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Together Again for the First Time Everywhere: How Faith Integrates Symbolism in the Liturgy

A Centenary of Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, Part IV

Editor’s note: This examination of Chapter Four of Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy is the fourth in a series of seven essays marking the centenary of Guardini’s book.


The mark of a profound thinker is sometimes saluted by talking about a “balance” that he or she is able to maintain. This is not meant as an accusation of relativism; it is instead meant as an appreciation of paradox. One perspective is placed in one tray of the scale, another is placed in the other tray, and the thinker maintains a balance between the truth of one and the truth of the other. However, while Romano Guardini maintained this same sort of method to whatever he studied, this description of the approach fails to do justice to Guardini’s thought for two reasons.

Centrist Thinking

The first reason is that Guardini usually deals with more than two truths at a time. He feels more like a juggler finding the center point of a spinning plate than someone balancing two sides of a teeter-totter. He is standing on a wobble board and trying not to tip his balance toward any single point on the compass. In the center hub of the wheel is the Mass, and spokes leading in from the rim represent extreme positions he wants to moderate. If one looks at his whole book, one can find the following sets of pairs: grave–playful, socialist–individualist, will–knowledge, logos–ethos, universal style–idiosyncratic style, morally earnest–esthetically pleased, public ritual–private piety. (I have probably missed some.)

In order to participate in the Mass, persons will have to come toward the center from their extremes, and although all persons are approaching the hub, they are each approaching it from a different direction. This makes the cost of appreciating the Mass unique to every person. For example, the grave person must come to appreciate the playfulness of the liturgy, while the esthete must come from the other direction to appreciate the seriousness of the liturgy; the predominantly individualistic person must engage the fellowship of the liturgy, and the predominantly communalistic person must discover his individual responsibility in the liturgy; the person to whom will is most important must appreciate the liturgy’s truth-displaying quality, and the person to whom knowledge is most important must come to value the willful commitment required. And so forth.

Furthermore, in order to be appreciated, the Mass exacts a toll that is different for each person, depending on his or her starting point. What it costs one to participate in liturgy will be a different fee from—and perhaps opposite to—what another person will have to pay. Therefore, humility is required of all if they are going to move down the spoke from their position on the outer rim to the center of the liturgy.

In the fourth chapter of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Guardini presents another pair of truths for us to stabilize. It concerns the relationship between body and soul. There are people, on the one hand, who see body and soul as sharply defined and distinguished. There are people, on the other hand, who see body and soul as amalgamated and inextricably jumbled together. This pair is one of the many sets of opposing viewpoints that Guardini has identified. For the sake of easy reference ahead, let us refer to the former type of person as a “Divider” and the latter type as a “Blender.”

Integral Integrity

But as we consult our compass to stabilize our thinking, there is a second way in which Guardini’s thought is different from those who seek to attain a simple balance. In a balance, the two truths are left at opposite poles, and they do not touch each other. Tension between them is lessened by taking turns, perhaps, but the balance on a seesaw, for instance, means that each end cancels the other out: the weight on one end prevents the other end from sinking too low, and vice-versa. But Guardini instead proposes that in this pair—our Divider and Blender fellows—the ends of the poles need to be integrated, not just balanced; integrated, not just alternately considered as a matter of “fair play.” Guardini seeks cooperation between the Divider and the Blender when it comes to the creation of symbols. Not willing to leave them in seclusion, not willing to alternate between them, not willing to simply balance them, he wants to integrate them. He wants more than a cease-fire, he wants collaboration between Divider and Blender. He wants them to be a team.

In this effort to get the two to play nice with each other, Guardini is not speaking about symbols themselves, but about approaches to symbols. He is speaking about two different personality types or perspectives. Yet the fact of these two different approaches leads to some central questions about symbolism in the liturgy, questions with which Guardini begins as he sketches the landscape. If God is above space, then what has he to do with directions as to specific localities? If God is above time, then what does time matter to him? If God is Simplicity, then how is he concerned with specific ritual, actions and instruments? If God is a Spirit, then can matter have any significance in the soul’s intercourse with him?

To sum up, Guardini is asking what the significance of liturgical symbolism is for the soul’s intercourse with God, and to find an answer we must admit it depends on how the Ego experiences the relationship between body and soul. Guardini is enough of a philosopher to know that the alternatives of dividing or blending the soul and body have been attempted at various times in the history of intellectual ideas. Cartesian rationalism created a centrifugal effect that moved mind and body apart; Germanic romanticism created a centripetal effect that moved mind and body together. The pendulum will continue to swing, Guardini knew, unless we can make peace between the approaches.

