The profound and universal call to holiness animated the Second Vatican Council. The saints of the Church are esteemed because of their desire to follow the Lord Jesus closely, to cooperate with his grace, to glorify the Father, and to move with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The saints stand as witnesses of fidelity to Christ and his Church, are beacons of hope, and radiate with the unquenchable charity of the Almighty. Whether in the small daily actions of love, or dramatic and extraordinary moments, the saints show us how to pursue the holiness to which all are called. St. Josemaria Escriva in 1928 illustrates the quotidian understanding of holiness when he said, “There is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each of you to discover it” (Escriva, 2007). In other words, holiness is meant to thrive in the ordinary and is the goal of each person, without exception. This goal is found most profoundly and most intimately in the Church’s liturgy. The following is a reflection on the thought of David Fagerberg, emeritus professor of liturgical theology at the University of Notre Dame. Fagerberg’s work is a fascinating and fruitful combination of elements of sacramental theology, Eastern liturgical and mystical thought, linguistic philosophy, scholasticism, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. Fagerberg’s eclectic mix of interests regularly leads to thought-provoking insights worthy of further investigation and meditation.
The twofold goal of the sacred liturgy is the glorification of God and the sanctification of man. How does the latter aspect take place? Is it enough to simply go to Mass? Do we have to do anything further? In his work on liturgical asceticism and mysticism, Fagerberg has developed a fruitful understanding of the holiness of those who actively participate in liturgy. He explains the progression in this way: “Liturgical mysticism is the development of graces received in baptism; liturgical asceticism is the process which develops those graces; the product of those graces is a liturgical theologian who is enlightened” (Fagerberg, 2019, 20).
Growth in holiness is part and parcel of active participation in the liturgy, in Fagerberg’s view, because “the aim of liturgy is holiness and a mystic is a holy person” (Fagerberg, 2019, 29). Without a fertile heart, the Sower’s seed cannot bear much fruit. But how does this active participation in the liturgy bear fruit, and what is necessary for an open, disposed, and fertile heart? Providing a further development of the concept of liturgical mysticism, Fagerberg says, “The liturgy doesn’t exist to be celebrated, the liturgy exists to celebrate, sacramentally, the perpetual presence of the incarnate one who, by unifying the infinite with the finite in his own hypostatic union, makes possible the deification of those with whom this same form of life is shared by grace” (Fagerberg, 2019, 218).
Thus, whether we engage the liturgy through purely internal or external participation, these common prayers of the Church are ordered to an encounter with Jesus Christ, communion with him, with a resulting change and adjustment in our own hearts. In terms of liturgical asceticism, Fagerberg writes: “First, the assembly encounters the Holy One; second, the assembly is changed by consequences of this encounter; third, the assembly must adjust to this change, and it is this adjustment which he defines as theological” (Fagerberg, 2004, 203). In this ongoing pattern of encounter, change, and adjustment, we grow in holiness and are made more like God. This is not merely a prerequisite for liturgy, a goal during liturgy, or an effect of liturgy—it is a participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity. In order, then, to encounter the Triune God in the liturgy, we must be fully engaged, conscious, to some degree, of what is taking place, and active in that sacred action.
As Fagerberg puts it, holiness is one of the aims of liturgy. So, active participation in the liturgy, in a real sense, begins long before the entrance procession and extends long after the dismissal. However, the liturgy is also a tangible way for us to grow in holiness. In this way, the liturgy becomes the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324). It is the source of the Christian life because it is a place of privileged encounter with the Holy One in whom we live and move and have our being. The nature of this encounter as the celebration of the perpetual presence of Christ is the summit of the Christian life because it draws us into the heavenly reality.
Fagerberg beautifully draws us into the reality of the mystical (and ordinary—yet somehow also extraordinary) encounter with the divine in the sacred liturgy. But he also speaks of liturgical asceticism. Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis which means “to work.” It is the type of work and discipline that an athlete undertakes in training for a competition. Through this training, the ascetic becomes resistant to obstacles which arise and can accomplish tasks set before him. In the context of religion, asceticism takes on a spiritual dimension where we train to combat the temptations which come from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Liturgical asceticism, Fagerberg explains, is distinct from religious asceticism not in “the practices employed, but by the cause and end to which they are employed” (Fagerberg, 2004, 204).
Liturgical asceticism is a means of participating in Christ—just as every mystery of the Church exists to participate in the mystery of Christ. This understanding of liturgy extends the way of living liturgically beyond the rite of the Mass itself. To be a liturgical ascetic is to cooperate with God’s grace in our daily lives and to allow God to draw us to himself and transform us to be more like him. The fact that our cooperation is necessary for this is a mystery. God created us in such a way that our nature, as human beings, gives us “the capacity to participate freely and willingly in a process of growing into the likeness of God” (Fagerberg, 2004, 208).
