Dec 15, 1998

Liturgy Speaks God’s Word, Not Ours (Part II)

Online Edition
Vol. IV, No. 8
December 1998/January 1999

Liturgy Speaks God’s Word, Not Ours (Part II)

access Part I by clicking here

by Father Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.

Father Jeremy Driscoll is a Benedictine priest who teaches at Mount Angel Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and at San Anselmo in Rome.

The first part of Father Driscoll’s essay, stressing the need for in-depth study of theology in order to understand the liturgy properly, was reprinted in AB last month with the kind permission of Communio: International Catholic Review, where it originally appeared (Vol. 23, Fall 1996, pp 508-523) as "Deepening the Theological Dimensions of Liturgical Studies".

In the first part of the essay, Father Driscoll examined the theological principles undergirding the appropriate use of vernacular liturgical language, as well as sacred music and art.

"Virtually every liturgical concern and practice", said Father Driscoll, "is expressive of a position implicit or explicit on sacred art."

On music, he said that "[l]anguage suitable to the liturgy and the music that is at its service must allow human words to ‘re-sound’ in the fullest dimension of the divine Mystery." He said that "in Christian liturgy there is an especially close relationship between music and the language of the liturgy… Music must always be at the service of the word."

Following is the conclusion of his essay.


Part II – Conclusion

Lex orandi, lex credendi

Many liturgists are justifiably fond of drawing attention to the important dictum attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine, "…ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" (the law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays). The phrase shows the dynamic relationship between liturgy and theology and sets in relief the more foundational role of liturgy. As is well known, liturgy exists in the Church before the answers given to pressing questions that come to be embodied in Creeds, Councils, or theological summae. Indeed, it is the shape of liturgy and what is believed to happen there which guides the process of the formulation of doctrine throughout, and it is the same which is used to measure the adequacy of such expressions.

Nonetheless, theology itself must understand this very dynamic, not only to protect the foundational role of liturgy within the theological enterprise but also to guard against the dictum’s misuse. One example of misuse of the dictum on the practical level is a sort of implicit disregard of the lex credendi, as if it were somehow optional since it is not "as foundational" as the liturgy itself. A possible description of a "liturgist" formed by such an attitude would be of someone who knows all about the way Christians have prayed or might pray today, but cares very little or knows very little about the relation of this to what the Church believes and articulates in theological discourse.

But caring about how the Church articulates what is normative for belief cannot be optional for anyone who would be professionally identified as a Catholic liturgist. A little history shows that the relation between a lex orandi and a lex credendi quickly becomes reciprocal.

There is something in the very nature of liturgy that gives rise to the need to articulate on a different level of discourse what happens in the liturgy, how it happens, and the significance of what happens. Indeed, without such articulation the shape of liturgy itself, which according to the dictum is also a lex, could be manipulated at will. And furthermore, without such articulation the believing community could not engage in dialogue, either among its members or with those outside the community, concerning "the reason for the hope" (1 Pet 3:15) which is grounded in what happens in the liturgy and which, at the apostle’s urging, a Christian should always be ready to give.

It seems to me that lex orandi, lex credendi can function as a sort of grid which, once laid over the contemporary liturgical scene, causes some things to fall into clearer relief. For example, generally no one would be so bold as to identify and justify explicitly such a procedure, but it sometimes appears that ways of worship are manipulated with a view toward causing a shift in some dimension of normative belief. This does not happen on any official level, so the dynamic is difficult to trace but nonetheless present for all that. It can come about when someone or some community for whatever reason feels justified in altering some liturgical practice of the tradition and has, as suggested, little care or knowledge of the effects of such an alteration for the theological heritage of the Church. Or it can come about more intentionally, in which case the original dynamic is actually reversed but not admitted to for strategic purposes. A new way of believing is controlling a new way of worship.

I have in mind here theological positions at odds with the community’s normative articulation being embodied and expressed in some liturgical practice. It is well known, even if a certain cynicism is necessary to know it, that if a liturgical practice which embodies a theological position at odds with normative teaching can be established, eventually that theological position can be established at least in the psyches of the theologically untrained (and unsuspecting) masses. It is not for me to impute motives, but it is useful to observe that theological agendas are operating, either consciously or not, either known or unknown, in anyone who discusses and makes decisions in any way about how liturgy should be celebrated.

The current liturgical scene in North America could profit much from rendering these agendas more explicit, first for the sake of intellectual honesty and then for the sake of genuine and skilled theological debate on questions of huge concern to all involved.

Christianity’s unique understanding of history

One practical approach to deepening the theological dimensions of liturgical questions can be to begin by attempting a description of some problematic situation and then to follow that with a theological analysis of the same. One possible description of a problem would be that in liturgical circles there is considerable talk about how some ritual or language should be employed or proclaimed but far less talk that attempts to understand what is believed to be happening in the liturgy. But can the liturgical renewal that was launched by the Council really advance without continuing efforts to understand as deeply as is possible for the inquiring mind the Mystery that is celebrated in the liturgy?

Understanding what is happening will greatly help us to speak appropriately about how ritual and language should be employed. It is dangerous to confront these practical concerns without sufficient theological understanding.

An anthropological understanding of some dimension of the liturgy is not sufficient, even if it is necessary, to grasp what is happening. For example, anthropological studies of the nature of ritual and myth offer valuable insights into what is happening in Christian ritual and into the narrative structure which shapes it in so thoroughgoing a way, but only theology can fix the distinctive dimensions of Christian ritual and "myth." Without theology’s contribution, ritual and myth, insofar as these describe some of what is happening in Christian liturgy, fade into a blend conceived as nothing other than another tribe’s version of its approach to the spirit world.

To render my concern more concrete, we may look at the words of a song often sung during eucharistic celebrations today which can serve as a representative example of the problem. The refrain is "We come to share our story."

From an artistic point of view, the criticism could be advanced that this comes off as being a bit didactic; but the problems with such a text from a theological point of view are more serious, even if perhaps elusive. Yet theology, among other things, ought to be prepared even to track down the source of elusive problems. We may begin with the observation that in some sense the statement, "We come to share our story," is true as a description of what is happening in the Eucharist, or at any rate is at least aiming at an insight that we would not want to do without in an understanding of what is happening. The insight is that there is a narrative structure that pervades the eucharistic liturgy, and whatever is narrated there is somehow intimately related to the story of the lives that those in the believing assembly are living. Yet, expressing such an insight with no more precision or finesse than the blunt declaration, "We come to tell our story", can in fact be very misleading. First of all, there are no words in this song that ever tell a story, leaving thus unanswered the question of what precisely is this story. The effect of this can be that there is no precise story. The singing community and even the individual is allowed to fill in the blanks as may seem best. Music is formation on a very deep level, but what guarantee can there be with lyrics like these that the minds and hearts of the worshippers are formed according to a lex credendi?

But we may also ask if there is not something misleading in referring to what is happening as "our story." In fact, the story that is proclaimed in liturgy is not immediately and directly the story of the gathered assembly. What is immediately and directly proclaimed is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and this in the context of the whole history of Israel and in the context of the apostolic Church. This must be the "our story" which any worshipping assembly gathers to proclaim, and as such it exercises control over and makes demands of any particular assembly that would call it its own. What that control is, what these demands are, theology can make explicit.

In that sense the story is not ours until we make it ours by assent. And assent is a public act, publicly verifiable. If we were merely gathering to tell the story of a particular gathered community, not a community which identifies itself in communion with the Church across the world and across time, then the story would be entirely ours and ours to manipulate as we will.

We might further ask whether "story" is the best word for describing all this. Is it precise enough? Once we get it straight that what is narrated in liturgy is ultimately the death and resurrection of Christ, does calling all that a "story" not risk letting what is narrated there be regarded as no more than an edifying tale? At any rate, nothing in the word (or the song) implies the specific and unique Christian understanding of what in fact happens when the death and resurrection of Christ are remembered in a believing assembly. Scripture and tradition have a word for this; namely, memorial or anamnesis. Do we not need these words to express adequately what in fact is happening? What has been believed and understood by the Church about the "storytelling" that goes on in the eucharistic assembly evokes a host of mysteries and questions that are wonderful to contemplate and to seek to understand. A past is narrated and believed to be entirely present. A future is revealed and likewise constitutive of the present. Is this believed with good reason? What makes it possible? On what grounds does the Church make such a claim? Who cares or should care about such a past being present, about such a future? What conditions are necessary for participating in such an event, for claiming it as "our story"?

