Spirit of the Liturgy – Chapter 1

This is a continuing report on the book The Spirit of the Liturgy by Cardinal Ratzinger.


Chapter 1: Liturgy & Life: The Place of the Liturgy in Reality

In the 20’s it was common to describe liturgy with the analogy of a game (having its own rules, stepping outside the pressures of daily life, often being “a rehearsal for later life,” [14] and thus allowing us to see daily life as a prelude to eternal life – offering us hope). This analogy, however, lacks a concrete orientation towards eternal life and towards God Himself, so Ratzinger wishes to offer us a new approach [which is really an old approach looked at anew]: liturgy as revealed in the Bible, particularly the Exodus.

The Exodus

The whole purpose of the Exodus is not just to give God’s people the Promised Land, but to give them the freedom to worship Him (in whatever way He requests): “Let my people go that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Ex 7:16) [Not: “Let my people go that I may give them land.”] “The only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure.” [16] They don’t know the means by which God wishes them to worship Him–only out in the wilderness will they be given that knowledge. [They had to take every person and everything they owned, so that they would be prepared to worship God in whatever way He wanted.] “The land is given to the people to be a place for the true worship of the true God.” [17] God makes a covenant with His people and “concretiz[es it] in a minutely regulated form of worship . . . [this form of worship shows them] how to worship God in the way He Himself desires.” [17] [God tells them how He wants to be worshipped. They don’t make it up on their own.] This worship is an entire way of life. It includes both “cult, [which is] liturgy in the proper sense,” [17] and morality, the proper way to live. “Ultimately is it the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.”[18] [Don’t get confused with the popular definition of “cult”–something like a strange or evil group of fanatics. Cult means ritual. We worship in a ritualistic liturgy because that is what we have received from God. Those rituals draw us out of our daily lives, point us toward God, and allow us to receive His life. Only by looking toward God can we get the proper perspective of how to live the rest of our lives (and live them to the fullest). Without that orientation towards God, life is like being in a maze, but not knowing where the end is–there is no goal to direct our actions to the proper end. We have received the rituals for worship from God and from His Church. It is not something that we invent out of our creativity. Our worship is affective because it was given to us by God as a foretaste of how we will worship Him in Heaven.]
Worship, Law & Ethics
“Worship, law, and ethics are inseparably interwoven.” [18] Law must be founded in morality and both must be oriented toward God, otherwise they trap man in a world-centered vision, forcing him to bow to the whims of the ruling majority, rather than the all-good, unchanging truths of God. People need law so that they may be free to live and worship. “God has a right to a response from man.” [19] Law must preserve this right, otherwise man cannot live the life for which he was made. “When human affairs are so ordered that there is no recognition of God, there is a belittling of man.” [19] The Israelites were given regulations for both cult and morality at Sinai. “This and this alone is what makes the land a real gift.” [19] If Israel sticks to these regulations, she is free; if not, she loses her freedom. “When the loss of law becomes total, it ends in the loss even of land . . . steadfast adherence to the law of God . . . must be the necessary condition [foundation of existence] for life in community and freedom.” [20]  [Proper worship directs us to God, who allows us to see how to live properly. That orientation toward God forms our morality/ethics. Law exists to encourage people toward right conduct (virtue) and discourage people from vice. Without proper worship, we are trapped in a mindset that thinks only of this world and its concerns. It fails to see things from the God’s perspective and what is eternally best for our souls. Without the true goal in mind, our efforts can easily become misguided. Many of our civil law makers have lost the proper perspective, or have been trained in an environment which rejects God, and therefore, rejects the proper goal of all of life. Law should protect and promote worship, but that is far too often not the case in our society.]

