Dec 31, 2007

Liturgy Speaks God’s Word, Not Ours

Online Edition – November, 1998: Vol. IV, No. 7

Liturgy Speaks God’s Word, Not Ours
(Part I of II)
Sound Theology Must Inform True Understanding of Liturgy

by Father Jeremy Driscoll, OSB

(Editor’s Note: Father Jeremy Driscoll is a Benedictine priest who teaches patristics at Mount Angel Seminary, Portland, Oregon, and at San Anselmo in Rome. He will be among those to address the Forum on Translation, convened by the U.S. bishops to "create a process for clarifying and addressing the issues" of liturgical translation (see "Long-delayed ‘Forum on Translation’ slated for November ’98," AB October 1998 — editor’s note: this article is currently not available online).

Father Driscoll’s essay will be published in AB in two parts, and is reprinted with the kind permission of Communio: International Catholic Review where it originally appeared [vol. 23, Fall 1996 "Deepening the Theological Dimensions of Liturgical Studies," 508-523]. An early version of the essay was an address to the first meeting of the Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995.)

Part IWithout the precision which theology can offer, the community risks celebrating simply itself or its story, and not the story of Jesus.

In a recent conference at my monastery and at the seminary where I teach, a renowned biblical scholar spoke of the history of Catholic biblical scholarship in this century. In the course of this conference he made an interesting and important observation about the situation of biblical scholarship as we near the end of the century. In the first half of the century those Catholic scholars who eventually devoted themselves to biblical studies were ordinarily priests, already trained in general in Catholic theology. In the revival of biblical studies launched in the last thirty years as a result of Vatican II, many Catholic scholars, both lay and clerical, have received higher degrees in various dimensions of the biblical sciences as practiced in the current academy; but it is now possible to do so without reference to, and professional training in, the whole sweep of Catholic theology.

In short, a Catholic doctor in biblical studies can be highly respected in the field and yet practice its methods and apply its results while being largely innocent of the whole of Catholic theology.

Early in my own theological training I was grateful to encounter Bernard Lonergan’s Method in Theology, and I learned from this work that the results of biblical studies, indeed of any specialization within theology, must be coordinated in a dynamic process with the other specializations, which only when taken together as a whole can properly construct theology.1

Specializations and specialists are tempted to take the results of their own fields and use them alone for facing questions and making decisions that are appropriately faced and made only by all the specializations taken together in a dynamic process.2

What was observed about biblical scholars I have been able to observe first hand in the North American scene within my own field of specialization, patristics. Specialists across Christian denominations and of no denomination have rapidly multiplied in this field. The Catholic who wants to use the often very positive results of their studies must, it seems to me, take account at some point of the fact that these specialists also often face questions and suggest evaluations without sufficient reference to the whole dynamic sweep of Catholic theology. With my colleagues in this field I am often aware that, having specialized in patristics after my general training in Catholic theology, I work in patristics in a way that often differs from those whose professional training is only within patristics.

It seems to me that a situation not dissimilar to this exists in part today among people professionally trained in liturgical studies. It is possible today to be degreed in liturgy and to practice in the field and yet again face questions and make decisions without sufficient reference to, without sufficient knowledge of, other dimensions of Catholic theology.

I want to be careful about my formulation of this observation. I make it wanting to be neither offensive nor inflammatory, and yet at the same time I wish to suggest it as a challenge, a challenge that may at least in part explain some of the very serious practical problems that we face in the North American Church today, a challenge which also, once identified, can be met if there is the will to do so.

It would not be difficult to point to any number of North American liturgists who are very well versed in theology. I gladly acknowledge the fact and profit from their scholarship. However, in my opinion it must likewise be admitted that much of what is advanced in liturgical circles today is being done in a way that is theologically naive when compared with the maturity of the Catholic doctrinal heritage.

Let me try to describe the situation I am referring to by addressing some sample topics that can render my remarks more concrete. These are all areas where the theological dimensions of the matter, it seems to me, could be more deeply conceived.

We may ask what theological principles are guiding the current search for an appropriate vernacular language that translates the riches of the Latin liturgy? Have such principles, whatever they might be, been sufficiently debated on the level of their consequences for doctrine? Has there been sufficient theological reflection on, say, the mystery of language itself, on the relationship of this to the inner life of God, within whose life one of the three persons is named Word? What bonds exist and can be expressed between a vernacular spoken in the twentieth century and the mystery of one of the Trinity becoming flesh and living a human life in first century Palestine and, more, his being proclaimed crucified and now risen Lord of the universe? And this twentieth century vernacular; what bonds exist and can be expressed between it and the saints with whom we are in communion over time, who faced questions and gave answers in Creeds and Councils that are still considered normative for believing Catholics today?

