The Basilique du Sacré-Cœur was the first church I visited during the day I spent alone in Paris in the Fall of 2017. I was happily surprised to see that a Mass was beginning just as I entered, so I attended. I know a total of about four French words, so I was shocked at the familiarity of it. Despite not understanding the language, the Mass still resonated so deeply: the movements, the gestures, the symbols.This continuity of the liturgy despite the language difference was arresting. What is the liturgy that it is both always the same and always new, that it is both enough for me and enough for every other person?
Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy is a classic of liturgical theology, discussing many aspects of the liturgy: its prayer and fellowship, its style and symbols, its playfulness and seriousness. Guardini’s theology communicates the ineffable beauty of the liturgy by explaining the liturgy’s embrace of all times and places and people, drawing them all into the objective worship of God. The reason for the liturgy’s universality is that it is true, and because it is true, it is beautiful.
Throughout the work, Guardini speaks often of the various temperaments and dispositions to be found among humanity, addressing the various challenges each faces in the liturgy. There are the “social” (42) people who must submit to its restraint, the “grave and earnest people” (61) challenged by its playfulness and purposelessness, the “sensitive people” (73) who have a tendency to appreciate it merely aesthetically. In attending to these challenges, Guardini reveals throughout the work the universality of the liturgy, which is confirmed when he speaks of the entity which celebrates the liturgy. It is not a single individual or congregation who participates in the liturgy. Rather, it is the entire Church, across time and space, who praises God in the liturgy. Because of this, Guardini states that, “[the liturgy] will be the best teacher of the via ordinaria — the regulation of religious life in common, with, at the same time, a view to actual needs and requirements” (18). The liturgy is not just for a single person: it is the prayer of the whole, and its form reflects this. It neither tramples into any individual’s interior life nor is subject to any individual’s whims, and yet because the liturgy encompasses the breadth of human experience it can reorient each individual according to reality.
Guardini addresses this principle further when discussing the style of the liturgy. It is important to clarify that liturgical style is not akin to popular style, as in the type of jeans it’s currently most popular to wear. Rather, the style of an individual thing, when speaking liturgically, “manifests a truth that transcends that individual thing” (Professor O’Malley, Lecture, ‘Liturgical Fellowship and Style’). The reason why the liturgy can reorient the individual is because it is not created and formed by the individual according to their whims! The style of the liturgy is universal — it forms you, you do not form it. Of course, universality requires that it be true, so that in being prayed by all people across space and time it is not reorienting them against their nature, but reorienting them according to reality. Guardini cautions us to remember, however, that despite the universality that does not infringe upon individuality, “there is still an element of sacrifice involved in [the universal adoption of the liturgy]. Each one is bound to strive within himself, and to rise superior to self. Yet in so doing he is not swallowed up by, and lost in, the majority; on the contrary, he becomes more independent, rich, and versatile” (51). The individual and the community, the universal, find themselves perfectly harmonized and simultaneously addressed in the prayer of the Church.
It is important, however, to recall what the purpose the liturgy is! As tempting as it may be to summarize the universality of the liturgy by saying, “it is meant for all people, and not simply an individual,” such a summary entirely misses the point of the liturgy. The liturgy is actually not for people at all: it is the worship of God. Although it is through the liturgy that we are able to become what we were created to be, this is only because the point of the liturgy is not us at all, just as the point of our lives is not ourselves as the be all and end all of our existence. God Himself is the be all and end all of our existence, and so the liturgy makes us what we were meant to be because it is for Him.
We are all made in the image and likeness of He who is the eternal outpouring of love. and the universality of the liturgy rests upon this truth. We are saved when we worship God, and in so doing are brought into the divine life. And this brings us then to Guardini’s chapter on the seriousness of the liturgy, on the truth of the liturgy. When the liturgy is sought for beauty alone, it is mangled: “It is only when we premise the truth of the liturgy that our eyes are opened to its beauty” (84). And because it is true, it is universal, and can embrace every human being, inviting and gathering everyone into the great offering of praise, that we might together cry out, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” (Revelation 5:12). Were it not true, it could not be universal; were it not universal, it would not be beautiful: “[The liturgy] condenses into prayer the entire body of religious truth..It is only such an overwhelming abundance of truth which can never pall, but continue to be, day after day, all things to all men, ever fresh and inexhaustible” (24).
It is in worshiping God that humanity is saved. We are not saved as isolated individuals, but rather by being gathered together into His Body in prayer. The liturgy is about this reality of human life, of finding in prayer, “our entire life over again” (35). Because the liturgy is true, it is beautiful and all-encompassing. I believe Guardini’s theology has something very important to offer to us today: that truth beyond the individual is not the enemy of community, but the foundation of it; not the enemy of salvation, but the foundation of it; not the enemy of beauty, but the foundation of it.Let us then allow ourselves to be reoriented by the liturgy, being formed to love Him who first loved us.