Sunday, July 27, 2008

Vonier: The Doctrinal Power of the Liturgy

I promised on founding this blog that it would contain rather more theology than it has turned out to present; let this reprint continue my irregular series of more properly doctrinal postings.

Ever since I first discovered his writings while on retreat at Galong, NSW, I've loved the work of Dom Anscar Vonier, Abbot of Buckfast (d. 1938). Having just obtained a copy of his Sketches and Studies in Theology (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1940), I cannot forbear from quoting long extracts from one very important chapter (XIV, pp. 146-156), which originally appeared in the English Clergy Review earlier in the century:

(BTW, he begins with an amusing sideswipe at extreme manualists! Dom Anscar was a noted Thomist, FWIW.)


There does not exist an official syllabus of the doctrines of the Catholic Church with every revealed dogma expressed in exclusively technical language. The depositum fidei is not like a manual of higher mathematics, full of doctrinal formulas couched in terms that are absolutely immutable and could not be interchanged. The Church has never found it necessary to commission any body of learned theologians to compile such a syllabus, and even if it were possible to produce such a work its practical utility would not be as great as it might seem at first sight.

Let us take as an instance that dogma of supreme importance: the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. We have no official phrase for describing the event contained in that dogma; we just have the sentence of the Creed which does no more than state the fact that 'on the third day Christ rose from the dead according to the Scriptures.' Even then when a council defines a doctrine of the Faith it is surprising to find how broad and spacious are the expressions used; the Doctors of the Church are not mathematicians, but they are teachers, and it is their office to present to the Christian people their Faith in suh a way that they can understand it. The presentment of the revealed deposit of Faith to the Christian people is indeed a marvellous charisma possessed by the Catholic Church; there is, on the one hand, the Church's mission not to alter or diminish in any way the revealed dogma whose content is, by its very nature, abstruse and recondite; on the other hand the Church has to give the bread of doctrine to the little ones, to the vast masses of uneducated minds; the Church has to make an impression on their imagination, on their sentiment, without lowering the sublime spirituality of the revealed truth. She has to put on the lips of her children professions of faith which mean something to them, nay, which mean everything; and yet those professions by their very nature are concerned with mysteries and profound doctrines. Is there anything more difficult in the experience of mankind than the maintenance of a high standard of thought or behaviour where the masses are concerned? Art and literature, to quote those manifestations of human excellency, become debased the moment they become the property of the many. How then could we expect so high a standard of thought and feeling as is implied in the depositum fidei to remain constant in the multitude of Christians?

Yet we have to admit that the Catholic Church has achieved the impossible; that she has presented to all generations of Christians the mysteries of her Faith, not only with the greatest fidelity to the very text of the mystery, but with a skill in rendering the invisible visible, the intangible tangible, that is truly astonishing. The Catholic people, at least hitherto, have had a wonderful grasp of their Faith, and nowhere do we see any diminution of that gift of visualizing the unseen mysteries in a worthy way. How is it that in spite of its baffling abstruseness the doctrine of the Trinity has remained, even for the simple Catholic, a vivid and life-giving familiarity with God, without any intermingling of base anthropomorphism? How is it that the Catholic people can understand easily what is meant by the Incarnation? How is it that the Virgin Birth, about which learned men outside the Church blunder so grossly, is for Catholics a doctrine easily acceptable, a doctrine whose place in the economy of salvation they instinctively see? Evidently the Church has done more than just state those doctrines, she has made them acceptable and sweet, she has given them a charm, she has made them lovable. The Church, in other words, has made of all her main doctrines Feasts for her people.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the meaning of this act which clearly was the Church's first care from the very beginng, to make of her mysteries the Feasts of the Christian life. I take the word 'Feast' here in the most generic sense, I give it the meaning of an act performed either by the individual Christian or by the whole community to express, to commemorate, to celebrate what they believed in, what they knew in the light of their Faith. Now this was a peculiar characteristic which all Christian dogma was found to possess; it could be made by men a celebration, a solemnity, its memory could sanctify a given day, its proclamation could make the whole Christian community happy, it had a life-giving power which truth of the merely natural order could never possess. So before many years have passed after the Day of Pentecost what do we find? That the Christian Church not only believes, but symbolises her belief, making of it a Feast, has found many wonderful symbols and ceremonies to express almost adequately the hidden glories of Christ. The constancy of that celebration is, of course, its most overwhelming aspect. In all its essentials the Church celebrates to-day the mysteries of Christ and the hidden things of God as she has done for ages without number. The whole Christian language was coined by those celebrations. We can hardly realize the extent to which the Christian temperament is indebted to the Christian Feasts. In fact, which of us could understand Catholicism without its solemnities, without its Liturgy? In the Liturgy the faithful of all ages have found it possible to utter their faith nobly, purely, and amply. Through the Liturgy we have been saved from that decadence which lies in wait for all the noble movements of humanity, we have been preserved from the vulgarisation of what is holy.