Approaching Truth

Here is how Guardini describes the Dividers. The spiritual plane appears entirely self-contained, and lies beyond the physical plane. It has its existence, its reason, its purpose, its rationality, and does not really need the physical. The spiritual and physical are distinct orders, even if closely adjacent. When there is communication between them, as there must be, it is understood by this type of person to involve a transposition from the one plane into the other. Guardini sees this expressed in Leibniz’s theory of monads, a theory of the universe that only contains God plus soul-like entities called monads, changing space and time and material objects into illusions.

For people who think this way, the physical has little to no importance; in fact, it appears to encumber and degrade spiritual activity. The soul can’t completely do away with the physical, but as far as the life of the soul is concerned, the physical is a burden. Is there any value to the physical for such people? Not much. It is an alloy, an aid to the elucidation of the spiritual, an illustration, an allegory. But the use of symbol is an imperfect concession in the spiritual and liturgical life. What the soul would rather do is attain its goals by purely spiritual means. The soul might have to use physical symbol, but it would rather not. Truth, and moral impulse, and beauty, and knowledge, and practice of the good actually occur on a spiritual plane.

Here is how Guardini describes the Blenders. They see body and soul inextricably jumbled together and are inclined to amalgamate the two. Unification of soul and body is both possible and expected. The soul is a lining of the body, the body is the outside of the spirit. The body is visible soul. Belonging here are philosophical schools that speak of body as a condensation of soul, or a materialization of spirit. Therefore, an external material action (in the human case, the action of the external body) is a manifestation of what the spirit is doing. If we like, we could make grander metaphysical claims and capitalize the word “spirit”: the material and historical world is a manifestation of what the Spirit is doing. The Spirit, or men’s spirits, enter into expression through nature, social forms, habits, clothing, substances.

Guardini’s Move

If we left the descriptions of the two types of persons at that and placed them each on their own side of the balancing scale, Guardini admits we might be tempted to think that the Blender corresponds more closely to the nature of the liturgy, since it approves of the use of external phenomena to express an inner life. Liturgy uses action and material to express its spiritual verities—and a lesser thinker would leave it at that. A lesser thinker also would weigh in on the debate and defend either dividing or blending as a philosophical principal or an anthropological preference. But Guardini is a greater thinker, so he makes two moves.

First he acknowledges that both personality types have a weakness. On the one hand, the Dividers fail to realize how vital the relationship is between the spiritual and the physical planes. They delimit boundaries, thus isolating and highlighting the spiritual plane, which is helpful in one way, but they do so with such vigor that all cohesion between the planes is lost. Because they prefer one over the other they find liturgy challenging. On the other hand, the Blenders have the sense of cohesion missing in the Divider, but they lack objectiveness. Because they find it hard to adhere to defined formulas, defined actions, defined instruments, they also find liturgy challenging. For them, the symbol is an expression of the individual soul, but that individual soul is in a state of perpetual flux, and therefore the exterior expression (the symbol) is always in flux, and in need of constantly new, fresh interpretation. Or change. Guardini says the Blender lacks one of the ingredients essential to the creation of symbols, but the Divider does not succeed any better.

Hence the second move Guardini makes. Having described the forte of each type of Ego, and having noted the weakness each type of Ego suffers, he attempts to make peace between them and integrate them. This attempt brings him to the concept of symbol, which “penetrates deeply into the essence and nature of the liturgy. What meaning has matter—regarded as the medium of spiritual receptivity and utterance, of spiritual impression and expression—for us?”[1]

In Meditations Before Mass, Guardini affirms that “in the liturgy everything is symbolical. But symbol is more than a corporal form representing something incorporeal.”[2] In such a case, the exterior thing becomes no more than an allegory for spiritual truths. Guardini uses the example of the statue of the blindfolded woman holding scales as a representation of Justice. The person who sees this must be instructed as to the meaning of the bandaged eyes (no respecter of persons) and scales (measuring out equally). In an allegory, the meaning is not directly evident; it must be explained. “The liturgy also contains allegories, but its basic forms are symbols. Their meaning is actually hidden, yet it reveals itself in a particular thing or person, much as the human soul, itself invisible, becomes perceptible, approachable in the expression and movements of a face. So it is in the Church.”[3]

Embodiment Ensouled

In Guardini’s little book, Sacred Signs, he reveals his own understanding of how body and soul relate. The liturgy, he claims, is not a matter of ideas, it is a matter of actual things, and things as they are now. “It is a continuous movement carried on by and through us, and its forms and actions issue from our human nature. To show how it arose and developed brings us no nearer to it. … What does help is to discern in the living liturgy what underlies the visible sign, to discover the soul from the body, the hidden and spiritual from the external and material. The liturgy has taken its outward shape from a divine and hidden series of happenings. It is sacramental in its nature.”[4] In other words, the symbol in the liturgy is sacramental in its nature. Therefore, the liturgical symbols are elementary signs to which human nature responds, and Guardini indicates this process in the particular signs he discusses in Sacred Signs: signing oneself with the cross, hands, kneeling, standing, walking, striking the breast, steps, doors, candles, holy water, fire, ashes, incense, light and heat, bread and wine, linen, the altar, the chalice, the paten, blessing, space sanctified, bells, time sanctified, and the name of God. These signs are real symbols because they are things of the spirit fashioned into visible forms.