The importance of worship.
Cult, then, “goes beyond the action of the liturgy . . . embrac[ing] the ordering of the world of human life.” [20] Worship is “man glorifying God” and man does this “when he lives by looking toward God.” [20] Law and ethics must be “anchored in the liturgical center and inspired by it.” [20] Man’s relationship with God (liturgy) must first be right before his other relationships (with other men, with creation – law, ethics) can be rightly ordered. [God gives man his relational orientation. Man must first encounter the Truth, Goodness, Justice, Love that God is in order to know how to be truly true, good, just and loving.] “The right kind of cult, or relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life.” Worship takes us out of the world and gives us a taste of Heaven. Life without that foretaste is empty, so those without true cult end up creating ‘their own forms of cult, though, of course, they can be only an allusion and strive in vain by bombastic trumpeting, to conceal their nothingness.” [21]
[I’m reminded of this at the end of every Super Bowl (or other sports finales). The whole profession is “bombastically trumpeted” with fancy graphics, lively commentators, jarring music, and memorabilia galore, which all conceal their real nothingness. I used to be a devout follower of the worship of football. Ever since I was introduced to it, I have loved to play the game, so it only naturally followed that I would love to watch the professionals play the game. Growing up, my family had our Sunday tradition of watching the games together. I was enthralled by the games, looking up statistics, buying the video games, collecting the cards, and eventually playing fantasy football. None of these are bad in themselves, but they can become dominant foci in someone’s life–as it did in mine. Every year, though, as the confetti paper fluttered in the air to mark the end of that year’s Super Bowl, something about it seemed anti-climactic. All this build up throughout the year (and intensifying as the game day drew nearer) seemed to leave me with an empty feeling when the game was accomplished. As the years went by, that emptiness pointed to something: all the hype around this contest is really hiding that it’s just a game. It’s entertaining to watch them compete, but the flashy decorations are all ways that they try to make the game seem as though it has some great importance.]

We must receive worship, not create it.
True Worship is the worship that God reveals. Man cannot “creatively” plan worship how he wishes. It must be received, otherwise “man is clutching empty space.” [21] “Real liturgy implies that God reveals how we can worship him . . . [in bad liturgy] worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world.” [22] He gives, as an example, the Golden Calf narrative–the people created their own version of God and worshipped him how they felt like worshipping him. They weren’t patient enough to receive the proper form of worship from God. Ratzinger says that this narrative “is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship.” [23] When man tries to create his own worship, “man is using God . . . a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself . . . no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternate world, manufactured from one’s own resources . . . an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God.” [23] [Here, Ratzinger turns the spotlight from the banal pursuits of secular society’s worship of empty things to those who try to impose such empty things into the received worship of God (particularly the Mass). This is one of the greatest travesties of our time. As we saw above, man needs proper worship, so that he can be directed outside of himself and rightly oriented to God (and thereby rightly oriented to all of creation), yet so often today, people who style themselves as “liturgists” try to turn this received worship into a display of their own “creativity.” In doing so, they turn the focus of the liturgy away from God and onto the people (either the ones performing the “creative” innovation or the community gathered in the pews). Later, Ratzinger will describe this as “replacing the true essence of the liturgy with a  kind of religious entertainment.” How true his words are! All too often, I have attended Masses where it seems like the priest is trying to entertain the people instead of point them toward almighty God. The few I have questioned about this have made comments about “not wanting to be too ‘high Church’ for the people” or “wanting to make people feel welcome,” etc. This makes me sick. I can’t believe that someone would forego thousands of years of cultivated Church practice (based on revelation and handed on to us faithfully by the Magisterium and which has drawn countless people toward sainthood) for the sake of what amounts to creature comforts. It becomes a form of settling for the lowest common denominator instead of a pursuit of what is highest.]

Good liturgy: solemn, dignified, beautiful, inspiring, directing us beyond ourselves/daily life and toward God
It orients us to a proper relationship with God.