I am reaching toward profound questions, and how we answer them matters not a little. But questions of this nature cannot be adequately faced without the help of the best philosophically, historically, and theologically trained minds of the community. Has the question been faced on this level by ICEL or now by the various episcopal conferences of the English speaking world who must decide whether or not to ask the Holy See’s approval of ICEL’s work?

A practical and blunt question can indicate the tendency of such bodies to foreshorten the theological task with which they are faced: has a sufficient answer to theological questions raised about translations in a Lectionary really been given when a biblical specialist pronounces a text correctly translated (or interpreted)? But that is the view of a specialist. How does it coordinate with the perspective on that same text by the historian of exegesis or by specialists who know how that text bears on the perception of some doctrine?3

Sacred music and art
The question of a language suitable to the liturgy places us very near the question of the meaning of sacred art. Virtually every liturgical concern and practice is expressive of a position — implicit or explicit — on sacred art. If we take just one example, music, we can perhaps develop some remarks to indicate directions in which a deeper and more carefully developed theological approach to the question of sacred art would be helpful.

Individual composers of music for the liturgy in our time or in former times need not themselves be trained in depth theologically, though it is not likely that such training would be an impediment to the task of achieving good music. Nonetheless, a carefully developed theological understanding of liturgical music is necessary for the task of suitably judging it and for directing its future development.

Reliance on the three great transcendentals from classical philosophy enables us to frame the question in terms of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. The relationship between art and the content of Christian faith can begin with the observation that a profound emotion accompanies the apperception of the form of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth becoming flesh. This emotion forms part of the very content of the Word uttered by God about himself in flesh, such that it could be said that the Word is not fully apprehended without the emotion proper to it. But not just any emotion; rather the emotion proper to it. It is the office of sacred artin our case here, musicto discover and express in form (the art form) the insight into feeling appropriate to the mystery of eternal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty ("the form of God" to use an expression from Phil 2:5) having taken the form of a slave.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done, but we have at least been able to be clear on what must be done. Furthermore, theology can remind artists that they cannot possibly succeed in this office without the help of the Holy Spirit. This is more than pious exhortation. It lies in the very nature of the task, which theology alone is equipped to help us identify. No matter how great the genius of, say, the composer, now that the Word of the Father has come to dwell with us in very flesh, one could never discover the form of music appropriate to this action of God without the Holy Spirit whose work it is, from the moment of the Annunciation down to the present, to form from limited, finite materials a form of adequate expression for infinite Goodness, Beauty, and Truth in the world.

Obedience to the Holy Spirit in the creative act of shaping sacred art demands conversion of life (metanoia — a change of mind) and submission of the intellect and will to the form and content in which God utters his Word, to the form and content of Revelation. This is a prior given from which no Christian artist worthy of the name may be allowed to stray for the sake of what we might describe today as a more individually shaped form and content. The Christian artist exercises his task within this fundamental option, which history has shown is wide enough to allow for profound artistic achievement. This form and content of Christian faith is identifiable and clear. And again, though the artist need not be a theologian, theology is necessary to judge the suitability of a particular work of art for the liturgy.

Theology focuses for the artist the nature of the form which is to be created. Behind the form of a work of liturgical art lies a prior and indeed a divine form: the form of one who, though he was in the form of God, did not cling to that form but rather emptied himself and took the form of a slave (cf. Phil 2:5). Sacred music created by the breath of the Holy Spirit will be music that expresses by means of measured sound and silence the proportion observed by God himself in bridging what should have been an unbridgeable gap, the gap between eternal, infinite, divine life, and the passing, finite life of the creature.

God bridges this gap with a delicacy and proportion which preserve intact the finite vessel into which divine life enters, a delicacy and proportion which from our human perspective can only be called a new kind of power and a new kind of wisdom — power and wisdom which puts to shame all worldly power and wisdom. It is the form of divine power and wisdom.

Sacred music must be in the form of this same divine delicacy and proportion, and it must express for us the emotion proper to the realization of what an awesome thing God has done in becoming flesh, emotions of adoration, gratitude, love, devotion, and a cry for mercy at finding oneself in the presence of so great a God.