Matter has meaning for us when it becomes symbol. Matter can be the medium of spiritual receptivity when it becomes symbol. So in chapter four of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Guardini proposes that “a symbol may be said to originate when that which is interior and spiritual finds expression in that which is exterior and material.”[5] By this he does not mean a general consent made by people, a common agreement to connect x with y. That would be allegory. The spiritual element is not coupled with a material substance because we agree it should be so. “Rather must the spiritual element transpose itself into material terms because it is vital and essential that it should do so.”[6] The Divider does not find it vital and essential that it do so; the Blender finds the spiritual element gets lost because the symbol proper is not circumscribed.

To make the point, we might borrow pairs of names for these personality types from a couple other authors. In Rite and Man, Louis Bouyer contrasts different approaches to the liturgy by employing the opposing Christological heresies of Monophysitism and Nestorianism. To the former, “all ecclesiastical institutions, and especially the liturgy, seem to be equally sacred, and therefore immutable;”[7] the latter has “the tendency to stress the human aspects of Christianity in such a way that its individuality, along with its divinity, is in danger of disappearing.”[8] Like the Blender, the Monophysite liturgist desires to keep things mysterious, hieratic, sacred (and, Bouyer admits, attributes this possibility to the exclusive use of Latin). Mystery means the unintelligible. Like the Divider, the Nestorian liturgist would discard symbols that have accrued across the history of the liturgy, returning to the primitive Supper, a meal in common among friends. Mystery means the hidden thing made intelligible.

Bouyer summarizes: “According to the Monophysite concept of Christianity, the Mass can only be the Mass by being something entirely different from ordinary life and completely separate from it. … According to the Nestorian concept, however, everything about the Mass should recall the profane meal, even to the inclusion of mundane conversations.”[9] The Blender is so charmed by the symbolism of the altar that he forgets the table; the Divider has extracted the primitive table from out of the religious and Christian symbolism of altars to treat it alone.

Extremely Meaningful

In Elements of Rite, Aidan Kavanagh offers another contrasting pair of terms that might describe the two personality types. “Minimalism and pontificalism represent the two unacceptable extremes in degree of liturgical usage. The first sins by symbolic and ceremonial defect, the second by symbolic and ceremonial excess. … Pontificalism is always swollen, overblown, and fussy; minimalism is always shrunken, desiccated, and perfunctory.”[10] A Blender is more enamored with the symbol than with the reality it is carrying (preferring the box car to the freight), the way a pontificalist places “too much emphasis on tertiary elements to the point of obscuring the primary.” A Divider thinks one only needs to do as much froufrou as is required to get the point across, the way a minimalist’s service is “always insubstantial, placing not enough emphasis on anything.” So Kavanagh concludes that “it is pontificalism which breeds the rumor that solemnity is synonymous with complexity, heavy-handedness, and boredom in the assembly; minimalism which breeds the rumor that being solemn about solemn things is a vice.” The Blender wants affective symbol; the Divider isn’t sure how to make liturgy effective.

If we select any symbolic action in the liturgy, we can imagine it being done in one extreme or the other. Speech can be purple prose or a beige mumble; the architecture overly embellished or second-rate; the art flamboyant or insipid; the procession a strutting or a casual shuffle. These extremes explain one of the more cryptic remarks Guardini makes about walking in his famous 1964 letter to the Mainz liturgical conference:

“But those whose task it is to teach and educate will have to ask themselves—and this is all-decisive—whether they themselves desire that liturgical act or, to put it plainly, whether they know of its existence and what exactly it consists of and that it is neither a luxury nor an oddity, but a matter of fundamental importance. Or does it, basically, mean the same to them as to the parish priest of the late nineteenth century who said: ‘We must organize the procession better; we must see to it that the praying and singing is done better’. He did not realize that he should have asked himself quite a different question: how can the act of walking become a religious act, a retinue for the Lord progressing through his land, so that an ‘epiphany’ may take place.”[11]

