“Adventure.”1 This is the word Benedict XVI uses to describe the Incarnation in his amazing book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. “Adventure” is also the perfect word to summarize the entire book itself. From beginning to end, the book reads like an amazing detective novel as it uncovers and brings to life not only the Catholic liturgy as a localized ritual, but human religion itself as a Cosmic and Historical phenomena. At its’ best, Benedict XVI’s Spirit of the Liturgy is a bold examination of the concept of the Cosmic liturgy first fleshed out by Father Pierre Tiellard de Charden, albeit with reference to a historical rather than biological core. The book’s jacket states that the work is a source of controversy and that its’ ideas were aimed at the young. Indeed, it is controversial and the spirit of youthful impetuosity runs through it. Not only is this a book for thoughtful Catholics, but for Muslims, Jews, Pagans and atheists. It is a grand polemic with the religions of the world, with God, and with Benedict XVI’s critics, written just prior to Cardinal Ratzinger’s ascension to the throne of Peter, and it is a magnificent read. Unlike his biography of Jesus, which was (understandably) careful, this book is bold and almost—for lack of a better word—swashbuckling.
To do justice to any book in a short review is impossible, it is all the more impossible to do justice to The Spirit of the Liturgy. Benedict XVI also faced this obstacle when dealing with his subject matter, as testified by the amount of times he is forced to write “I cannot do justice to this topic in such a short book.” For Benedict touches upon such a broad range of topics that each demands hundreds of pages of elaboration. It is a testimony to Benedict’s erudition and skill as a writer that he manages to consolidate so much in so little space. For my part, I fear I lack both the erudition and skills to consolidate Pope Benedict XVI’s book in this review; nevertheless, inspired by the Pope’s own spirit of impetuous adventurism, I shall give it a try. I will preface my attempt by stating plainly that I intend to focus on the most adventurous and controversial aspects of the book (amongst which I do not count the ending, focused as it is on music, clothing and body posture during Mass). I will also ignore direct references to well established dogma, because the book does not aim to restate dogmatic practice, only to revitalize its spirit. Benedict XVI takes great pains to end every profound detour from present, localized Catholic dogma with a return to said dogma, in the hope that each long detour enriches the faith. My review will focus on these long detours, in the hopes of wetting appetites and encouraging Catholics and those interested in the human condition to read this book, even at the risk of making it sound like Benedict XVI is making rather wild claims. I hope older, wiser Catholics forgive my enthusiasm with what is surely “old news” to them, but hopefully this enthusiasm will serve to interest those whose view of the Catholic Church is informed by the mass media rather than by books like this one.
Benedict XVI begins with an uncommon psychological, almost secular analysis of the liturgy as a kind of game that people engage in out of a need for bringing meaning and a sacral element into human life. Benedict shrewdly argues that this basic religious yearning which is the common psychological motive for all human religious endeavor eventually will come to despair unless there is a real meaning, a real sacral element at the center of this game. Thus, what often manifests itself as a game must either end with some truth, some true satisfaction of the religious yearning, or risk being a game which defeats its own purpose. This very uncommon beginning, rather than a statement of Revelation, sets the Historical and Cosmic framework for the remainder of the book.
Benedict XVI does not commence with a statement of supernatural Revelation because he seems to view the natural yearning for religion as something fundamental to being human; something that predates supernatural Revelation, something that gropes for answers even when none seem forthcoming. Most importantly, this psychological impulse is the basis for the human propensity to build systems of religious worship in response to presumed acts of Revelation. For even when confronted with the Divine, humans do not have the capacity to worship like Angels; they need human structures, human conventions to grasp at the super-human. Benedict makes the point that, just as children play elaborate games to learn virtues required of them in adulthood, Mankind engages in liturgical games as preparation for his ultimate Cosmic destiny.
Benedict XVI begins his analysis of these games from the first of the three major monotheistic religions; Judaism. He makes a thrilling argument regarding the purpose for which the Jews were called to leave Egypt for the desert. Benedict XVI argues that political and religious autonomy were not the Biblical calling of the Jews, that the Jews were commanded by God to worship Him in the desert, not to build a Jewish state, and not to seek autonomy from slavery under Pharaoh. In fact, Benedict XVI goes so far as to note that Pharaoh offered several political compromises to Moses, including letting all adult male Jews journey into the desert to worship their God and increased autonomy for the Jewish cult. None of these offers of political compromise were effective, because the Divine Command was explicit. The manner in which the Jews were to worship God would be revealed to them later, the primacy of the duty to go was immediate. For Benedict; the exodus of the Jews was not a quest for Israeli political autonomy, but Mankind’s first Historical step in search of a Cosmic Liturgy.
