Living Under the Sign of the ?
We often hear the axiom based on a phrase of Prosper of Aquitaine, Lex orandi, lex credendi: The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief. Of course, where this principle is invoked, it is usually held to be confirmation of the fact that, because the way we as Catholics have worshipped has changed, it should come as no surprise that many of us longer believe, and fashion our lives according to that belief, the faith that was once the patrimony of the entire Church. Catholics have often used the axiom as a lens to interpret the changes in the liturgy shortly before and after Vatican II, the substitution of the classical Roman rite for the Missal of Paul VI, and the various and sundry departures from the postconciliar liturgy seen in a hermeneutic of continuity with what came before. But we do not often hear of the axiom being applied in reverse to illuminate the same problems. How does what we believe affect the way we worship, or, in this case, how has what we have come to believe changed the way we worship?
The liturgical battles raging in the Catholic Church show no sign of ending, or even abating. The crisis that churchmen as various as Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac on the one hand and Marcel Lefebvre and Giuseppe Siri on the other discerned is finally being recognized by the highest authorities of the Catholic Church, even as they still cling to the undoubtable signs of springtime that peek through the blanket of snow in this winter of faith. The Pope has more divisions than Stalin could ever have hoped for. Women consecrated to obedience flaunt their rebellion from the basic principles of their First Communion Catechism under the pretext of being more theologically sophisticated. And the Bishops themselves, by refusing to teach, govern and sanctify as did their predecessors in Antiquity, the Hildebrand Reform and the Catholic Reformation, find themselves utterly without answer as to why they are increasingly alienated from the vast majority of the baptized.
The desacralization of the liturgy, the secularization of society, the relativization of individual morals: they are all loudly denounced as culprits, the enemy that hath done this. But might it not be useful for us to go backwards, to look at what we believe, and why that has changed the synaxis of the faithful into something that might not be recognizable were the saints we still celebrate on the Kalendar to see it? It would be easy, as we embark on the Year of Faith that the Sovereign Pontiff has called us to celebrate, to depart from what we believe about faith and morals. Surely, such a discussion needs to happen. It must happen. And in a way, the fact that there is so much infighting, is a sign that, well, it is happening. People are asking themselves what it is they believe, and how they can worship in consistent accord with that belief. Yet everyone seems to be coming up with a different answer.
So does it even make sense anymore to speak of “one” in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, or does it make any sense to even have a Creed in our Sunday assembly? Or has Joachim de Fiore’s dawning Age of the Spirit infact spread its rosy fingers only now, and there will soon be no need for one, church or creed? Is it time to adopt the brave new world which the prophetesses of religious life à façon de Gaudium et spes have opened for us, one which is no dialogue of the deaf, but one in which we can now go beyond dogma, beyond creed, beyond Church, beyond Jesus, all towards what Karen Armstrong, that great historian of religion, has identified as the true God, which is nothing more than a symbol of transcendence?
All of this reminds me of the fact that there are two irreconcilable ways of looking at reality. Either the nature of being is being, or it is becoming. Either there is a stable essence to things in an ordered hierarchical world, or the nature of being is to change.
The language of the liturgy is born from the encounter of the Revelation of God, expressed in its Semitic vesture, with the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition. It is one in which the real is taken for granted. It is one which tells the story of a man who dared ask the question, Quod est veritas? as he handed over ineffable Truth to death on an infamous gibbet. It is one which promises the participation of fallible mortal men in the transcendent life of God. The liturgy is the perfect expression in human language of the eschatological tension in which all reality finds itself: already seeing the foreshadowing of full communion between Creature and Creator, already participating in it under the veil of sacramental signs and the life of faith, and also not yet fulfilled in glory, in which we and He become all in all. The liturgy is an act of faith, requires an act of faith, but it also is the impetus of faith and the goal towards which faith tends. The liturgy is the action of Christ, who is a divine person with a human nature, and who reveals that man can know something about reality on his own, and under the sign of the Cross, can know much more, and that openness of man’s intellect and the perfection of his will under grace can bring us from the changing things of this world which pass away to the unchanging and yet paradoxically ever dynamic inner life of Being Itself.
But what if the real is not taken for granted? What if the real is not how the essences of things give themselves to our intellect, but our own perspective and experience of them? What if there is no real outside of the individual, and the construct of his mind? If that is so, then Pilate, and not Christ, is the most honest man in the Scriptures. Christ, who dared to claim, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, utters something which has no meaning in and of itself, but only meaning to me as I wish to interpret it in my hermetically sealed Ego, the one free from the inconvenience of dialogue with the Other. There can be no tension between the already and the not yet. To employ Eric Voegelin’s famous term, we have no choice but to immanentize the eschaton. I must take the revelation of self to self as seen in my experience of the historical Jesus, the fallible Church and my own desires, and make it happen now. The only action that counts is political action, this-worldly action, to change the world, to make the world a better place, to affirm the divinity inside of me and in doing so, discover the true nature of reality, as I find the kingdom of God, that symbol of transcendence, within and only within me.
If this is how you view the world, reality, and God, then how can the language of the liturgy, with its essences and metaphysical presumptions and dogmatic formulations and call to a future life of glory, make any sense? If the nature of “to be” is to change, then the I am who am of the Burning Bush is not an epiphany, and it does not require the acknowledgment of its sacred otherness by our taking off our shoes and prostrating before a mystery in awe and delight. If the nature of “to be” is to change, then man cannot know things in and of themselves. He has no access to Truth. He is closed off from reality in a bubble of the self.
And where the self is closed off from the Other by the bubble of solipsism, man cannot live under the sign of the Cross, with its continually revealing mystery amidst a deposit of faith revealed once and for all in the Church. Man must indeed live under the sign of the Question Mark. There are no eternal verities, no abiding realities which I can access. Faith in God is replaced with Dialogue. Because from my bubble, I can experience with my bodily senses that there are others out there, and I cannot process that information. I have no mechanism by which I can affirm the reality of myself or anyone else. And so I must see worship, not as an affirmation by the gift of faith in the eternal and abiding reality of a wholly Other before whom I fall down in adoration, but as self-realization which maybe can be realized through my doubt engaging another’s doubt. The cor ad cor loquitur where the Word celebrated in the liturgy penetrates the word of the human soul, elevates and perfects it, becomes Doubt seeking Doubt.
The Church, then, is no longer those who have been plunged into the mysterion of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the God-Man and who together face the East of the Eschaton, of the fulfillment of all in a timeless heaven. It is instead a random conglomeration of pilgrims floating in bubbles, rolling towards each other, agonizing in their doubt and assuaging it by engaging in action to recover what they know, because it is written on their hearts, that has been lost, a profound communion of souls which exists because Christ has made them into One, but one which is lived under the Sign of the Cross and not the Sign of the Question Mark.
We are right to resist the attempts of the bubbly to deceive us to cast aside the act of faith for the relentless and hopeless search for authenticity in the self. We are right to have the courage and the audacity to pierce the thin walls of the bubble, and to proclaim as a Church with one voice the first principle which reality makes possible, Credo. We reclaim the sacred by making the act of faith in the God-Man and orienting our lives towards holiness in the life of grace and the sacraments. We know that love is not a feeling that rises from the depths of our own person and celebrated in an orgy of self-realization, but a choice to die to self, to turn our Question Marks into the Cross which we take up, not to make the world a better place, but to become one with the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. When we do that, our belief will be unshakable, and our faith in prayer will move mountains. Bubbles of self-realization should take care when they move, lest they be destroyed.