For Guardini, in considering walking as a liturgical act, seeks a better understanding of liturgical renewal than merely shuffling the altar furniture, updating the rubrics, inserting teaching moments in the celebration, improving prayer and song, or better staging the procession. Liturgical renewal comes about when our actions—such as walking—become symbolic. And the way to appreciate symbol is to understand the body as natural emblem of the soul. The body-act of walking is a spiritual-act transposed onto the material plane. It is so transposed because it is vital and essential to do so. “The altar is not an allegory, but a symbol. The thoughtful believer does not have to be taught that it is a border, that ‘above it’ stretch inaccessible heights and ‘beyond it’ the reaches of divine remoteness; somehow he is aware of this.”[12] Somehow the thoughtful believer is aware of this if liturgy uses genuine symbols that suffer neither excess nor defect.

Universe of Symbols

A genuine symbol is occasioned by the spontaneous expression of an actual spiritual condition. Then a good symbol will rise above the purely individual plane and enjoy widespread currency. It will be universally comprehensible and significant. And here one must read chapters 3 and 4 in tandem. Guardini describes the universal currency expected of liturgy in the third chapter, and he is applying the thought in the fourth to the idea of symbol.

The Lord’s Supper did not continue as a Passion Play; it was transformed into a universal currency that could be used in every culture and every century. Something of us belongs to eternity, and “in order to transcend the individual order and be accessible to people of every condition, time and place, the liturgy has style.”[13] And formal style (i.e. arranged symbolism), makes possible the corporate dimension of the Church. In The Church and the Catholic, Guardini proposes a problem we might have with this understanding of formal style and lays it at the feet of modern individualism. “With the development of individualism since the end of the Middle Ages, the Church has been thought of as…a viaduct of life but not as life itself. It has, in other words, been thought of as a thing exterior from which men might receive life, not a thing into which men must be incorporated that they may live with its life.”[14]

As a result of this individualism, religion came to be considered something which belonged to the subjective sphere, and objective religion (as represented by the Church) was primarily the regulation of this individual and subjective religion. Thus, man “lived in a world of abstract forms and symbols, which was not linked up with the reality to which the symbols referred.”[15] But that means the symbol never rises above the idiosyncratic, and the liturgy-as-symbol never becomes catholic and traditional. One cannot understand Guardini on liturgy without treating Guardini on ecclesiology.

Collaborative Liturgy

Therefore, Guardini concludes that both Ego types—Dividers and Blender—must co-operate in the creation of symbols. “The former type, then, must abandon their exaggerated spirituality, admit the existence of the relationship between the spiritual and the physical, and freely avail themselves of the wealth of liturgical symbolism. … The latter type must endeavor to stem their extravagance of sensation, and to bind the vague and ephemeral elements into clear-cut forms.”[16] Then the liturgical symbol becomes a universal possession by exceeding the solitary, historical incident that occasioned it. The Last Supper can symbolically extend its substantial reality to us, although we live centuries later, and in a different culture. The Mass is symbol, not allegory, not historical reproduction, not representation. In showing us this truth, Guardini doesn’t tip the scales one way or another for our Blender or our Divider; rather, he recalibrates the scale in a way that invites both sides to weigh their own strengths and weaknesses against the greater reality of the liturgy itself.


[1] Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy (London: Aeterna Press, 2015) 27.

[2] Guardini, Meditations Before Mass (London: Aeterna Press, 2015) 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guardini, Sacred Signs, Introduction, online access http://www.ewtn.com/library/LITURGY/SACRSIGN.TXT

[5] Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 29.

[6] Ibid., 30.

[7] Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963) 5.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1982). All the quotes in this paragraph come from pages 80-81.

[11] Unable to attend the third German Liturgical Congress, Guardini sent a letter to Msgr. Wagner, organizer of the conference, in 1964. Online access http://www.ecclesiadei.nl/docs/guardini.html

[12] Guardini, Meditations Before Mass, 26.

[13] Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy (London: Aeterna Press, 2015) 25.

[14] Guardini, The Church and the Catholic (London: Aeterna Press, 2015) 1.

[15] Ibid., 2-3.

[16] Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 31.

David W. Fagerberg

David W. Fagerberg

David W. Fagerberg is Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He holds an M.Div. from Luther Northwestern Seminary; an M.A. from St. John’s University, Collegeville; an S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School; and Ph.D. from Yale University. First, his work has explored how lex orandi is the foundation for lex credendi, explored in Theologia Prima (2003). Second, to this he integrated the Eastern Orthodox understanding of asceticism as preparing the liturgical person in On Liturgical Asceticism (2013). Third, he has applied this to our liturgical life in the world in Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology (2016). He also has an avocation in G. K. Chesterton, having published The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism (1998) and Chesterton is Everywhere (2013).