The awakened man does not gaze into the pool of his spirituality, like a more ethereal Narcissus. He sees Christ in his neighbor, and his is a life of longing, hope, gratitude, solemn emotion, and openness to the mysteries of being…
Many of us no doubt have heard the common excuse for breaking the third commandment: “I don’t go to Mass, because I don’t get anything out of it.” One might as well say, “I don’t love my neighbor, because I don’t get anything out of it,” or, “I don’t do my duty to my country, because I don’t get anything out of it.” The comment reveals an egotism all the more shocking in that it is entirely unsuspected by the egotist himself. It is as if he appeared to be awake, walking, talking, and listening, all the while mired in a deep spiritual slumber.
If people who, as Dietrich von Hildebrand puts it, habitually “abandon themselves to the law of inertia in their nature,” go on to mold the liturgy after their own habits and tastes, via that thing invented to press the heart of man to death, the committee – if the liturgy is but an expression of our quotidian selves, then it is no liturgy but a sleeping pill, no matter how loud the drums and ostentatious the dancing in the aisles. To be awake, rather, is to ascend a ladder of vision, opening oneself more and more to what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the metaphysical situation of man, a being who in himself is dust, but dust formed by God for union with God.
The ascent admits of three degrees. We attain the first when we no longer take for granted, or ignore entirely, those things around us that should rightly arouse our wonder, “the beauty of nature and art, the earnestness and dignity of knowledge, the charm of the world of vital values.” That fine sensitivity characterizes men of genius, like Beethoven or Goethe. The next step is when a man takes stock of himself in relation to these things, and not only apprehends the beauty of a winter night powdered with stars, or the nobility of an act of gallantry on the field of battle, but comes to see that he owes these things his allegiance. They exert a moral claim upon him, and he finds himself by losing himself, gaining his freedom by freely giving himself up to their lead.
But even that is not full waking. The great final step must be taken, the step that is “inner openness to God, the harkening to God’s voice and to the call of God.” That keen awareness characterizes the saints and the patriarchs, and they alone truly find themselves in this life. “Who art thou and who am I?” asks Hildebrand, “the question of the person who is awake.” The selfish man drugged with sleep thinks he knows himself, but the man who has awakened to God knows otherwise. But we do not look to God to know ourselves. The self-knowledge comes as a gift, the superabundance of grace, the cup running over. We look to God because He is God, and we praise Him because He is God; and praising Him is the most splendid gift that God can give us, for, as C.S. Lewis says, to praise Him is to enjoy Him, and to enjoy Him is to praise Him.
Jesus and the apostles, Hildebrand shows us, are most insistent upon this wakefulness. We are to emulate the wise virgins, who kept watch during the night for the coming of the Bridegroom—whose ears, whose souls were attentive in the silence for the least intimation of His approach. But how can we who do not live in cloisters attain that heightened degree of sensitivity, when we are pulled again and again into the currents of ordinary life, with bills to pay and meals to prepare and work to be done?
Here we see how great the gift of the Liturgy is. Yes, we may at our own prompting glance upward to God at any time during the day, and that is a good and beautiful thing, but such glances are hurried, and in any case they “are in their right place only against the background of the Liturgy and growing out of it organically.” It is the Liturgy—the Mass, and the daily office—that invites us “to emerge at certain intervals of the day into the light of God and to actualize our awakedness in the endless stream of praise, thanksgiving and prayer.” Often when we pray we seek to draw God down into our lives, but the more effectual and proper prayer draws us out of ourselves into the life of God. Here we transcend our intentions, as good as those may be, and “we enter into a relationship molded by God.”
Consider the difference between the answers to these questions:
“What day is it?”
“It is June 25.”
It is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
“What hour is it?”
“It is nine o’clock in the evening.”
It is the hour for compline.
The first answer to each question is concerned with what passes, like the numbers on a temporal odometer, possessing no meaning in themselves. The second answer is concerned with what does not pass away: “The liturgical days do not concern themselves with the crowding events in the limited daily lives of individuals or communities or states; they are wholly preoccupied with the consciousness of the magnalia Dei,” the great works of God. “What a state of wakefulness is implied by this!” cries the philosopher. “This is indeed a victorious drive, a breaking through all the strata of earthly events clustering around us, the misery of individuals and peoples, the entanglements of states and families, as well as the temporal destiny of the Church. It is a drive toward supernatural reality” (emphasis in the original).
To be awake, finally, is to be aware of one’s place in a vast drama of sin and redemption, whose Author and Consummator is the Lord. Yet it is not to squint at oneself in a side-mirror, to monitor one’s spiritual progress. That is the wrong kind of self-consciousness; it is a self-regard that can be disastrous. No, the awareness that Hildebrand speaks of is always a self-giving and self-forgetting awareness. The awakened man does not gaze into the pool of his spirituality, like a more ethereal Narcissus. He “sees Christ in his neighbor; he lives in the truth of the Mystical Body of Christ,” and his is “a life of longing, hope, gratitude, solemn emotion, and openness to the mysteries of being.”
When the priest calls out to us in the Preface, Sursum corda, Lift up your hearts, let that rousing call awake us to do just that, as we prepare to partake of the sacrifice of Christ, who Himself was all gift, all openness and obedience to the Father, and all love for lost and sleepy mankind. Let us not check our watches, but our hearts, for we know neither the day nor the hour when we must meet our Redeemer and our Judge.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is a reflection on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality on the occasion of its reissue from Hildebrand Press. Hildebrand Press is the newly established publishing division of the Hildebrand Project, which will present the works of Dietrich von Hildebrand and give voice to contemporary authors who carry on the tradition of Hildebrand, Karol Wojtyla, and others thinkers who have enriched the Western and Christian understanding of the human person.