Air travelers are aware of a temptation endemic to the act of frequent flying. We grow used to the marvel of manned flight. As the plane ascends above terra firma, we put our headphones on, refusing to turn our eyes to the extraordinary landscape below us. A century ago, our ancestors would have marveled at our capacity to leave behind our earth-bound status, to survey creation from 20,000 feet. Our forebears used to perilous journeys across violent seas would have been awestruck at the ability to travel—with perhaps a bit of turbulence our only hindrance—from New York to London in six hours. We, on the other hand, perceive this act of flying as part of doing business. It is one of the techniques that we use to accomplish our work in the world.
Human life is defined in our age, as sociologist Jacques Ellul recognized, by the proliferation of such technique. Most of us are not sufficiently attentive to the manner in which such technique is changing how we understand what it means to be a human being. The jetliner, the smartphone, and the Internet are not neutral technologies. The airplane has changed the way that we travel, allowing the human being to transcend temporal and spatial contingencies that once defined the human person. Nor are the smartphone and the Internet merely neutral instruments that we can use to navigate everything from the city’s grid of streets and avenues to the online information highway. Through both the smartphone and the Internet, once more, contingency disappears. All knowledge, all entertainment, through a supposed bird’s eye view, is now available to us. In essence, we have recreated ourselves as gods.
The Church, of course, has its own technologies—techniques through which the human person learns not to escape the world but to dwell contemplatively within it. Often, these ecclesial techniques intended to save us are at least partially opposed to the technologies of our age. The liturgical act, for example, is not about escaping contingency. Instead, we who stand before the living God to offer a sacrifice of praise are embracing the salvific nature of our contingency. We are creatures, rather than the Creator. What we are capable of knowing, willing, and doing is limited.
The Age of Technique
But what happens when the salvific contingency of the Church’s liturgical life meets a culture with a seemingly infinite power to transcend time and space? Sacrosanctum Concilium presumed that the human person, who would perform the liturgical act, was aware of the precarity of his or her existence. We recognized ourselves as betwixt and between heaven and earth, situated within a world but made for contemplation of the invisible God become visible. The liturgy was to become the privileged ecclesial pedagogy by which we might come to terms with this “betweenness.” Sensible signs would lead us to contemplate the glories of the triune God through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. But now, over fifty years after the Council, we can escape ourcontingency, our location in time and space, even our very senses through an endless supply of streaming videos on Netflix. We don’t need the liturgy because we have created other pedagogies that enable us to deal with human contingency.
While the fathers of the liturgical movement, particularly Romano Guardini, understood the risk of technology for misshaping the spiritual destiny of the human person, there was no way for them to envision the speed through which this revolution would unfold. It’s a big leap from the advent of factories on the shores of Lake Como (where Guardini wrote a series of contemplative letters on man’s place in the universe in an increasingly technological age) to commercial air flight, human reproductive technologies in which we can create life in laboratories, and the Internet in which all human knowledge and entertainment is available at our fingertips. Chastened in the years immediately following World War II and the program of genocide enacted by Hitler, we recognized that human progress had its perilous limits. But memory is short. And many young men and women believe that our salvation from ecological devastation, social violence, and even natural human death is really a matter of technological innovation. This attitude is best summed up in a recent political slogan: “Yes, we can.”
But can we? At present, one gets a sense that despite our persistent effort to disremember our precarity, our contingency intervenes. Emerging adults between the ages of 18-23 are experiencing loneliness, as they discover that the supposed infinite possibility for human communion via social media is, well, not enough. They turn to dating apps like Tinder, looking for an anonymous person to swipe right, feeling for a moment the thrill that one is desired. But such virtual communion cannot quench the human need for a concrete, existing person to enter into one’s life. We want someone to be there when we’re sick with the stomach bug or experiencing the loss of a parent. But all we have is a like or a favorite.
The Liturgical Response
The recognition that we cannot save ourselves from the dread that we experience as fallen creatures offers the possibility of a new liturgical apologetics. After the Council, there was a naivety among both the liturgical reformers and the implementers. They believed that if liturgical prayer were offered in the vernacular, if it were comprehensible to the human eye and ear, then social malaises would disappear. Through a reformed liturgy, secularization, individualism, racism, and fascism would naturally fall away.
But the Council Fathers and implementers were not entirely correct. They presumed that the modern, late modern, or postmodern person would happily give himself or herself over to the liturgical technology of the Church if it were easily understood. If the Mass were in English, if the repetition of the prayers were eliminated, if we used the right music that people liked, then social transformation would follow from liturgical participation. But now, not only do we still suffer the effects of secularization, racism, and radical secularization, we also have a declining participation in the sacramental life of the Church. In many parishes, the various forms of social malaise that the liturgy hoped to end have actually seeped into the liturgy itself.
The naivety of many of the reformers and implementers of the Council is not a nefarious one. Rather, it was derived from a confusion about how liturgical prayer functions. Liturgies, whether one is speaking about the Eucharist or infant baptism, do not simply function as a “communication” of theological, spiritual, or moral principles by means of ritual performance. This theory of ritual, offered first by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, remains entrenched in those involved in the task of liturgical formation. If only we get the ritual system right, then we’ll communicate the proper theological knowledge to the participant.
St. Augustine was aware that this approach to liturgical formation is insufficient. Singing a psalm with fervor, getting lost in the drama of salvation at the Paschal Vigil—these moments of wonder must become an object of contemplation and then moral attunement. We are to sing the psalm, to perceive how we may be accustomed to its melody in our own lives. We are to shape our existence in light of this psalm, making the desire of the Psalmist our own. We are to become what we behold, discovering a way of life through liturgical performance. For St. Augustine, any liturgical act requires a deeper seeking, a union of wisdom and worship unique to the Christian imagination.
