Sep 15, 1996

The Liturgy & Contemplation

Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 4: September 1996

The Liturgy & Contemplation

Loss of Symbols Impedes Contemplation of the Sacred Mystery  

by Father Max Thurian

Father Max Thurian, one of the earliest members of the Taize ecumenical community and a noted theologian, died in Geneva, Switzerland on August 15, the day before his 75th birthday. A Calvinist who joined the community of brothers in 1942, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and ordained to the priesthood in 1987. The following essay appeared in L’Osservatore Romano (English edition) N. 30-24 July 1996, and is reprinted with permission.


THIRTY YEARS AFTER the Second Vatican Council we can recognize all the value of the liturgical reform. The publication of many liturgical books has enriched the knowledge of God’s Word and the Church’s prayer life.

We must be grateful to the Second Vatican Council and to the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution of the Liturgy for having completed this work of reform, to which we must remain faithful by avoiding every possible abuse which might contradict it.

In a recent address to the plenary assembly of the Congregation responsible for the liturgy, the Holy Father said in praise of its work:

It must be clear to all that, while the contribution of experts can shed useful light on workable options, decisions regarding the liturgy remain subject to the direct responsibility of ecclesiastical authority, whose sole aim is to encourage the liturgical participation of the people in the glorification of God and, at the same time, to make the possibility of sanctification more accessible and fruitful for every believer. (Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, 3 May 1996, n. 5; L’Osservatore Romano English ed., 15 May 1996, P 4.)

The great problem of contemporary liturgical life (apathy towards worship, boredom, lack of vitality and participation) stems from the fact that the celebration has sometimes lost its character as mystery, which fosters the spirit of adoration. We often encounter an inflation of words, explanations and comments, homilies too long and poorly prepared, which leave little room for contemplation of the mystery being celebrated.

Obsession with the liturgy after Vatican II, which was necessary for putting an end to unfortunate hesitations, has sometimes encouraged stagnation. There is a great need to rediscover the liturgical enthusiasm of the Council

Bishops and those responsible for the liturgy should give new life to what before Vatican II was called "the liturgical movement", not for purposes of innovation but to revive true, beautiful liturgy, the prayer of the whole Church and the source of spiritual enrichment for every Christian.

This liturgical renewal, which is necessary for the present-day life of the church, does not mean creating new liturgical texts or changing certain rites, but making full use of the great heritage of Tradition, reinterpreted by the Council. The authentic liturgical tradition has never been satisfied with words to express the mystery of salvation, but has made great use of symbols and images.

The danger threatening the liturgy today is the multiplication of explanatory words, to the detriment of symbols which shed light on the profound meaning of the Word of God proclaimed in the liturgy. The work of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical Consilium which followed it remains an important event that today is bearing wondrous fruit. Thanks to this effort to renew the great Tradition, the Church has recovered the splendour of her liturgy and especially of the Eucharistic celebration. From this essential source of her faith and life, the Church can deeply draw today, as at her origins, the treasures of God’s Word and of the prayer of Tradition, in order to nourish and fill with wonder all those she gather together to make them more and more the Body of Jesus Christ.

From this perspective of rediscovering the importance of mystery and adoration, the architecture and layout of places of worship have primary importance.

Serious mistakes have sometimes been made in certain places: the location of the altar, tabernacle and celebrant’s chairs, overpowering illumination, excessive removal of ornamentation, etc.

The Centrality of the Altar

The Eucharistic liturgy is an act of thanksgiving; consecration, a memorial and an offering accompanied by intercessions which invite the celebrants and faithful to turn towards the altar of the Lord in an attitude of adoration and contemplation. The invitation to the Eucharistic Prayer underscores this attitude: "Lift up your hearts. We have lifted them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just."

Regardless of the church’s architectural structure, these two complementary attitudes of the liturgy must always be respected: the face-to-face dialogue of the Liturgy of the Word, and the contemplative orientation of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The whole celebration is often conducted as if it were a conversation and dialogue in which there is no longer any room for adoration, contemplation and silence.

