LITURGY AND CONTEMPLATION
by Father Brian Hennigan, OCD
Prayer in all its grades and kinds is a response of the creature to the Creator. This response is deep-seated, a fundamental instinct in man that begins to grow as soon as man recognizes, however dimly, God's presence. It is the recognition of God that evokes the response of adoration, praise, thanksgiving and petition, as well as a relentless quest for an ever greater and deeper love.
This kind of response is cultivated, sustained and enriched on the one hand by ritual, symbol, word and sacrament; on the other by silent, solitary and highly personal communion with God. These two aspects of prayer are not expressed separately, as opposed to one another, but together hand in hand. Man is naturally liturgical and expresses himself ritually. But man is also naturally contemplative. "I want to see God" is the cry not only of St. Teresa; it is every man's ardent, impelling longing born of the "inveterate mysticism of the human heart."
II. IN CHRIST
It is in and through Christ that we approach the Father. In contemplation but also in liturgy this is equally so. Jesus Christ is liturgy and we worship in and through Him. It is also in and through Christ that we experience that "long, loving gaze at Reality" which is contemplation.
God has indeed uttered His Word, Jesus. He has revealed Himself. "The earth is filled with the goodness of the Lord." We are fenced in by His presence. Everything is a sign, a sample, or a symbol of Him. It is impossible to escape His enticements.
Our response to God - His presence and love - is our prayer. A full, human response will involve necessarily prayer that is both liturgical and contemplative. They are not the same response but they are essential aspects of the same God-ward movement of the soul. Both Liturgy and Contemplation are prayer responses to the same Reality. Our response to the Lord who calls is not whole, adequate, balanced unless it grows and develops in the liturgy and expresses itself in contemplation.
And so there cannot be a false dichotomy established between Liturgy and Contemplation. The Church has no two-track system of prayer - one for liturgists and one for mystics.
III. REALITY OR LITURGY
Let us look at the reality of liturgy. The basis of the liturgical reform in the 20th century is centered in baptism. By baptism we belong to Christ. By baptism we worship the Father with Christ. By baptism we are incorporated into Christ's body, the Church.
One fundamental principle of Christian liturgy is this: Jesus Christ is Liturgy. The word liturgy comes from the Greek word which means service, a work performed on behalf of the public. Jesus Christ is God's work. He is God's service to His people. Jesus Christ is what God has done and still does for us. All of God's actions, all His interventions in the history of man culminates in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is God's wisdom which can now be ours through the gift of the Spirit. His life is God's life, now given to us. He is the definitive revelation of God's plan for us, the plan which scripture calls the mystery: "God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan He was pleased to decree in Christ."
Liturgy is Jesus Christ. His every word, His every gesture, His faithful obedience, His love of the Father's will, the pouring out of His blood in sacrifice: this is the divine liturgy. In Him God "Opened His arms on the cross." In the Eucharistic Celebration "Christ perpetuating down through the centuries in an unbloody manner the sacrifice accomplished on the cross, offers Himself to the Father for the salvation of the world . . . The Church, spouse and minister of Christ, fulfilling the role of priest and victim together with Him, offers to the Father and, at the same time, offers her whole self with Him." In reference to the Divine Office, this same instruction on the Eucharist states that "the Divine Office is the voice of the Church, of the bride speaking to the Bridegroom, indeed it is the prayer of Christ with His body to the Father."(1)
IV. SALVATION HISTORY
Liturgy testifies to and is itself the continuation of those powerful deeds of God in salvation history. The activity of God in Jesus Christ is an event. It is something God has done freely, without any merit on our part. Christian liturgy is the liturgical expression of the Christian event.
What this means is that Christian liturgy is not primarily celebrations of human events, of human realities but participation in Jesus' celebration of the Father's love, an involvement in the life of God Himself.
God has continually intervened, through His marvelous works, in man's history. The fact and meaning of these interventions are revealed in the scriptures (which we hear over and over in Mass and the Divine Office): creation, exodus, the prophets, events in the life of Israel culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the culmination of the saving deeds of God because He is God's saving deed. Jesus is the focal point of salvation history. This means that which happened in the humanity of Jesus Christ is communicated to the rest of humanity. It is not a matter of a new event, or intervention on the part of God in addition to His activity in Jesus Christ. Rather it is a matter of fulfillment in each one of us of that which was realized once and for all in Christ Jesus our Lord. In other words, the divine liturgy is the efficacious celebration of the paschal mystery.
