Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 2: April 1999
Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Contemplation Unites Liturgy with Daily Life
The following excerpts from Prayer, by the late Swiss theologian and cardinal, Hans Urs von Balthasar, are reprinted with the permission of Ignatius Press. Originally published in German in 1961, Prayer was re-published by Ignatius Press in 1986; translated by Graham Harrison.
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Contemplation is liturgical, if we understand liturgy in its fullest sense. In practice, the liturgy brought about in the community’s service of worship can bring to our attention only a tiny part of God’s word in holy scripture. Even the Liturgy of the Hours, the breviary, encompassing as it does the annual calendar of feasts, cannot contain the whole of scripture. Thus the liturgy points beyond itself to our personal contemplation of the word.
Somewhere there must be in the Church someone who is listening in adoration to that word of God which is not to be found in the Church’s official missal and breviary. For, obviously, the purpose of the word is not fulfilled by those countless people who study the Bible in intellectual curiosity and for the love of learning. Theology and exegesis can border on prayer, but they are not of themselves necessarily prayer. Not explicitly, at least. All acts of the Christian life, whether of the intellect or not, should be accompanied by an openness for worship, like a
accompanying the soul, and this applies to the act of theology and exegesis, too.
Indeed, like Anselm and many other saintly theologians, the reader and scholar of scripture can surround and permeate his reading and thinking with worship, and thus extend the liturgical attitude into his intellectual work in a very practical way. But he does well to remember that the worship of the word needs no other justification, and that, ultimately, prayer cannot be reduced to the level of a means to improved understanding … (p. 116)
In contemplation…we have found the link which joins the two halves of Christian existence the "work of God" in the realm of the Church and the work of man in the everyday world into a firm unity. Contemplation binds the two together in a single liturgy which is both sacred and secular, ecclesial and cosmic. Without contemplation it would scarcely be possible to unite the two, for the simple reason that, practically and psychologically, the effect of the Church’s liturgy fades as the day proceeds, and the world’s work is for the most part remote from it. Some link is necessary if they are to be drawn together in a lived, spiritual unity. In contemplation, however, liturgy becomes Spirit, and this Spirit can become incarnate in everyday life. In some way or other, of course, this is what happens necessarily in every authentic Christian life: anyone who assists at Mass with devotion and knows what he is doing when he receives communion is bound to pay attention to the spiritual meaning of the celebration and its offer to refashion the Christian’s everyday life.
And the more deliberately he thus "pays attention", the better the two parts fit togetherthe supernatural form which comes down from eternity, and the matter of everyday life in the world. Those who attempt to join the two without contemplation either take the sacramental principle to extremes and improperly expect it to yield quasi-magical effects, or else they sacralize worldly affairs in a completely exaggerated way, constructing a theology of earthly realities and reckoning the office, technology, comfort, the state and secular culture among the factors which go to build up and bring about the kingdom of God. (The latter often occurs nowadays, particularly in those spiritualities which have a false view of contemplation.)
By contrast, the man who is filled with the spiritual law of Christ as he goes to his daily work will see it in the same sober terms as holy scripture does, yet he will be aware that the earth and its toil is joined, seamlessly, to the work of heaven. If the Liturgical Movement is isolated and has no connection with a contemplative movement, it will remain a kind of Romanticism, a flight from time, inevitably calling forth the protest of a counter-Romanticism promoting a false sacralization of everyday things. (p. 120-121)
The sinner’s glimpse of heaven, as he comes to acknowledge his most grievous fault, is an element in the Church’s liturgy, in the Mass as in penance. But it is also an element of contemplation which (as we shall see) encounters the word of God, a word which both pronounces sentence and justifies. So a person who contemplates on a regular basis is already to a large extent prepared for confession. He is accustomed to looking in the mirror and seeing himself as God sees him.
Of course, it is the gracious will of God justifying us which turns us toward him and opens our eyes to his truth. For no man can be justified while he is turned away from God.
All the same, man too must be involved in this first turning toward God through grace; in acknowledging the truth of grace, man must acknowledge that he is in the wrong. In confessing grace (confiteri Domino), man must of necessity go on to confess his guilt (confiteri peccatum). This is all, perhaps, so hidden and so simple that it can scarcely be put into words: "Your light, my darkness! Your sweetness, my bitterness!" But the fact is that mature contemplation can lend a greater depth and permanence even to such a simple awareness; the "dark night of the soul," the contemplative way of purification, is only a gradually intensified training, in which this experience of confession is branded deeply and painfully upon the soul. Thus the "dark nights of the soul" are also part of the liturgy; they are existential confessions in which, it may be, the darkness is so profound that the vastness of the Church and the heavenly court can scarcely be made out; yet the silent, praying, assistance of the communion of saints, both here and above, is never lacking.
His is something the Christian contemplative must be aware of. Then he will not see his life in the world, subject to the law of the word which he contemplates, as offering a threat of further impurity. Instead he will know that he is borne along and held upright by the word of God; he will know that, just as this Word nourishes him as the Bread of Heaven, so too, as the word of absolution, it purifies and absolves him.
He needs this assurance because he can never measure up to the immense demands made of him. God will always have to supply the substance, the greater part; He will always have to support him in his inability, his failure, and overlook his penchant for slipping back; He will look at man’s feeble goodness in the light of the Son’s perfect goodness. This, then, is the state of the redeemed in this world. It is meant to spur him on to simple gratitude to his divine Saviour, not to dialectical speculation. His life is a service,
of the gracious God, lived out in full personal responsibility, but also as part of the entire company of the saints, which gives his service value in God’s sight. (p. 125-126)
Copyright 1986 Ignatius Press; reprinted with permission