The fact that the celebrants and faithful constantly face each other closes the liturgy in on itself. On the other hand, as sound celebration, which takes into account the pre-eminence of the altar, the discretion of the celebrant’s ministry, the orientation of everyone towards the Lord, and the adoration of his presence signified in the symbols and realized in the sacrament, confers on the liturgy that contemplative atmosphere without which it risks being a tiresome religious disquisition, a useless community distraction, a sort of rigmarole.

"The altar, where the sacrifice of the cross is made present under sacramental signs, is also the table of the Lord, the people of God is called together to share in this table. Thus the altar is the centre of the thanksgiving accomplished in the Eucharist" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], n. 259). 

The altar is thus at the center of the liturgical celebration. It must be built and adorned so as to attract one’s gaze and to cause admiration, as the gold of the showbread table or of the altar of incense in the Temple emphasized the glory of the Lord. It will sometimes be covered with beautiful fabrics in the liturgical colours of the season of solemnity. On it or right next to it will be placed the candelabra for lighting the space around the table where the cherubim on the propitiatory of the Ark framed the symbolic space of the presence of the Lord, who came to meet his people. Bouquets of flowers will be avoided. They can be placed elsewhere, but not on the altar. From where does the recent practice come of putting two candles on one side and a bouquet of flowers on the other?

The altar and the objects used for the Eucharistic celebration should arouse wonder in the presence of the beauty that leads one’s whole being to adore the glory of the Lord. The altar is actually the sign of the sacrifice of the cross as memorial, the table of the Eucharistic meal, the symbol of the tomb left empty by the Risen One.

Wherever tradition has left monumental altars placed against the apse, this arrangement could be respected by dividing the celebration into a face-to-face between the celebrants and the community for the Liturgy of the Word, and a common orientation towards the altar from the time of the offertory to the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer.

This solution is preferable to setting up a second, portable altar in the shape of a chest or a small table, or even a piece of clear plastic furniture used so as not to hide the artistic treasure of the original altar.

The location of the altar should always be at the service of a beautiful and worthy Eucharistic celebration. In designing new churches, the altar will be built so that the priest can celebrate facing the people. "The main altar should be freestanding so that the ministers can easily walk around it and Mass can be celebrated facing the people" (GIRM, n. 262).

These two arrangements are complementary: one emphasizes the community aspect of the celebration, the other its more contemplative character of waiting for the Christ who comes. I submit these two solutions as a personal suggestion to the competent authority for all liturgical decisions: a possible revision of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) might take them into account.

The basilica layout was the one most commonly used by the church in the West for celebrating her liturgy: a large, very wide rectangle ending in a semicircular apse. This arrangement of the liturgical space seemed best suited to a community on the way to its Lord, whose glorious return was awaited. In fact, the liturgy implies this dynamic of a people’s expectation and encounter with its Lord.

Certainly, the architectural arrangements can vary according to the place and circumstances, but we always come back to this dimension of waiting and of moving towards the place of offering and presence: the altar and the tabernacle.

The celebrant’s chair expresses the function of presiding over the liturgy. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, it will be "at the back of the sanctuary facing the people… Every appearance of a throne should be avoided" ("Versus ad populum in vertice presbyterii… Omnis species throni vitetur", GIRM, n. 271). This "basilica" arrangement is not always possible and risks creating too great a distance between the celebrant and the assembly, making communication difficult (ibid.).

One is sometimes struck by the bad habit of putting the chairs immediately behind the altar, which creates a face-to-face between the celebrants and faithful throughout the celebration, thus turning the assembly in on itself and preventing the contemplative orientation of the whole community in adoration towards the symbolic place of the Lord’s presence and in eschatological expectation of his return. The urgent need for the Church’s liturgy today is to arrange everything so as to foster in the greatest possible way the contemplative adoration of the Lord, who reveals himself to his people in Word and Sacrament, and whose humble, unobtrusive servants are the celebrants.

This contemplative and eschatological orientation can be clearly perceived in the Pope’s private chapel, where he celebrates Mass every morning, first from his chair placed slightly in front of the first row of participants, who are turned with him towards the altar, and then on the altar itself at the head of the little assembly, which adores Christ really present with him.