Bad liturgy: campy, showy, people-centered, uninspiring, banal, base, empty . . .
“It becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating drinking and making merry . . . no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources . . . an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness.” [23]

Book Report: Spirit of the Liturgy – Preface

About six years ago, I was introduced to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict XVI’s) Book Spirit of the Liturgy. This was at a conference by one of his students: Fr. Joseph Fessio. At this conference, Fr. Fessio was able to make use of his many years both as a student and friend of our current Holy Father to help explain the Pope’s book. I had previously started to take an interest in liturgy (the official public prayers of the Catholic Church – how they are celebrated and why). Quite impressed with the ideas presented to explain the Pope’s views on liturgy, I was instantly intrigued. I bought the book and couldn’t put it down. Ratzinger’s view on the beauty of the liturgy and its power to inspire us toward God are evident in his liturgical example as pope. At this point I was determined to write an explanation of the book to help spread the Pope’s message, but God knew better–I still needed more understanding and a better venue. At the conference, Fr. Fessio had introduced the crowd to Ave Maria University, and he mentioned how AMU was trying to put the Pope’s thoughts on liturgy into practice. Through a series of miraculous situations (about which I should write one day), God allowed for me to enter AMU’s graduate program, study, and receive an MA in Theology. While studying there, we covered Ratzinger’s book in Dr. Roger Nutt’s Liturgy &; Sacraments class, which helped me to gain an even greater understanding of the book, the Mass (and our other liturgies), and led me to an even greater understanding of how desperately our Church needs to hear this message.
Recently, I have started re-reading the book, and I have decided to prepare a chapter-by-chapter explanation, so that everyone may hear and understand this great call to deeper and more beautiful liturgy “as the animating center of the Church, the very center of Christian life,” [7] to inspire souls toward even greater relationships with God and to glorify Him with their lives. This has rekindled my desire to share the book with you. Today’s first post will only cover the Preface. I will write a summary in black and I will make my extra comments in red. Without further ado, I present to you The Spirit of the Liturgy:


Ratzinger states his purpose for writing the book: to assist the renewal of the understanding of the liturgy by building on what Guardini wrote in his 1918 book The Spirit of the Liturgy, updating it for a contemporary setting, hoping to encourage a liturgical movement “toward the right way of celebrating the liturgy, inwardly and outwardly.” [9] [Later, we will get into what the right way is.]

He mentioned that one of the difficulties that had crept into the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council was the “instructions for and the forms of private prayer,” [8] that distracted the faithful from seeing the beauty of the liturgy (which he likens to a fresco). The fresco, he states “had been preserved from damage [in Guardini’s time], but it had been almost completely overlaid with whitewash by later generations.” [7] [Those private devotions distracted the people and covered over the beauty of what was happening before them.]

Guardini’s book “helped us to rediscover the liturgy in all its beauty, hidden wealth, and time-transcending grandeur” [7] and inspired a Liturgical Movement in Germany, which helped to preserve its beauty despite the white-washing. The Second Vatican Council again showed us the beauty of the liturgy, but

since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences. [8]

I’m sure that many of us have been witnesses to destruction of elements of the beauty in the Mass: art, architecture, music, and (even more sadly) reverence. I will not dwell on them here because he treats them later, but I cannot stress enough the importance that we Catholics need to return to a sense of beauty, reverence, and majesty in our liturgies, for the sake of the souls in the pews. We need an inspiring liturgy–one that doesn’t just speak to us where we’re at (or worse: tries to entertain us), but one that draws us up out of our daily life and inspires us to look toward God and order our whole lives accordingly. Pope Benedict XVI has not changed his views since becoming pope. He has not made many top-down liturgical commands, rather he has led by example–restoring, in the Masses he offers, the beauty that had been damaged. He gave us Anglophones an excellent example of this when he celebrated Mass in Westminster Cathedral. Below is a video excerpt from that Mass. Note how beautiful and inspiring everything is and how different it is from our everyday lives–Mass provides us that time to step away from everyday life and focus on what is really important: God. Ask yourself: “how can my parish (with what resources it has) offer Masses more like that?”

I pray that God will bless me with a better understanding of this book, and the liturgy, and that what little work I am able to do will be done with love, and will help preserve the beauty of the fresco. I pray, too, that you, dear readers, will be inspired to give greater glory to God–particularly in the liturgy.

Trying to glorify God in my work,
– Casey