It is, of course, well known how this desire to act a hidden truth ostensibly and externally has haunted every sect and every cult. In our own days it is possible for us to witness the renaissance of similar efforts with the neo-pagans of Nordic pretensions. The history of mankind reveals innumerable such attempts. It is certainly a testimony to that hidden law of the Spirit that no truth is of any value that cannot be acted by man in some religious ceremony or expressed in some solemnity. Catholicism is simply man at his best, man uplifted to the sphere of the Divine. Our acting and solemnising the hidden verities of God, instead of being a timid and awkward attempt, is the power of the Spirit Himself, of the Holy Ghost, who is the Unction of the Church, teaching her not only how to think but also how to sing.

No apology is required for putting these considerations before the reader; nothing less than an appeal to the ultimate laws of Catholic life is necessary in order to make us understand the position of the Liturgy in the progress of the kingdom of God. We all know, the matter is in no need of emphasis, that the problem of problems in our life is this: how to present our Faith to the people who look to us for guidance. We must be quite clear on this one matter; we are expected to give to the world a religion that will interest the believer, a religion that will satisfy his artistic cravings; the expression is not too strong. Our Faith must be beautiful if it is to hold souls. Far from us the illusion that it is sufficient to tell our people what to believe and what to do as one gives medicine to a sick person, tasteless or perhaps even unpalatable! Perhaps we priests too readily become the victims of certain well-worn phrases which seem to be the product of lazy shepherds, and which appear to make every dogma just a blow on the head which the believer should receive thankfully. Some piece of doctrine is given him, not as bread to eat and to enjoy, but as a stone to carry about. Far from us, I say, such facile belief in our people's readiness to be contented believers; they are hungering and thirsting for the beauties of their Faith, and unless we meet them in their legitimate desires our true contact with souls becomes less and less every year. Wherever we go, in whatever direction we turn our eyes, we find the marvellous ways the world has to present its wares to all the senses of man. Is it Christian doctrines alone that must be put before his eyes with crudeness and baldness? Is it Christian doctrines alone that are deprived of the power of charming? Is it not rather the truth that the enemy of Christ, the spirit of darkness, does all in his power to stop the solemnities of the Lord here on earth, to make Christ and His Church appear unattractive, nay, even repulsive.

...The liturgical movement is above all things a renovation among us of the art of celebrating the Christian Feasts and consequently of presenting to the people the mysteries of God in a splendid fashion. The parish priest who gives to his people a great Christmas, a glorious Easter, a splendid Corpus Christi festivity, is a first-class liturgist, though he may press into service methods old and new. The matter of supreme importance is this, that the faithful should know the meaning of each Feast as that Feast comes along in its turn; the theology of the celebration ought to enter their minds by every one of their senses; they ought to see the divine Babe, they ought to hear the Canticles of Bethlehem; the incense of the altar ought to remind them of the gifts of the Magi; the priest's words from the pulpit should contribute just enough intellectual element to give our good people the assurance that we priests know much about the mystery which, through a supernatural instinct, they love so intensely. It is truly easy for any pastor of souls to preach what is called a 'dogmatic sermon' appropriate to the Feast; our dear people understand much more than we give them credit for, and they are always happy when they are instructed in their Faith. It is indeed evident that nothing equals the words of the Missal in order to make both priest and people enter into the spirit of a Feast, but let us bear in mind that our great solemnities have a wonderful way of takng hold of our people of enveloping them, of making them feel festive. With the Confessions they make on these holy occasions, with the Communion which they receive in the early morning, their souls are wonderfully attuned to the whole Christian concept of things; they will believe the Incarnation, the Resurrection of the Body, the coming down of the Holy Ghost, the Real Presence, without a moment's hesitation; they will take from us the whole mystery of God, wholesale, and we need not hesitate to put before them the verities of the Faith in all their greatness, with all their implications. Through our Feasts we have truly a most marvellous power of spiritual propaganda, if one may make use of a word that is falling more and more into disrepute. It is to be admitted quite simply that nowhere, not even in our best schools, can we teach religion as we teach it in our churches when we keep the Feasts of the year to the best of our ability.

My words in this matter would be misunderstood if by solemnity I were to be taken to mean a great display of external splendour such as is possible only in the important centres of religion like the Cathedral churches or Abbeys. Those solemn functions are indeed a mighty asset to the Catholic Faith; in normal times they are quite indispensable if the Catholic cause is to prosper. Their dogmatic power is truly immense. But they are, by their very nature, exceptional at least in our days. It is, however, the splendid achievement of the Catholic people to give to their worship matchless dignity even there where the external resources are more restricted. Who among us has not witnessed truly superb festivities in many a village church all over Christendom? To keep up that spirit, to foster it in every way, to encourage it in every possible manner, ought to be the primary object of the liturgical movement. Far from us a false purism which is historically incorrect and psychologically wrong. One may safely assert that the dignity of Catholic worship is safe for all times through the simple fact of the mysteriousness of Mass. Catholic piety may become naïve but it will never be vulgar, because the sense of mystery is inborn in every Christian soul. There is no danger in the more popular presentments of faith and devotion; Cribs at Christmas, Easter Sepulchres on the Resurrection day, to mention only two manifestations of traditional piety, are an immense help to faith in the mysteries. The fact is simply indisputable that any Catholic man or woman who has taken part wholeheartedly in all the Feasts of one liturgical year has a store of religious knowledge, nay, even of dogmatic faith, that is truly enviable. There is nowhere in the whole world such an educational power in matters of religion as the great Catholic Liturgy.

St Thomas Aquinas, in his Quæstio disputata,* [* De Veritate, Q. xiv, art. 11.] gives it as his decision that it is enough for a Christian to know those mysteries of his Faith of which the Church keeps the solemnity. He thus solves for the ordinary Christian the disputed point what is to be held explicitly and what is to be held implicitly in Catholic belief.

The Catholic Liturgy thus understood will always be the final rallying-point of the people of God. long as Catholics celebrate together the Resurrection of the Lord, to mention the Festivity of festivities only, they are a mighty people with an independent life of their own.

One of the great advantages of the liturgical presentment of Catholic dogma is found in this, that it sets forth revealed truth in a non-combative and non-controversial way. It is truly the divine bread prepared for the use of the children. We forget the unbeliever, the heretic, the schismatic, when we are gathered together for the Feasts of the Lord; instead, we are made to remember the Angelic Choirs and the Saints of heaven. If evil and Satan are at all alluded to in the liturgy, such remembrances are songs of triumph, because in the Liturgy the powers of darkness are mentioned only in connexion with Christ's victory over all sin. It is indeed a supreme satisfaction to the Catholic soul to be thus left to enjoy the Faith for its own sake; it creates in the Church a spirit of confidence far more potent than any controversy, however well conducted, can do.

When He was on the point of celebrating for the first time the liturgical act par excellence, the Eucharistic mystery, Christ gave vent to the innermost feelings of His heart: 'With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you, before I suffer,' He said.* [* Luke xxii, 15.] We must think of Christ then as sitting down to the celebration of the first Mass, happy and radiant. From this spirit the Christian people have never departed; the divine mysteries in all their aspects are for them an occasion of spiritual joy; they know that they are the children of the Kingdom, eating and drinking at the Table of God. Our Christianity would indeed become a terrible power of exaggerated zeal and religious bitterness if it had not this supreme gift of being self-contained and happy in the celebration of its heaven-born truths. It would become the most relentless proselytism instead of being the Kingdom of God on earth.

May we not as a matter of history explain from this angle that strange hatred of Catholicism which is invariably to be found in the dissentient Christian bodies? Whenever they are in earnest about their religion their fervour takes the form of a terrific opposition to Catholicism, precisely because they are devoid of that internal enjoyment of Christianity which the Catholic possesses in his liturgical Feasts. Fanaticism of all kinds would certainly find healing in the corporate celebration of heavenly mysteries, where men are lifted above the sentiments and interests that carry away the unregenerate into every form of excess.

The Seer of Patmos, when beholding the divine drama of heavenly Liturgy, had the impression that there was a great silence in heaven. This divine silence of all that is earthly and passionate is truly a feature of the mighty Catholic Liturgy. There could be no better remedy for the humanism run riot that seems to engulf us on all sides than this taking up of man's mind to the disinterested and completely other-worldly praise of God and His Christ.

(I must admit, such is our distance it seems to me from this happy vision, I felt that Vonier's paean perhaps better described the intraliturgical doctrinal synthesis experienced and treasured so vividly by those of Eastern Rite, whether Catholic or Orthodox! Consider the doxastika of the Byzantine Rite, versus some dubious contemporary Western songs...)

I leave it to any readers to comment upon how far the good Abbot's arguments hold fast, especially considering the de facto deformation of the Liturgy over the past forty-odd years, but also, more positively, how all those striving to fight for the New (and True) Liturgical Movement may receive support for their cause, and even great comfort and solace in these confident insights from the great Dom Anscar. Mortuus adhuc loquitur.

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