It should also be possible for the natural or artificial light of the church to encourage recollection by its moderation and beauty. Nothing discourages prayer more than overpowering illumination that leaves no room for visual silence; it is like deafening music which, by its power and rhythm, allows no rest to the ear which is preparing to hear the Word.

The arrangement of the church and its furnishings depends primarily on the bishop, who must take care that the liturgical tradition is respected. No one is allowed to make changes which threaten to alter the profound meaning of the liturgy.

The Priest at the Service of the Liturgy

Today there is a craving for simplification, which ends up impoverishing the liturgy without any spiritual benefit. The same thing sometimes happens with the texts found in the liturgical books. Under the pretext of simplifying or adapting them to the understanding of the faithful, liberties are taken that weaken the force of prayers forged over centuries of ecclesial experience.

The celebrant must remember that he is there to serve the liturgy of God’s People. The text of the liturgical prayers is not at his disposal to be modified according to his whim or for personal theological reasons. On the contrary, the liturgy is a good of the Church’s Tradition, which belongs to the Christian people, whom the priest humbly serves in celebrating her worship. To change the text or the order of the liturgy for personal reasons does nothing except distract the faithful, who ask why such a change is being made. There is a sort of neoclericalism bent on modifying the liturgy, which the faithful, however, have the right to receive in its integrity as a gift of Christ and the Church, without priests taking the liberty of changing it. The faithful expect this fidelity to Tradition, since the liturgy is a good belonging to all the People of God.

The liturgy has a formative character. Through the liturgy, the Church hands on the Gospel of Christ in all its wealth and diversity. The liturgy is one of the forms of the living Tradition, by which the Word of God is communicated to men in order to transform them. Thus it cannot be modified without undermining in its fullness the Church’s intention in her transmission of the truth through the liturgy. Respect for the People of God means handing on to them the ever-living experience of those who have lived in Christ’s friendship — an inheritance to which they have a right and which will enable them to live more authentically than anything a priest’s personal liturgical viewpoints will allow them to do so.

The liturgy has a contemplative character and directs the gaze and hearts of the faithful to the face of Christ. It tries to describe and to represent, more than to explain or rationalize. A priest’s personal alterations of the liturgical prayer are often didactic. Only if one thinks that a prayer or gesture is too poor in substance does one overburden it with explanatory considerations. Instead of guiding contemplation, prayer in this way proposes a reflection that turns the believer in on himself rather than opening him to transcendence, as the sober traditional prayers do so well. 

It is often maintained that the way of liturgical prayer will be better ensured if the texts are constantly changed. True salutary change remains that of the heart. In every liturgy the individual must be changed in order to be disposed to receiving the Word of God and the Church’s living Tradition. If the celebrant deeply lives this conversion of his own heart, he will say the liturgical prayer in a totally new way and open it to the Creator Spirit.

Christ Is Always Present

The consecrated Eucharist will remain in the tabernacle to offer communion with the Body of Christ to the sick and those absent, and to manifest the Lord’s Real Presence outside the celebration for the adoration of the faithful when they come to pray in church. It is fitting that the tabernacle be placed in such a way that it can be seen on entering the church. It should be beautiful and illuminated, like an act of praise to the glory of Christ really present.

The whole church should be arranged so as to invite adoration and contemplation even when there are no celebrations. One must long to frequent it in order to meet the Lord there. Too often today churches, designed as multipurpose halls or with the sole objective of gathering the assembly for the liturgy, become dead at the end of the celebration and do not invite the faithful to enter so as to recollect themselves in prayer. The church, by its beautiful liturgical layout, its tabernacle radiating Christ’s Real Presence, should be the beautiful house of the Lord and of his Church, where the faithful love to recollect themselves in the silence of adoration and contemplation. Every church must be "praying" even when no liturgical celebrations are taking place; it must be a place where, in a restless world, one can meet the Lord in peace.

"As faith in the real presence of Christ in his Eucharist deepened, the Church became conscious of the meaning of silent adoration of the Lord present under the Eucharistic species…. In his Eucharistic presence he remains mysteriously in our midst as the one who loved us and gave himself up for us, and he remains under signs that express and communicate this love" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1379-1380).



Father Max Thurian