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Contemplation and the Liturgy | Hans Urs von Balthasar | From Prayer
Contemplation is liturgical, if we understand liturgy in its fullest sense. In practice, the
liturgy brought about in the community's service of worship can bring to our attention only a tiny
part of God's word in holy scripture. Even the Liturgy of the Hours, the breviary, encompassing as it
does the annual calendar of feasts, cannot contain the whole of scripture. Thus the liturgy points
beyond itself to our personal contemplation of the word.
must be in the Church someone who is listening in adoration to
that word of God which is not to be found in the Church's official
missal and breviary. For, obviously, the purpose of the word
is not fulfilled by those countless people who study the Bible
in intellectual curiosity and for the love of learning. Theology
and exegesis can border on prayer, but they are not of themselves
necessarily prayer. Not explicitly, at least. All acts of the
Christian life, whether of the intellect or not, should be accompanied
by an openness for worship, like a basso continuo accompanying
the soul, and this applies to the act of theology and exegesis,
Anselm and many other saintly theologians, the reader and scholar
of scripture can surround and permeate his reading and thinking
with worship, and thus extend the liturgical attitude into his
intellectual work in a very practical way. But he does well to
remember that the worship of the word needs no other justification,
and that, ultimately, prayer cannot be reduced to the level of
a means to improved understanding. ...
have found the link which joins the two halves of Christian existence
the "work of God" in the realm of the Church
and the work of man in the everyday world into a firm unity.
Contemplation binds the two together in a single liturgy which
is both sacred and secular, ecclesial and cosmic. Without contemplation
it would scarcely be possible to unite the two, for the simple
reason that, practically and psychologically, the effect of the
Church's liturgy fades as the day proceeds, and the world's work
is for the most part remote from it. Some link is necessary if
they are to be drawn together in a lived, spiritual unity. In
contemplation, however, liturgy becomes Spirit, and this Spirit
can become incarnate in everyday life. In some way or other,
of course, this is what happens necessarily in every authentic
Christian life: anyone who assists at Mass with devotion and
knows what he is doing when he receives communion is bound to
pay attention to the spiritual meaning of the celebration and
its offer to refashion the Christian's everyday life.
And the more
deliberately he thus "pays attention", the better the
two parts fit togetherthe supernatural form which comes down
from eternity, and the matter of everyday life in the world.
Those who attempt to join the two without contemplation either
take the sacramental principle to extremes and improperly expect
it to yield quasi-magical effects, or else they sacralize worldly
affairs in a completely exaggerated way, constructing a theology
of earthly realities and reckoning the office, technology, comfort,
the state and secular culture among the factors which go to build
up and bring about the kingdom of God. (The latter often occurs
nowadays, particularly in those spiritualities which have a false
view of contemplation.)
the man who is filled with the spiritual law of Christ as he
goes to his daily work will see it in the same sober terms as
holy scripture does, yet he will be aware that the earth and
its toil is joined, seamlessly, to the work of heaven. If the
Liturgical Movement is isolated and has no connection with a
contemplative movement, it will remain a kind of Romanticism,
a flight from time, inevitably calling forth the protest of a
counter-Romanticism promoting a false sacralization of everyday
glimpse of heaven, as he comes to acknowledge his most grievous
fault, is an element in the Church's liturgy, in the Mass as
in penance. But it is also an element of contemplation which
(as we shall see) encounters the word of God, a word which both
pronounces sentence and justifies. So a person who contemplates
on a regular basis is already to a large extent prepared for
confession. He is accustomed to looking in the mirror and seeing
himself as God sees him.
Of course, it
is the gracious will of God justifying us which turns us toward
him and opens our eyes to his truth. For no man can be justified
while he is turned away from God.
All the same,
man too must be involved in this first turning toward God through
grace; in acknowledging the truth of grace, man must acknowledge
that he is in the wrong. In confessing grace (confiteri Domino),
man must of necessity go on to confess his guilt (confiteri peccatum).
This is all, perhaps, so hidden and so simple that it can scarcely
be put into words: "Your light, my darkness! Your sweetness,
my bitterness!" But the fact is that mature contemplation
can lend a greater depth and permanence even to such a simple
awareness; the "dark night of the soul," the contemplative
way of purification, is only a gradually intensified training,
in which this experience of confession is branded deeply and
painfully upon the soul. Thus the "dark nights of the soul"
are also part of the liturgy; they are existential confessions
in which, it may be, the darkness is so profound that the vastness
of the Church and the heavenly court can scarcely be made out;
yet the silent, praying, assistance of the communion of saints,
both here and above, is never lacking. ...
This is something
the Christian contemplative must be aware of. Then he will not
see his life in the world, subject to the law of the word which
he contemplates, as offering a threat of further impurity. Instead
he will know that he is borne along and held upright by the word
of God; he will know that, just as this Word nourishes him as
the Bread of Heaven, so too, as the word of absolution, it purifies
and absolves him.
He needs this
assurance because he can never measure up to the immense demands
made of him. God will always have to supply the substance, the
greater part; He will always have to support him in his inability,
his failure, and overlook his penchant for slipping back; He
will look at man's feeble goodness in the light of the Son's
perfect goodness. This, then, is the state of the redeemed in
this world. It is meant to spur him on to simple gratitude to
his divine Saviour, not to dialectical speculation. His life
is a service, leitourgia, of the gracious God, lived out
in full personal responsibility, but also as part of the entire
company of the saints, which gives his service value in God's
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Love Must Be Perceived | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Thirsting and Quenching | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
St. John of the Cross | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Seeking Deep Conversion | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
"Lord, teach us to pray" | Gabriel Bunge, O.S.B.
The Confession of the Saints | Adrienne von Speyr
Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard
The Scriptural Roots of St. Augustine's Spirituality | Stephen N. Filippo
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Blessed Columba Marmion: A Deadly Serious
Spiritual Writer | Christopher Zehnder
Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to
one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth
century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books
and hundreds of articles. Read more
about his life and work in the Author's Pages section of IgnatiusInsight.com.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
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