Liturgical renewal as envisioned by the Council cannot advance at any depth without probing such questions as these. Not every believing Christian asks or answers these questions in the way that professional theologians do, but the Church knows that in some way or other these are every believer’s questions before the mystery of the liturgy, and what is answered well and carefully by her best minds at work finds its way of sifting down to every level of conceiving and answering questions.

Relatively few people, whether they be intellectually simple or sophisticated, are spiritually fed in the long run by approaches to the liturgy that would burke this level of questioning. For a time the novelty of some new practice or approach can claim some interest and seem to offer some promise; but if the liturgy is to feed people for a lifetime, in times as difficult as our own, then a theological effort at understanding it as deeply and precisely as possible is surely called for.

It is a fact that many worshippers are exceedingly bored in the presence of the reformed liturgy, a fact either denied or admitted with reluctance or with perplexity by those who are engineering liturgies precisely so that such could never happen. The problem probably does not lie, as is often explained, in the fact that those who are bored are simply unreformed curmudgeons who will never go along with what was, after all, a reform decreed by an ecumenical Council. By this time more than the curmudgeons are bored. Virtually everyone is or risks being so by much of what is served up for our spiritual nourishment.

The explanation may be that the whole community is lacking in theological depth, the kind of depth that is advanced by well trained professional theologiansnot to mention the holiness and contemplation of believersbut which always sifts down to the most simple of believers. Without the precision theology can offer, the community risks celebrating simply itself, its own story and not the story of Jesus. This is boring.

There seems to me to be little or no contest on the level of spiritual worth between the kind of liturgy represented by the "we come to tell our story" mood and the liturgy which understands itself, as the Scripture itself puts it, as "remembering the wonderful deeds of God". This latter is a catch phrase of the tradition around which a wealth of profound insight into what is happening at liturgy groups itself, not least of which is what Jesus intended by his command at the Last Supper, "Do this in memory of me." He commanded that we repeat his action of taking up bread and wine and that we repeat the words he said over them.

This is distinguishable in meaning from the sacred meals of other tribes. His words and actions at the Last Supper refer concretely and precisely to his death on the cross, which he was to undergo on the morrow. This action and the command to remember it henceforth refer all memorial, all storytelling, to this central event of salvation history.

But the crucifixion which is remembered is the crucifixion of one who is risen, and thus it is that, present to his Church as risen Lord, Jesus can associate with his sacrifice a community at a point far distant in time from the particular time in which he was crucified. This is what it means to be risen: that he is able to reveal and bestow what he accomplished in one particular time on every time and every place.

The liturgy is and proclaims a magnificent and completely unexpected mystery: that the center and fulfillment of all time stands in the very midst of time. The past is completely recapitulated in the personal existence of the risen Lord, and so also the future of the human race, manifested progressively in the Church, is already present in him and revealed in the extension of the reality of his risen body to the Church.6


What might these concrete examples suggest for the title and project of this study, deepening the theological dimensions of liturgical studies? Without pretending to be exhaustive concerning a theological agenda for the future, I would like to group suggestions into three categories.

The first category has to do with collaboration among theological specialists. I think a much more thoroughgoing collaboration between theologians trained in fundamental and systematic theology needs to occur with those trained in history of the liturgy and its anthropology. What liturgists think about and say and suggest could be greatly deepened by such collaboration.7

A second category of suggestions might be described as developing a willingness and the will to engage issues at the deepest possible level. Too often in recent decades the word "pastoral" has been the excuse for shirking the full range of discipline that the whole community of believers and thinkers must undertake, each member in a particular way, if the faith is to survive in the richness in which it has been handed on to us and if it is really to nourish our contemporaries. Gnosticism in the patristic period, New Age theories in our own, and Pop Liturgy within the Church all have something in common. First of all, they have a real capacity to attract because they very often successfully articulate what people’s most genuine and indeed valid religious concerns are. But they likewise have in common that they cannot deliver the goods they promise, for to spotlight a need, an interest, a desire is only half the pastoral task. The other half is to receive the gospel as the only possible fulfillment of these desires, to receive it with the complete metanoia, the completely new way of thinking, that it requires. Theology is systematic, comprehensive, and methodical exposure and subjection to this new way of thinking in all its consequences, attempting, as the writer of a summa might do, to face every conceivable question and to leave no question without an attempted answer.

