January 21, 2012

Liturgy and the Discipline of the Christian Life


The Society of Catholic Liturgy meets this week in St. Louis and for information click here.  There will be a lot of wonderful presentations and we are especially glad to have his Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke give our keynote address.  The theme is the Liturgy and Asceticism.   If you cannot come, please join us in prayer.  This is part of my presentation. 

High atop the Carthusian Mountians overlooking Grenoble, France, out of the silent darkness hidden voices rise, chanting psalms from memory, feebly making present for a few moments a sign of the resounding praise eternally offered at the Throne of the Lamb. In the movie, Into Great Silence, the camera focuses in on a vigil lamp burning in the sanctuary of the chapel of the Grande Chartreuse. The frail flickering light suggests what the discipline of prayer is in the Church and at the same time what the presence of Christ in the Church appears to be to the world. At this hour and in the icy harsh environment in which they live, we cannot really say how consciously aware the monks are of all that is going on in this liturgy. They are vulnerable – vulnerable to the cold, to the dark, to the silence, to the loneliness and to God. They hope in the Bridegroom. They await His coming. And, they know their hope will not be disappointed. As they chant, the Carthusians surrender to something beyond their awareness, to a mystery greater than what they are able to really know. Their liturgy is enveloped in great silence, a silence pregnant with God’s hidden presence, a silence that waits for their voices and a silence that continues their prayers long after their own words have ended.

Whatever their understanding, whatever their consciousness about what they are doing, they eloquently witness to the mystical prayer of the Church at the heart of the liturgy. If we were to ask how these contemplatives are able to pray this way, nothing of the art, architecture, preaching, chanting or liturgical practices suffices for an explanation. In fact, all these things are merely the fruit of something much deeper. What permeates their liturgies with such prayerfulness is their austere discipline of life, an asceticism they take with them into the liturgy. We are confronted with their continual faith filled effort at prayerfulness as that which allows their silence to be filled with the power of God’s Word.

Many pastoral initiatives have been taken up to render the liturgy more intelligible with the hopes of instilling a more deliberately conscious participation. But is this kind of participation what liturgical renewal is really all about? St. John of the Cross’s doctrine on ascetical practices when applied to liturgical participation indicates an even fuller and more active form of participation than we might imagine if we limit our concept of participation to only those activities of which we are conscious. His doctrine helps explain the Carthusian liturgy, why it is so intense and real. There is a deeper participation in Christ’s priestly prayer, in his work of redemption, an intense participation that extends beyond the vague light of our conscious awareness. It is the realm of supernatural faith where yearnings of love lead our understanding to places with which it is totally unfamiliar. It is a theological habit of mind which unceasingly seeks God in complete trust and surrender to the saving presence of the Risen Lord.

In St. John of the Cross, the ascetical discipline of the Christian life is ordered what he calls the Dark Night. Just like the Carthusian’s vigil suggests, he sees in this dark night all kinds of encounters with Christ which exceed one’s own conscious awareness. It is not about anything we can experience. It is about being completely vulnerable to the Lord. If you have ever held the hand of a loved one struggling to pray in the grip of death, you know exactly what he is suggesting. That faith filled but agonizing silence is raised up by an aching desire to see the face of God. It is so deep, so heartrending, so solemn. Yet the one offering this prayer is barely aware of what he does. If he questions why the Bridegroom is delayed, he also knows that his hope will not disappoint. Similarly, the Carmelite Master describes a secret search of lovers one for the other in which heart-piercing glances and wounding touches are fruitfully exchanged for the salvation of the world. So important are such encounters for spiritual maturity, this Doctor of the Church orders his whole ascetical doctrine to them. Liturgical asceticism, the mental prayer we offer during the liturgy, is ordered to these encounters with Christ in the night of faith -- it is this kind of faith above all that will renew the liturgy.