in the assembly of the faithful called together by Him to celebrate with Him the liturgical mysteries:
Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations;
Christ always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified;
In the Liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.
(Idem., Chapter I, n. 7)
Hence it is altogether insufficient to treat the liturgy merely as the corporate expression of "subjection" which man as a social being owes to God as his Creator. Although correct, this is far too abstract an expression of the liturgical mystery. It is incomplete first of all in reducing liturgical worship to an ethical concept. It also leads to the misconception that liturgy is worship carried out by "society," by "the group" as opposed to the individuals who compose the group. Hence the confusing deduction that the individual's chief function is to lose himself, to submerge himself, to divest himself of every trace of individuality and personality in order to vanish into the group, so that in this way the collectivity may more perfectly express its subjection to God. The individual subjects himself to the group by prostrating himself and vanishing from sight, and the group prostrates itself before God. In this way society as such, in the abstract, pays a debt due in justice to God.
According to this conception, the Christian life is primarily one of servitude. But we must remember that according to our classical analogy of leitourgia, liturgy and servitude are mutually exclusive. A slave cannot offer public service because he is not free or responsible and has no way of making his entry into the public realm. He is a non-person. And liturgy is by no means a parade or demonstration of non-persons! To say that liturgy gives glory to God by the abject submission of slaves is, as a matter of fact, to misunderstand the real Biblical notion of the glory of God.
The glory of God is the effulgence of His own presence manifested in mystery, and men "give Him glory" by the sacred awe and the spontaneous exultation, with which they recognize and acclaim His presence in fear, trembling and holy joy. It is the freedom of man and his free submission to God in love that "give glory to God." What glorifies God, in man's submission to God, is not the fact of submission alone, but the far deeper truth that by submitting to God man gains his freedom. By "renouncing" his private and "economic" self for love of God man finds his true self. This is one of the characteristic experiences of Liturgical worship which purifies and ennobles those who participate in the objectivity and sacredness of the common celebration, even where this may mean a certain sacrifice of intimacy and subjective warmth. Actually, the loss is only apparent. The growth of freedom in divine service brings with it a more mature fervor and deeper capacity for the inner awareness of God's love, manifested to the worshipping community in the sacred mysteries.
In the sacred liturgy, therefore, the faithful act not as mere spectators, as inert and passive figures, or as servants and slaves. The liturgy everywhere implies awareness that we are the friends and collaborators with Christ in His great work of Redeeming and sanctifying the entire cosmos. The Lord Himself sets great store by this awareness and He has explicitly affirmed His desire for it. "I do not speak of you any more as my servants; a servant is one who does not understand what his master is about, whereas I have made known to you all that my Father has told me; and so I have called you my friends. It was not you that chose me, it was I that chose you. The task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit, fruit which will endure; so that every request you make of the Father in my name may be granted you. These are the directions I give you, that you should love one another." (John 15:15–17, Knox Version.)
3. A Royal Priesthood
Hence we can easily understand the words of St Peter to the laity, the laos, the people of God, the citizens of the Holy City: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people God means to have for Himself; it is yours to proclaim the exploits of the God who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Time was when you were not a people at all, now you are God's people; once you were unpitied, now pity is yours." (I Peter 2:9–10.)
Here we have one of the innumerable texts of the New Testament which gives us in a few words the whole politeia of the Christian person in the City of God. His personal dignity, his freedom, his citizenship in the holy people, are the gift of God. His citizenship has been received by a personal response to a personal calling. The "political activity" of the holy People, which is centered mainly in the liturgy, consists in "proclaiming the exploits" of the God of mercy, the Redeemer and sanctifier of man and in sharing, by love and sacrifice, in His work of Redemption. The highest personal and spiritual dignity of the Christian is his participation by baptism in the priesthood and sonship of Christ: this of course surpassed by the even greater dignity of sacramental ordination in which certain Christians are anointed and signed with the priestly character to consecrate the sacrificial offering in the name and Person of Christ. But this does not mean that they are to carry out the liturgy alone and unaided, with the people present only as mute and passive spectators. On the contrary, it is upon all that the obligation falls to proclaim the great works of God, the magnalia Dei, since all alike, without distinction, have been called out of darkness into His admirable light.
Excerpted from Seasons of Celebration by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1965 Abbey of Gethsemani. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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