Find articles by keyword, title, or author name

The Prayer of the Liturgy: How the Spirit’s Sober Inebriation brings Joy to the Praying Soul

A Centenary of Guardini’s Spirit of the Liturgy, Part I

Editor’s note: 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Romano Guardini’s German text of The Spirit of the Liturgy. Throughout this year, Adoremus will feature prominent theologians and liturgists, pastors and practitioners, who will offer their own insights on each of The Spirit of the Liturgy’s seven chapters, give some historical context to his writing from 100 years ago and leading up to the Second Vatican Council, and consider how the “spirit” of his work’s key insights might enhance today’s celebrations and participation in the liturgy. Adoremus is grateful to Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, NJ, for leading off the series. Bishop Serratelli is currently a member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and of Vox Clara, and he has served as Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship.


Romano Guardini is one of the most important intellectual figures in twentieth century Catholicism. In an era when the Church was facing Modernism and a very individualistic understanding of prayer, Guardini spoke about the liturgy as a communal act of worship of the whole Church. In the nineteenth century, there had been an overemphasis on personal prayer as a means to gain merit and assure one’s salvation. To such a spiritual individualism, Guardini provided the much-needed antidote in his famous work The Spirit of the Liturgy (1918).

Beyond the Letter

Guardini found little comfort in the textbook theology taught in his day as a defense against the errors of the Modernists. He turned to the writings of St. Augustine in the quest to uncover the meaning of love and freedom. Guardini realized that there is no true freedom apart from the authority of the Church. His quest for such freedom drew him into the beginnings of the liturgical movement which served as a basis for the Second Vatican Council’s renewal of the liturgy. He wanted to relearn the way in which liturgy should be done so that the faithful of his day could more fully enter into it. Long before the Second Vatican Council clearly stated it, Guardini was working for the full, conscious, active participation of all the faithful in liturgy.

So important had the question of the liturgy become in the 19th and 20th centuries that the Second Vatican Council dedicated its first document to the liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium. In the early 20th century, Pope St. Pius X had sought to encourage a more active participation of the laity at Mass through a reform of liturgical music. Subsequently, in response to the liturgical movement taking place, Pope Pius XII had issued Mediator Dei in 1947. It was the very first encyclical devoted entirely to the liturgy. In it, Pope Pius XII defined the liturgy as “the public worship…rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members” (20). He encouraged the active participation of the laity in the Mass and spoke of the liturgy as a source for personal piety.

At the very beginning of this growing desire for a liturgical revival, Guardini published his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Although it was published a century ago, it remains a powerful statement of the true nature of the liturgy. “In his classic work, Guardini presented the experience of the liturgy as an antidote to the cold rationalism and narrow moralism that he saw afflicting the Church of his day.”[1]

Guardini’s profound insights have not been surpassed. They continue to engage theologians. In writing his own masterpiece on the liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger used the same title for his work as Guardini did; and he humbly acknowledged his own indebtedness to Guardini. Both authors set as their purpose not simply to debate scholarly questions but to offer an understanding of how faith finds its expression in the celebration of the liturgy.

Prayer—One and All

In the first chapter of his book, “Prayer of the Liturgy,” Guardini discusses the relationship between liturgy and popular devotions as well as the relevance of culture for liturgy. He begins by establishing the principle that the liturgy is the prayer of the whole Church. It does not rest with the individual nor with a particular community or group of individuals. In fact, the liturgy’s first aim is not the awakening of the pious sentiments of an individual or a community. For Guardini, the objective nature of the liturgy is fundamental. It is what distinguishes Catholic worship and sets it apart from Protestant worship, which is much more subjective and individualistic.

The Church is all-embracing, including people of every race, of distinct social strata, and varied circumstances. In the course of time, her liturgy has developed. The ephemeral, the experimental, and those aspects peculiar to a time or place have been gradually eliminated and what is accepted as essential and binding on all has remained. “The Catholic liturgy is the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life. It has been able to develop ‘kata tou holou,’ that is to say, in every direction, and in accordance with all places, times, and types of human culture” (18).[2]

Guardini’s insistence on the objective nature of the liturgy provides an ever-present safeguard against attitudes and actions that undermine the liturgy. Since the liturgy is something that we receive from the Church, it is never the product of a particular group. No individual or group of individuals has the prerogative to be creative with the liturgy, adapting, changing or removing parts of the liturgy to suit their particular subjective perception of what is required at any given moment.

Developing this same thought, Ratzinger in his writings and speeches urges Catholics to have a new awareness of the liturgy as a gift received from the Church. Such an understanding does not reduce the liturgy to something that can be manipulated at will. When individuals reshape the liturgy to project their own will and desires, they lose its primary focus. The liturgy is not to make us feel good. Perhaps, such thinking is one factor among others that accounts for the decrease in attendance at liturgy in the last fifty years. Liturgy is not me-centered: it is God-centered.

Side by side with the universal, objective, and public liturgy of the Church are the private prayers of her individual members. In these private prayers and communal devotions of the faithful, there is a stronger presence of emotion and feeling. Popular piety is personal and subjective. Its forms vary according to historical circumstances, “periods, localities, or requirements, and so on. They bear the stamp of their time and surroundings, and are the direct expression of the characteristic quality or temper of an individual congregation” (20). Nevertheless, these acts of piety contribute in their own way to the spiritual growth of the individual. They are necessary and good.

Guardini is balanced in his discussion of prayer. Both the private prayer of the faithful and the public prayer of the Church foster and deepen a person’s relationship with God. In both personal prayer and devotional prayer, individuals bring to God the particular contingencies and needs of their lives. In liturgy, however, individuals are absorbed into a wider spiritual world and pray as members of the Church. They are taken up into a sphere which transcends the individual and is accessible to believers of every time and place. Both popular devotions and the public worship of the Church have their place. “There could be no greater mistake,” Guardini insists, “than that of discarding the valuable elements in the spiritual life of the people for the sake of the liturgy, or than the desire of assimilating them to it” (20).