We were made for communion with God. By baptism, we are grafted onto Christ and made coheirs with him. God does not expect us to do the work on our own. Instead, he gives us his grace and invites our free response of faith and cooperation. More than that, he emptied himself, became man, suffered, died, rose, ascended, and sent his Holy Spirit among us. By liturgical asceticism, we are opening our hearts for God to come to us and allowing him to do the work of making us more like him. As Fagerberg puts it: “The principal subject of the liturgy is the Holy Spirit, but we co-operate in the liturgy with him. God energizes, man synergizes” (Fagerberg, 2019, 23).
Every liturgical assembly is aflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit, just as at the first Pentecost. This vision gives life to the idea that the Church and her liturgy is ever ancient and ever new. And for we human beings who grow gradually and in stages, God knows we need practice. Thus, Fagerberg observes that we “practice the faith” until we get it right. “The interior spirit must find peace from the passions (liturgical asceticism) in order to stand before the burning bush and catch fire (liturgical mysticism), which is possible in every liturgical experience of the Church (liturgical theology). That is why we are thrown into liturgy week after week, year after year, like a stone is thrown into a rock tumbler for polishing” (Fagerberg, 2019, 35-36).
Conversion, Change, and Adjustment
In the sacred liturgy we live the liturgical calendar of the Church. We enter into the mystery of Christ and allow this encounter to reveal certain things to us. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will reveal some insight into the Person of Jesus through whom we see the Father. If we are humble and docile, with a view to holiness, the grace of God and our encounter with him will reveal the consequences of our lives. We will have greater self-knowledge and self-possession to cooperate with God’s grace to change what needs to change in our lives. These adjustments, whether small or large, are a fundamental part of the process by which God makes us more like himself—a process known as deification in the West and theosis in the East.
Fagerberg reminds us of the need for vigilance when he quotes the advice of a hermit from Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “The devil is like a hostile neighbor and you are like a house. The enemy continually throws all the dirt that he can find into your house. It is your business to throw out whatever he throws in. If you neglect to do this, your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to get inside. From the moment he begins to throw it in, put it out again, bit by bit: and so with Christ’s help your house will remain clean” (Fagerberg, 2019, 75).
The dirt being thrown are the movements of the soul contrary to our nature. If we are not careful, these passions will pile up and keep us from seeing God when we encounter him. Further, this spiritual dirt and grime can harden our hearts. As Fagerberg points out: “The sacraments cannot take root in hardened hearts, like seeds cannot take root on the soil of a beaten path” (Fagerberg, 2019, 83).
In the end, any conversion, change, and adjustment will come from the Cross of Jesus Christ. This is truly at the center of full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy. One of the main aims of the liturgy is holiness and mystical communion with the Lord—our active participation in the liturgy brings us closer to Christ. God beckons us to eternal life and conforms us more and more to himself, but we must unite our hearts, minds, and wills to the center point of time: the Cross. “Everything,” Fagerberg says of the Cross, “leads up to it, and everything flows out of it” (Fagerberg, 2019, 90). The fundamental reality of the liturgy and our participation in it is ordered to the cross. As Fagerberg so beautifully puts it: “if we are to fully, consciously, and actively participate in the life of Christ, then we must embrace what he embraced. He embraced the cross, from love, out of obedience” (Fagerberg, 2019, 91).
The great paradox of Christianity is our focal point for holiness. To live, we must die to ourselves. To be free, we must abandon ourselves to Christ. To come to eternal life, we must go through the grave. As Fagerberg poetically says, “Every grave is an entrance to Hades; only one grave is its exit” (Fagerberg, 2019, 147).
Undoubtedly, amid debates of numerous sorts regarding the liturgy, there can be no debate that we are called to be saints. Fagerberg’s work on liturgical asceticism and liturgical mysticism shows us the beauty and absolute necessity of holiness as a prerequisite for active participation in the liturgy and thus for becoming more like God. This is not to say that perfection is necessary. What is required is our desire to be holy, our cooperation with God’s grace. This work begins before the liturgy, is strengthened by our encounter with the Lord in the liturgy, and leads to our continual change and adjustment beyond the liturgy. All this work begins with God, happens by his grace and providence, and is ordered towards him. What he requires is our cooperation.
Will Wright lives in Phoenix, AZ, with his wife and sons and is a history and religion teacher at St. John Paul II Catholic High School. He is an adjunct instructor with the Institute of Catholic Theology in Phoenix and an instructor at the Kino Catechetical Institute. He is also a regular author for the website Catholic-Link English. Will is also the co-owner and co-creator of Good Distinctions: a Substack publication, Podcast, and YouTube channel. Will earned a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also holds a dual course of study Master’s Degree in Catechetics & Evangelization and Theology & Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH.
Escriva, J. (2007). Conversations with Saint Josemaría Escrivá. Scepter.
Fagerberg, D. W. (2004). Liturgical Asceticism: Enlarging our Grammar of Liturgy. Pro Ecclesia, 13(2), 202-214. 10.1177/106385120401300205
Fagerberg, D. W. (2019). Liturgical Mysticism. Emmaus Academic.
Image Source: AB/Lawrence OP on Flickr. Fra Angelico.