Thus, it is not enough for liturgists to have a merely general anthropological sense of the importance of music in the cultic rituals which human tribes shape. It will not do to leave unexamined or unchallenged presuppositions about music and art in general which are ours from a culture whose project is different from the search for that form for which the Christian artist searches. Philosophical precision and theological precision of a Christian order are necessary to keep us on task.

Boethius can be of some help in illustrating what I am speaking about. Boethius speaks of musica in a threefold sense: (a) musica instrumentalis (instruments, made by human hands, using dead matter in the interest of "spirit," breath); (b) musica humana (the human voice); (c) musica mundana (the music of the spheres).

These three together are to form a "symphony" which involves the entire cosmos across all the levels of its being and discovers that song which lies at the foundation of all Being, the song that is trinitarian love eternally exchanged and now that same love offered to the entire created order. It is a "symphony" which in fact penetrates the very heart of Providence’s ordering of things, and this same symphony must be discovered and made to sound in Christian liturgical assemblies.

As a commentator on Boethius puts it: "It is not a matter of cheerful entertainment or superficial consolation for sad moods, but a central clue to the interpretation of the hidden harmony of God and nature in which the only discordant element is evil in the heart of man."4

Music and language together
In Christian liturgy there is an especially close relationship between music and the language of the liturgy, be that the ancient Latin or a contemporary vernacular. Music must always be at the service of the word. This has been said often enough, but there are theological reasons for this which, when articulated, both can insure that composers do more than pay lip service to a dictum and, alternatively, can prevent music from being banal, excusing its low level by explaining that it is at the service of the word.

One possible way of articulating this theology is to search to develop an understanding of the roots of words in the human body itself, in its pre-rational instincts and rhythms. Before there are words, there is the whole language of the body with its tremendous capacity to express the most beautiful, tender and nuanced intuitions of the interior life. Before there are words, there are shouts, exclamations, groans of pleasure, love, or pain. Words are a highly refined and precise version of such bodily expressions. If their refinement and precision sometimes allow us to forget their bodily roots, this much always remains to remind us: that no word is uttered without a mouth and a throat and without air breathed in and out, and no word is heard without bodies in proximity. Their content reaches mind and heart by sounds entering an ear.

Theology sheds further light on what is up to this point a philosophical or anthropological discussion. Christian faith indicates something about the significance of a creature so finely and divinely crafted as to be capable of expression on so profound a level. It is in this capacity for refined expression that the human person exhibits evidence of being made "in the image and likeness of God" (Gen 1:26).

Thus, the roots of words ultimately lie deeper than in the human body; they lie in the very nature of God Himself. Revelation carries this content: that God eternally utters a Word that is wholly one with Himself, that it is the very nature of God to be one by being more than one, that expression of Himself is in the very nature of God. It is this expression of God, His Word, which has become flesh and thereby bequeathed to human words, whose roots are in the flesh, the capacity to be swept up into this divine utterance, and this in a twofold direction, making out of human words God’s eternal and wholly adequate expression of Himself and making likewise human words directed to God capable of sharing in the eternal Word’s direction of perfect return to His Origin.

But if this is to be our language, it can come about only with some measure of theological competence and control that assures it. There are other ways of speaking, and language, like all other human capacities, suffers the effects of the fall. Language suitable to the liturgy and the music that is at its service has as its task allowing human words to resound ("re-sound") in this the fullest dimension of the divine Mystery into which they have been caught up.

Music surrounds the "emitted sound" which a word is with the resonances of its bodily rhythms, rhythms whose connection with the very inner life of God in whose image they are formed must be discovered and likewise allowed to sound.

1. B. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), esp. 125-45. Lonergan’s discussion of method does not render explicit a normative conception of theology, nor is agreement on such necessary for specialists to be guided by his insights. Articulating a normative conception of theology is part of the task of fundamental theology. I have discussed this elsewhere in relation to liturgy. See J. Driscoll, "Liturgy and Fundamental Theology: Frameworks for a Dialogue," in Ecclesia Orans Xl (1994): 69-99.
2. Lonergan, Method in Theology, 137.
3. This is an application of Lonergan’s warning that theology requires a dynamic coordination among specialists in many fields to "curb one-sided totalitarian ambitions" to which specialists in a single field may be prone. See Method In Theology, 137.
4. H. Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 101.

End of Part I : Access Part II by clicking here.



Father Jeremy Driscoll, OSB