In a third category of suggestions we might try to identify some specific theological questions that, if well developed, could be of great service in deepening the theological dimensions of our approach to liturgical questions. One such topic would be an ecclesiology more thoroughly derived from the shape of the eucharistic celebration itself. This is a call for a more vigorous application of the principle lex orandi, lex credendi to our understanding of the Church. It could counteract ecclesiologies, implicit or explicit, which are more sociologically or politically or "politically-correctly" derived. Included in a eucharistically derived ecclesiology would be a theology of Holy Orders which is "able to give a reason" (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) for the hierarchical structure of the Church and its liturgical manifestation, able to give a reason for different roles in the liturgy and the capacity of these distinctions to create unity.

Another topic deserving of greater theological attention is trinitarian theology. Whether concerning trinitarian theology as a topic of specialization or its general bearing on the liturgy, it is important to renew from the perspective both of history and of systematic thought how the Church’s trinitarian faith derives from the Church’s experience of the action of the Holy Trinity in the liturgy, again, above all in the Eucharist. Yet, that its roots lie in the liturgy does not restrict the advancement of insight into its mystery to liturgical categories. Such insight can and must be advanced also in the theoretical realm, not meaning by this shapeless speculation and production of some new doctrine but rather understanding something in the way that only disciplined and systematic thought allow. Such theoretical advance must find its way back to the liturgy, for there its coherence and adequacy are ultimately measured, but there also it makes its ultimate contribution; namely, a celebration of the mystery with the ever greater kind of understanding suitable to a mystery.

Finally, it seems to me that theology in general and liturgy in particular must both concern themselves more and more to dialogue in critical and challenging fashion with all that characterizes the contemporary Zeitgeist. The uniquely Christian understanding of history, which is manifested most fully in the eucharistic celebration, promises to solve what is one of the most anguishing dimensions of contemporary experience; namely, the meaning of time and history. To articulate correctly and well this uniquely Christian understanding of history, theology is needed. To understand at depth how it is manifested in the Eucharist, and indeed by extension in all liturgy, liturgists will need this theology.

In a different direction, still dealing with our contemporaries, the Christian understanding of truth is something urgently needed in our times because for us truth is not an abstract set of correct principles, a gnosis however derived. For us truth is a person, a divine Person, Jesus Christ; and, to connect this fact to the anguished experience of time, this Jesus Christ is met in history. This truth is life for us, and it is life delivered and received, full of transforming power, precisely in the community that is constituted by the eucharistic celebration. The best theology is needed to articulate this truth, and liturgists must understand the Eucharist as offering no less than this.

Finally, Christian faith conceives itself as offering the only adequate understanding of that for which every human heart is made and the only possibility of attaining it; namely, the notion of what a human person is. A human person is that being so deeply loved as to be unique and irreplaceable.8 At the ground of all being, both human being and divine being, is not an individual with his rights but a person, that is, one whose entire definition is derived from relation to another. The Eucharist reveals this relation; the Eucharist is this relation. It is the relation of Father, Son, and Spirit to one another and ourselves as summoned to communion within this communion.



6. I have greatly condensed here thoughts that I developed under the influence of H.U.v. Balthasar, G. Lafont, and others in my article, "Liturgy and Fundamental Theology."

7. It is not the focus of my present remarks, but here it is at least worth noting that dogmatic theology for its part suffers from insufficient contact with liturgists or, perhaps better put, from insufficient attention to the liturgy itself. See my "Liturgy and Fundamental Theology," 72-75, on the theological project of S. Marsili.

8. This formulation is by J. Zizioulas, whose theological project can in part be characterized by concern to develop understanding of the human person in light of the trinitarian mystery as revealed in the eucharistic assembly. See J. Zizioulas, Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993). For a study of the same and for this particular formulation of a human person, see P. McPartlan, The Eucharist Makes the Church: Henri de Lubac and John Zizioulas in Dialogue (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1993), 174. Cf. Dei Verbum, no. 8, on how tradition makes progress in the Church.

access Part I of Father Driscoll’s article by clicking here.



Father Jeremy Driscoll, OSB