Nonetheless, liturgical prayer has a pre-eminence over non-liturgical prayer. Examining what a healthy relationship between liturgical prayer and devotional prayer looks like, Guardini extrapolates a number of “fundamental laws” (21) from the liturgy that ought to guide a necessary, healthy, and supporting piety.

Liturgical Laws

The first two laws involve the head and the heart—thought and emotion. Since prayer is always the lifting up of our hearts to God, emotions will always have their place in every form of prayer. But, in popular devotions, there may be an emphasis on a specific emotion or form of spontaneity that may not elicit a response in all present and may not be reproduced at every occasion. Liturgy, on the other hand, is more universal and inclusive.

The heart must be in all prayer. And, in the liturgy, the heart is guided and purified by the mind. Feeling and emotion are present, but thought directs and controls them. “If prayer in common,” Guardini says, “is to prove beneficial to the majority, it must be primarily directed by thought, and not by feeling” (22). Clear theological thought sustains and directs the prayers of the liturgy. It is precisely this direction that makes liturgical prayer helpful for the entire community.

Related to the law of the mind is the foundational element of truth. Prayer, whether liturgical or devotional, “is beneficial only when it rests on the bedrock of truth” (22). The very words of the prayers of the liturgy are taken from the rich storehouse of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The words of the Fathers of the Church find their voice in the liturgy. In the carefully constructed phrases of the liturgical prayer, the faith of the entire Church across the centuries is expressed both artistically and didactically. Unlike popular devotions, the liturgy does not concentrate our attention on one truth to the exclusion of another. For example, the mercy of God is never emphasized to the detriment of the justice of God nor the transcendence of God to his immanence.

In lucid terms, the liturgy, guided by dogma, offers the truth of the faith in its entirety. In this way, the liturgy not only teaches us, but satisfies our deepest spiritual hunger. In a word, the liturgy “is nothing else but truth expressed in terms of prayer” (24). As Guardini so beautifully writes, “Dogmatic thought brings release from the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion. It makes prayer intelligible, and causes it to rank as a potent factor in life” (23).

But that’s not to say that emotions and feelings do not play their part in the liturgy. “While the necessity of thought is emphasized,” Guardini explains, “it must not be allowed to degenerate into the mere frigid domination of reason” (25). The emotional element of prayer is another law accompanying prayer’s truth feature. Our human nature is both graced and fallen, splendid and base. In liturgy, all the emotions of our common human nature are present from A to Z. The intense cries of the psalmist’s voice convey both our joys and our sorrows. The plaintive sighs of the Miserere—“Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love!” (Psalm 51)—express our deep contrition. The Easter Exsultet raises our hearts in joyful praise of God who brings to fulfillment his plan of salvation in the Resurrection of Jesus. In the liturgy, emotion is always controlled and tranquil. “Emotion glows in its depths, but it smolders merely like the fiery heart of the volcano whose summit stands out clear and serene against the quiet sky” (26).

Digging Deep

Lastly, in his first chapter of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Guardini goes beneath the surface of prayer. He speaks of “the great need of the subsoil of healthy nature” (34). An individual’s human nature, along with a society’s corporate nature, is part and parcel of a healthy and vibrant life of prayer. He holds that, like the salt of the gospel, a genuine and lofty culture should impregnate the entire spiritual life. Without a lofty culture, ideas become weak, symbolism crude, and language coarse. Guardini employs often the Scholastic maxim, “grace takes nature for granted” (34). When a natural foundation is strong and solid, a supernatural edifice may rise toward God; conversely, when the footing is faulty, divine life is difficult—if not impossible. Since human culture influences the spiritual life, by that very fact, it influences liturgy.

Most certainly, culture, especially the use of language, is important in liturgy. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, the “central actio of the Mass is fundamentally neither that of the priest as such nor of the laity as such, but of Christ the High Priest: This action of God, which takes place through human speech, is the real ‘action’ for which all creation is in expectation…. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential” (173). Since the language of liturgical prayer is so essential to presenting the “action” of God, it deserves special attention. “Coarse language” and “monotonous and clumsy imagery” are simply not capable of communicating clearly the actio of the Divine Word.

In the liturgy, the language of prayer should be rich in thought and imagery. It must not be removed from reality—it should be bold enough to call things by their names. It should be powerful, yet subtle. It should be erudite, yet understandable.

Liturgical prayer should tend toward the poetic. While prose bumps along the ground, poetry reaches heavenward. And liturgy already participates in the liturgy of heaven. “If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 27).

Even a casual reader of the first chapter of Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy comes quickly to a basic understanding of Catholic liturgy as “the supreme example of an objectively established rule of the spiritual life” (18). As Prosper of Aquitaine’s maxim lex orandi, lex credendi succinctly expresses, the liturgy is our teacher. It contains “the entire body of religious truth” (24). It is the treasure-house of the truths of Revelation; indeed, the content of liturgical prayer is the Word himself. Liturgical prayer is truly the font and summit of the Christian life (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11), for in it Christ becomes (as Cardinal Ratzinger would put it) “contemporary with us and enters into our lives.”


[1] Christopher Shannon, Crisis, Romano Guardini: “Father of the New Evangelization,” February 17, 2014.

[2] In this and future entries, citations are taken from the 1998 English edition of The Spirit of the Liturgy, published by Herder and Herder/The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York.

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli

Bishop Arthur Serratelli has served as bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, since 2004. In November he concluded his term as Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. In October 2016 he was appointed by Pope Francis as a member of the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. At present, he is the Chairman of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). He is a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission.