Sunday, May 8, 2011

Liturgy and personality

I remember reading somewhere how Dietrich von Hildebrand, after converting to the Catholic Faith, used to run enthusiastically down the street, coattails flying, to be on time for daily Mass. He loved everything about his newfound religion. As much as anything else, he loved its liturgy.

In fact, he even wrote a book entitled Liturgy and Personality,about the “healing power of formal prayer” -- the power of liturgy to profoundly form and positively shape personality. Far from furnishing us with mere training wheels until we "mature" into more personal and spontaneous prayers "from the heart," formal liturgical prayer is actually the superior form of prayer, according to von Hildebrand. The key is to enter into the prayer of the Church, to make it one's own, to "pray the Mass," as St. Pope Pius X used to say, and to live it.

Formal liturgy -- so staid and “impersonal,” and even “oppressive” in the eyes of so many today -- is actually set forth in its proper meaning as the “source and summit” of our prayer life as Catholics, the place where we encounter our Lord and our God, see where we belong in His Kingdom and, in the process, learn who we are meant to be. In coming to know our God through the Church's liturgy, we come to know ourselves.

An Editor’s note in the latest edition of the book states that "Liturgy and Personality concerns the essence of the liturgy rather than the details of any particular liturgy,” and so urges the reader “to use von Hildebrand’s numerous liturgical examples to discover the gist of his arguments demonstrating the personality-forming power of the Liturgy,” so that these points can then “be related, where appropriate, to comparable elements in today’s Liturgy.”

It is no small point, however, that Liturgy and Personality was first published in 1932 in German: the Mass von Hildebrand loved, and through which he encountered the Lord, was the traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Rite -- the one most Catholics and others today would experience as something prima facie alien, if not alienating, including its "impersonal" Latin and the priest's "back turned to the people." This is the Mass -- this one -- to which he would fly down the street with his open coat billowing behind him!

It's enough to make any sane person wonder, is it not? But then, what is sanity, liturgically speaking? Is it the product of liturgical committees? Remember the joke about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with the terrorist.

First and foremost, von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher, and his books on ethics and value-theory are substantial and profound. In the latter half of his life, however, after moving to the United States and after the Second World War, he increasingly turned the attention of his formidable mind to matters of the Church. For him, these were matters of the heart; and he was especially concerned with developments in the Church in the modern post-war world. Many of these developments he found troubling -- modernism, secularism, relativism, dissent, immorality -- and, above all, some of the experiments and innovations he lived to see in the Church's sacred liturgy.


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