Benedict XVI goes on to consider the Catholic Liturgy, in contrast to Islamic and Judaic Revelation, and in keeping with “natural religions” as Cosmic-Historical liturgy. His argument is rooted in the consideration of de Charden’s bio-evolutionary Catholicism and the “older view” of Exitus and Reditus, or what Leo Strauss called “Progress and Return” in his fine essay of the same name. Benedict XVI seems to emphasize the Cosmic and Historical Liturgy over and above Revealed Biblical Liturgy because his overriding aim appears to be to present Catholic Liturgy as a truly universal expression of Mankind’s religious yearnings, built upon an amalgamation of religious practices and beliefs throughout time, rather than merely based on the Revealed Word of the Biblical God. Of course, Benedict does not for a moment believe History and Judeo-Christian Revelation to be contradictory, rather, just as he sees the events of the New Testament as a fulfillment of the events of the Old Testament, he seems to carve out an argument about human religious history in its entirety as an event of Divine Revelation regarding Man’s Cosmic destiny, of which Biblical history is but a part.
Christianity, for Benedict XVI, presents itself not as an “old” religion, but as an exciting novelty because in the Incarnation and Resurrection, Mankind has partaken in a passage from Fall to Redemption, and finds himself no longer a being yearning for a lost, ancient or inaccessible Divinity, but rather a being through whom the Divinity has passed and continues to pass within the Eucharist, and which has henceforth transformed the human condition from Fall to pilgrimage towards the Highest forms of Love and Freedom. Benedict XVI’s excitement with this unique role of Christianity in History is contagious throughout the book. His writing is all the more compelling because he combines the fruits of decades of careful study with the youthful spirit of a novice who has discovered an old idea for the first time.
The emphasis on Cosmic liturgy that prevails throughout Benedict’s book seems inviting in two ways: first, it invites Catholics to consider other serious religious traditions not as heresies or evils, but rather as authentic components of a common Historical movement towards a meeting with the Divine. Secondly, it invites non-Catholics to view their own spiritual paths and traditions comparatively rather than in isolation or through an ideological fundamentalism ripped from its complex historical foundations. This is a hard task, but Benedict is convincing because he never resorts to simple emotional appeals for unity, nor does he make light of the real differences present in various religious traditions, instead, he does the hard and controversial work of digging through the details of religious history in order to elevate our present practice and discourse. Case in point: Benedict XVI points out that contrary to the fundamentalist interpretations of the First Commandment which persisted for a time amongst the major Monotheistic religions, Judaic practice actually admitted of graven images in the Temple: namely Cherubims. From this Judaic practice, Benedict goes on to weave multiple justifications for the various icons and images used in Churches throughout the World, admonishing us to better understand the spirit of the First Commandment by recovering the history of its practice rather than being slaves to the letter of the Commandment abstracted from said history. For Benedict XVI, the letter of the Bible cannot be understood without archeology, paleontology, theology and history. Without such an understanding, Catholic Liturgy, religious practice itself, is not so much a dead letter as simply incomprehensible.
The most uncommon and surprising arguments Benedict makes are, by his own admission, the views of a “romantic.” Benedict XVI romantically argues that Christian Mass should ideally be directed to the East, because the Rising Sun is the Cosmic representation of the Risen Christ. This stunning argument is not a thought made in passing, but a thread that runs through the entire book and is both an acknowledgement of the kernels of truth laden within various Pagan religious practices as well as a bold venture to encourage Catholics to truly understand themselves as heirs of a Cosmic Liturgy. The Moon also figures prominently in Benedict XVI’s thought. The changing faces of the Moon are, for Benedict, representative of the changing humors of a woman, of Mary. The light of the Moon is a reflection of the Light of the Sun, just as the Divine grace of Mary is a reflection of the Light of Christ. Benedict is at his best here, explaining Catholic reverence for the Virgin Mary by way of this Cosmic symbolism: for Mary is to be revered precisely because she is the only fully human person in history in whose face the Light of Christ is so prominently reflected. Then again, what else could we expect from the author of Mystical Mistresses and the Pope who made Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church except such a beautiful and comprehensive reverence for women as to tie them to our lunar satellite?
Benedict XVI’s romantic preoccupation with the Sun and the Eastward direction of Christian worship is so extreme that he even laments that the topography in Rome was such that the Basilica of St. Peter was not built in accordance with this custom. That this custom is totally forgotten by the modern Catholic mind is, according to Benedict, chiefly to blame for many of the misunderstandings surrounding Vatican II and the infamous versus populum method of celebrating Mass. Benedict XVI praises modern Judaism and Islam for preserving the idea that prayer should be directed towards God, while blaming the “abstract thinking” generated by Christianity, according to which God is “everywhere” and therefore the geographical direction of the Mass has no meaning. Benedict argues that subsequent to this negative Christian idea and practice, since Catholics no longer trouble themselves with directing prayer in the geographical direction of God yet retain the physical need to face towards something, they organize the liturgy with reference to man—specifically the clerics.