Of course, in the post-conciliar era, we’ve also destroyed the wondrous things to behold that might lead to worshipful wisdom—cult seeking understanding. Because too many implementers of liturgical reform sought to turn the liturgy into the communication of a novel theology, a new ecclesiology, we performed an act of iconoclasm that eliminated the iconic, sonic, and spatial beauty that marked the Catholic imagination. The material culture of the liturgy was reduced to its functionality. Form disappeared.
A critique of this iconoclasm in the post-conciliar era is not just the complaint of the traditionalist. Instead, it is the awareness that if we really want to have liturgical wisdom, then we must also have something worth contemplating in the first place. As I never tire of telling my students, matter matters. Matter matters because we discover that it is precisely in that which is most contingent, the most material, that the Word has become flesh. A space emptied of all images of Christ reduces salvation to a verbal proclamation, an “idea” that now transcends materiality. If liturgical music is merely meant to communicate a message, then once one has grasped the idea, why chant? Why sing?
A liturgical apologetics will need to offer an apologia to a culture that imagines that the human person is capable of escaping contingency. But it will need to do so not through a liturgy that “communicates” some abstract idea to the participant. Instead, it will seek to begin from that which is material and sensible, and only then move to a wisdom that can assist the human person in living as a creature betwixt and between heaven and earth.
The Shape of Liturgical Apologetics
If one is to perform this liturgical apologetics, we must begin from the material. Once again, this task is not equivalent to the aesthete who likes old things. The goal is not to return to Palestrina because his music is old and thus sufficiently traditional for the liturgy. The end is not to recreate the frescos of Fra Angelico in every church. Instead, if one is to foster the singing of polyphony, it is because such music provides an encounter with radical materiality, with the contingency of sound itself. If we are to place frescos in churches, it is because such images enable the human person to see how his own flesh was involved in the process of salvation.
For example, the frequent use of incense in churches is not a matter of being a “traditionalist.” Rather, incense is that material object that involves the human sensation of smell in the act of salvation. It involves sight because we perceive the manner in which this smoke ascends to heaven, transfixed by the light of stained glass windows. A liturgical apologetics will begin through a proliferation of the material culture that was once integral to liturgical prayer.
In 2016, I invited students in my courses to encounter the St. John’s Bible. In encountering this hand-written, illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, the students recognized the gift of material culture in the liturgy. They saw the power of contingency in the Christian unfolding of salvation. Here was a text written by means of a human hand. Here was a text illuminated by images. The Scriptures ceased being a repository of mere ideas that each student could accept or reject. Instead, the Scriptures became a material object available to human contemplation. The effort put into constructing this material object was obvious to the students.
Part of this liturgical apologetics will involve a reconsideration of the use of art within churches. Too many ecclesial spaces have been designed with almost no attention to the human body. They are sparse spaces, empty of statuary, without mosaics, without any image of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The more these churches take up the human form, the more they provide the worshipper with an image of the salvific quality to human contingency. Jesus Christ is not an abstract idea but the Word who became an infant, who preached to sinners, who died on the cross, and who was raised from the dead. Salvation does not involve escaping the human condition. Rather, the more we enter into what it means to be human, to dwell between birth and death, the more capable we will be to worship the Triune God.
Yet, a liturgical apologetics is not reducible to the restoration of material culture. Liturgical formation will also need to offer an apologia for the liturgical act, one that demonstrates how cultic activity can provide a form of life that enables one to dwell in the world as a contingent being. We need a liturgical philosophy in addition to a liturgical aesthetics.
Consider the activity of praise. Many of those who have ceased attending the liturgy have done so because they don’t feel the need to engage in an act of Eucharistic praise within the Church. They don’t understand why such liturgical praise is necessary, for they can certainly offer worship to God outside of the liturgical act. They can wonder at the wondrous God through a Sunday hike or a brunch of bottomless mimosas with friends.
An apologia for praise will begin from the contingency of the human person. It will depart from the feeling of many men and women that there is something missing in their lives. They escape loneliness through entering into an endless stream of Tweets. They avoid communion through meaningless hook-ups made possible through dating apps, all the while longing for something more. Each of these actions presumes that the human person can achieve flourishing on his or her own. We can escape contingency.
But the act of liturgical praise offers another way. There is nothing that we can do to achieve flourishing on our own. We are creatures. This means that we are intrinsically contingent. We can’t create a piece of art that will transcend our brevity. We are unable to enter into an earthly relationship that will escape death. The brevity of our loves and our lives is part of what it means to be human.
In the act of praise, we recognize this. We are creatures, who cannot escape death. The only thing we can do is to turn toward God. This turning toward God is not escaping from our contingency, an impoverished understanding of salvation as “transcending” space and time. Rather, in liturgical praise we offer our contingency over to God. God is God, worthy of the highest praise. Through this praise, we discover what it means to be human. We are made for adoration.
Therefore, a liturgical apologetics that will heal our almost gnostic obsession with technique will need to attend to both material culture, as well as to a liturgical philosophy that perceives in the rites of the Church wisdom for what it means to be a human being. It is not enough to simply excoriate absent members of the Church to perform their Sunday duty. For, we have lost a sense that such action has anything to do with our salvation at all, since after all, we seem capable of saving ourselves.
But, we can’t. And a liturgical apologetics in our age will face this faulty understanding of salvation head on. It will invite us to wonder, to recognize that we are creatures before something that is worth beholding. It will invite us to “become” what we “behold.” And it will do so through a liturgical philosophy that unites wisdom and worship, showing men and women how the liturgical act is not obligatory. But, it’s a technique, perhaps the only technique, that will lead to happiness.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, University of Notre Dame. He teaches and researches in liturgical-sacramental theology, theological aesthetics, and catechesis.