V. REALIZED IN US
This is the mystery of Christ's passage through death in the order of flesh and to life in the order of God's spirit. This passage is to be realized in each one of us: "Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may be revealed. While we live, we are constantly being delivered to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal flesh."
The purpose of the Mass is not only to offer Christ to the Father but to offer ourselves with Him - the spiritual sacrifice as the fruit and the ultimate purpose of the ritual sacrifice. It is also the purpose of the Divine Office. This latter involves the consecration of time, and that means of ourselves. In its deepest reality, the Divine Office is thus linked with and liturgically expresses what is the very purpose of Christian Life: the consecration of oneself and of the world to God.
We celebrate in liturgy the deepest meaning of Christian life. The believer's life has become part of Christ's life. The "body" of the believer (that is, his entire personality) is the bearer of an ineffable process: the dying of Jesus and the living of the risen Lord. It is a continuing process. The Christian liturgy is a celebration of this event, a celebration through which this event is realized. Does this not speak to us of the intimate connection of Liturgy and Contemplation? Does it not involve living the kind of life which needs to express itself and is aided by interior prayer? It does involve some degree of loving union with Christ, following His gospel in daily life, carrying His cross, loving one's neighbor
VI. MYSTERY OF CHRIST
The baptized are invited to enter (by means of the exterior rite of Eucharistic celebration and Divine Office) into the mystery of Christ. The liturgy opens the way to a very intimate, personal relationship with Christ, and it sets no limit to the closeness of their union with God - even contemplation. "Through Christ the Mediator, they (the baptized) are drawn day by day into ever closer union with God and with each other."(2) And it is this very personal union with Christ in contemplative prayer that transforms our physical togetherness at liturgy into a "communion of saints," a deeper communion with each other at worship.
What of contemplation. In the past as well as the present contemplation has meant different things to different authors. Some would say that the term has been used too loosely and in too many senses. A Dominican, Fr. Paul Hinnebush, has suggested that perhaps the biblical image "communion with God" or even "presence of God" might be used in place of contemplation.
However, all would agree that contemplation is not concerned with abstract ideas of theories. It is, as Thomas Merton points out, the "religious apprehension of God, through my life in God, or through sonship as the New Testament says." "For whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons of God" . . . "The Spirit Himself gives testimony to our own spirit that we are sons of God." "To as many as received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God."
Contemplation is a religious and transcendent gift, not something we can attain to alone. It is not a kind of self-hypnosis, resulting from a concentration on our own inner spiritual being, and it is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is God's gift, who in His mercy enlightens our minds and hearts.
Merton has said God does this "by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in the one Word, that the creating Spirit dwells in us and we in Him, that we are in Christ and that Christ lives in us, that the natural life in us has been completed, elevated, transformed and fulfilled in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: 'It is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.' "(3)
VII. LITURGY AND CONTEMPLATION
I think we gradually begin to see how closely linked are Liturgy and Contemplation. They both seek to bring about in us the same spiritual reality - Christ, the risen Lord.
In article 10 of the Constitution of the Liturgy, the Vatican Council refers to Liturgy as the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed and the fountain from which all her power flows. This was not meant to downplay the importance of interior, contemplative prayer. For the Council was stressing the Church and her efficacious work in the world of pastoral care. All her work must in fact find its outlet in worship and again receive stimulus and orientation from it. The council did not mean to set up an order of value with Liturgy higher and of more importance than Contemplation.
The Council did not find any conflict between Contemplation and Liturgy. In the document on Liturgy, the Church recognizes "the prayer offered in silence," mindful of our Lord's own words and example. Our Lord withdrew from the Apostles for His private prayer of agony in Gethsemane and for a similar reason at the Transfiguration on Tabor. Both occasions, types of contemplative prayer, were intimately linked to the public liturgy of His Passion.