Here, Benedict XVI’s line of argumentation becomes truly eye-opening. The traditional geographical direction of the Mass ought to be East because East is the geographical location of the Rising Sun, the Cosmic representative of the Risen God. Muslims and Jews understand this general Order whereby Man, in prayer, ought to point his body towards God, which is why Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca while Jews face Jerusalem. Catholics, having abandoned Eastward prayer aimed at the Sun-God, now point their bodies towards one another, towards men rather than towards God. Benedict XVI argues that the fault for this situation rests on the shoulders of self-absorbed Catholic clerics, who insist that the eyes of the faithful should be centered on them under the false pretense of populism. Benedict notes that one of the most disturbing practices in the modern Catholic Church has been to even go so far as to shove the Cross off to the side of the Altar so as not to take attention away from the centrality of the Cleric. Benedict XVI explicitly identifies this practice as Clericalism with all of the negative connotations this invites. He argues that if Catholic clerics were more sensitive to their history and conscious of their role as pastors meant to lead their flock towards God, they would not allow themselves to be at the center of Mass, but rather turn, with their flock, to the East, to the Rising Sun, towards a Cosmic liturgy focused on Christ.
As Benedict XVI argues, we as individuals should not feel encircled by one another, but feel as if standing alone on an orb, facing the juggernaut of a rising fire in the sky, hanging in the eternal vacuum of cosmic infinity, all of it the image of the Creator and his Risen Son. To those who claim that in looking upon one another rather than the Sun, Catholics look upon the image of God in the Other, Benedict XVI responds with disarming candor: “It is not an easy thing to see God in others.”2 Not surprisingly, this is one anticlerical argument we shall not be hearing from the modern secular media any time soon.
In fact, Benedict XVI’s entire book is a radical critical appraisal of Catholic thought and practice that is completely ignored by the wider world. The mass media continue to pull the dialogue about the Church into a shallow world of what passes for important debate. No where is this clearer than in their silly preoccupations regarding the “radical changes” being made by Pope Francis. The level of modern ignorance is so great that the world is preoccupied by whether or not the Pope rides in the Pope Mobile, whether he wears red shoes, whether he lets women be Priests instead of “merely” Nuns and whether he says “nice” and “inclusive” things or not. Meanwhile, for Pope Benedict XVI one real problem for Catholics to think about was this: given that the entire Catholic Liturgy was rooted in a Mediterranean geography and seasonal cycle, how can Catholics return to their Liturgical roots while sustaining a global religion, given that in the Southern hemisphere, these seasons and the various Cosmic phenomena associated with them are all “upside down” relative to the Liturgy’s Mediterranean origin? Such questions were part of Benedict XVI’s reflections on “Catholic enculturement,” which is the process by which Catholic teaching is synthesized with local religious rites, traditions and geopolitical conditions in various parts of the world. Such problems would never be the subject of inquiry by the mass media because they would demand educated journalism and a serious approach to religion.
My point here is not to blame Pope Francis, but to once again warn those who might be inclined to think that the fabricated view of Church life presented by the media is in any way connected to the real challenges standing before the Church today. Catholics ought not let themselves be preoccupied by the silliness that the mass media likes to make its focal point. Benedict XVI’s excellent Spirit of the Liturgy is a fantastic consolidation of the challenges facing religious practice within the Catholic Church, and these challenges should be the priorities for Catholics. Catholics ought to read books like these and ponder them, rather than worry about what secular pundits think of a Church they are not interested in understanding. Whether the media was blaming Benedict or is now praising Francis, their focus has never been on what is really important for the Church. Catholics should feel no relief at the “good press” won by Pope Francis, because it comes at the cost of focusing on the real challenges for the Church and for Mankind. In some sense, focusing on these real challenges was easier when Benedict was being blamed, but will now be harder because the universal praise Francis receives risks tempting Catholics to believe that public praise is synonymous with having done good works. As Lincoln once noted, there is a difference between being esteemed and doing things which deserve esteem. Benedict XVI’s Spirit of the Liturgy is a window into the truly important things, and it is a reality far more exciting and happy than the mass media narrative about the supposed challenges faced by the Church in our lifetime.
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1 Page 95 of the Polish edition
2 Page 76-77