Perhaps we have drawn too rigid a distinction between Liturgy and Contemplation. We maturely associate silence as the natural environment for interior prayer. Yet the new liturgy recommends and urges such moments of silence. This recommendation is clearly determined in the rubrics of the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI. The Divine Office, precisely because it consists of words and song, also has need for this silence. At the end of each psalm one could have a moment of recollection, and likewise at the end of the readings. Sometimes we look on liturgy as an "implacable machine:" once set in motion it no longer has a right to stop. Silence in the liturgy has seemed, in the recent past, almost alarming as though a breakdown had taken place.
Silence can be contemplative in the Divine Office, for it allows each person to make his or her own whatever has been heard and sung and prayed. It allows external praise to be deepened in adoration. Silence, I feel, helps to build the unity that we need to experience between liturgy and contemplation, something which people find difficult to experience in the celebration of liturgy. We need periods of recollection in liturgy for, as Merton says, "the ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in man's heart."
We naturally associate Contemplation as a call to deeper interiority. Yet, I believe, so is the liturgy. The purpose of the reformed liturgy was to bring the faithful to a deeper participation in the Eucharistic Celebration. Such participation should be, above all, internal, touching the mind and heart of each baptized person. The mind of those participating should be in tune with the Holy Spirit who makes us "one body, one spirit in Christ." Participation in the liturgy, whether Eucharistic Celebration or the Divine Office means prayer - intense, internal prayer. And so we may speak of Contemplative Liturgy, for liturgy "nourishes us with the word and life of God, it unites us to Him, it delights us with His love."
VIII. DIALOGUE WITH THE CELEBRANT
The faithful participate actively in liturgy (Eucharistic or Divine Office) when this interior prayer is exteriorly manifested. This happens when they dialogue with the celebrant, raising their voices in responses and acclamations and singing. This participation is obviously done in performing those bodily gestures that indicate adoration of God and one mind and heart in the assembled community. Attentive listening to the Word of God and to the words of His minister likewise express this exterior form of participation of the praying community. The present reforms of liturgy are such that the liturgy, actively participated in, becomes for all the source of the true Christian Spirituality.
In conclusion, to speak of Liturgy and Contemplation is not to speak of unrelated realities of our spiritual journey in life. Both call the Christian to share in a common goal: the sanctification of man in Christ and the glorification of God. They both strive to bring to the Christian's experience a greater awareness and realization that "It is no longer I that lives but Christ lives in me."
We need both Liturgy and Contemplation for a full, human response to God, a response which involves a balanced life of prayer - one in the words of Thomas Merton in which man is able:
1. "to pray to God in the prayer of the Mystical Body of Christ, a prayer based on the eternal truths . . . and centered in the supremely efficacious, redemptive action of the liturgical mysteries."
2. "to arrive at the most intimately personal communion with God in the solitude of his own heart."
The first need is served by liturgy, above all the Eucharistic Celebration. The second, which is today more and more acknowledged, demands to be satisfied by prayer and contemplation, a life of sustained union with God.
Both liturgy and contemplation (prayer of the heart and prayer of worship) constitute the environment within which the Christian pilgrimage takes place. Both are dimensions of Christian life that comprehend the Christian from the moment of his baptism. Personal prayer explodes into the speech of public praise and sacramental action, while the speech of worship erupts into the "still point" of silence in contemplation. "No one can pierce his way through to this silent liturgy of the heart (contemplation) without first having shared in celebrating the visible liturgy of the Church."(4)
There is a long quote that, I feel , sums up all that I have tried to say. The words belong to Dom Leclerq, OSB, and he spoke them over twenty years ago:
"The common character of liturgical prayer and meditation is simplicity. They don't require different psychological traits, they just require love: love for God, love for the words of God, for the Church which presents us with the texts we use for prayer, for our brethren who pray with us, with the same words of God . . . Prayer is not so much a dialogue with God as it is a duet with Him . . . bringing our voices into accord with the voice of God in the Church and in us . . . attuning our souls to the truth and to the goodness of God . . . our soul may be silent in a brief but pure prayer of consent, or acceptance, or adoration, of renouncement of ourselves and our human words, in the quiet and unique contemplation of the words and works of God."
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Articles 1, 4 and 5.
2. Constitution on the Liturgy.
3. New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. New Directions Books.
4. Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Merton. Doubleday Image Books.
1. Instruction on the cult of the Eucharist.
2. Constitution on the Liturgy, 48.
3. New Seeds of Contemplation.
4. A. Louf.
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