Liturgy of the Body

I was recently flying to Illinois to speak at a new and splendid educational initiative for boys – about which more in a forthcoming essay. En route, I read one of those rare books that in relatively few pages and lucid prose sheds light on far more than its immediate subject matter: Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form (1994), by Aidan Nichols, O. P.

Father Nichols shows that the post-conciliar revisers of liturgical custom had accepted a reductive and mistaken anthropology. It’s hard to fathom how this could have happened to bishops who are supposed to believe in the God of revelation. But let me explain.

Christians do not believe in the god of Spinoza, reducible to the physical world and its laws. They believe in the Lord who freely spoke the world into existence, whose thoughts are as far above our thoughts as the heavens are above the earth. Christians do not believe in the One of Plotinus, overflowing in being, but unapproachable except by flights of the severest philosophical discipline. They believe in the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, in humility and glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.

You cannot write poetry about the One, the simply ineffable, for there is nothing to say. You cannot write poetry about Spinoza’s placeholder. You could once write poetry about Zeus, just as you could write poetry about any other creature, but Zeus the Thunderer, even for a poet as religious as Aeschylus, could never really become an object of devout contemplation.

But God, the true God, is the ultimate poet of the world and the cause that there should be poetry in us. About Him there is always more and more to know, not less. And since He has made us in His image, we can be brought into knowledge of Him; we are theomorphic. About the humblest and simplest man there is always more and more to know, not less.

Awe is the movement of the soul that stuns us into silence and awakens us to the sublime. The liturgy, when it springs from the depths of awe, makes unwitting poets of us all.

Because God is more, not less, than our propositions about Him, we rightly worship Him in symbols that must be in part opaque to us, mysterious. As Father Nichols says, the reticent distance of the irreducible symbol is necessary for reverence, “but such terms as reverence, with its connotations of restraint, deference, and awe, soon became prominent by their absence in liturgical discussion.”

Aidan Nichols, O. P.
Aidan Nichols, O. P.

The bishops’ decision to dispense with Friday abstinence is a case in point. That abstinence is, as Nichols puts it most felicitously, “the only ritual that brings Christian symbols into kitchen and larder.” How could the bishops have failed to see it and cherish it?

Nichols suggests that their insensitivity to symbol and symbolic action was a result of their education away from the working class to which they once belonged. People who work with their hands and back and shoulders are not apt to scorn “symbolically intense bodily activity as used in the worship of God.” For the Church herself affirms, “that the cosmos – the fundamental order of reality, including social reality – is always seen through the medium of the body and notably through the kinds and range of actions in which the body intersects with nature and with other people.”

These symbols are, however, not arbitrary and are not mere human creations. They are not the results of liturgical technology. They are both within us and beyond us. They are not empty containers into which we pour our intentions at will. They are cups brimming over.

To wash your hands at the sink while glancing up at the choir to make sure they are ready for the entrance hymn is not the same as to pray, “I shall go in unto the altar of God, of God who gives joy to my youth.” To stand is not to kneel. To eat scrambled eggs and sausage before hustling off to Sunday Mass is not to feel the stirring in the pit that finds its first satisfaction in the bread of angels.

To the mind of the technocrat, for whom the created world is so much inert stuff to process, one cog is interchangeable with another. Neither has any significance. To the mind of the social technocrat, one person is interchangeable with another, one sex is interchangeable with another, one bodily act is interchangeable with another. For the body is just stuff. Only such blindness to symbol and deafness to poetry could move a prelate recently to say that Pope John Paul’s theology of the body is “out of date,” as a tool may be out of date.

For such a constricted mind, there is no poetry to existence. A woman in robes in front of the altar is the same as a man – there is no ineluctable symbolism to her childlike voice or his broad shoulders. A song composed as for a piano bar for people on the lookout is the same as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”just so long as people sing it, or at least slip a five into the basket atop the piano on their way back from Communion, just next to the long-stemmed champagne glass and the pack of cigarettes. White is the same as black, a dandelion is the same as a lily, chat is the same as silence.

What are we left with? Intellectualism that stultifies, rationalism that is unreasonable, humanism that is inhumane, historicism that knows no history, utilitarianism that falls apart, conviviality that stifles, corporatism that denies the body, spirituality that denies the soul; narcissism without the beauty of Narcissus, worldliness without a world to be worldly in; words without the Word, time without eternity, man without man, man without God.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “What are the phenomena of the external world,” asks Bl John Henry Newman, “but a divine mode of conveying to the mind the realities of existence, individuality, and the influence of being on being, the best possible, though beguiling the imagination of most men with a harmless but unfounded belief in matter as distinct from the impressions on their senses? This at least is the opinion of some philosophers, and whether the particular theory be right or wrong, it serves as an illustration here of the great truth which we are considering.”

  • DS

    I think the good professor has it half right.

    God is both transcendent and immanent. I agree that, for a while, we seem to have chucked transcendence overboard and I see Fr. Nichols’ point. But the TLM is back as a liturgical anchor, and excesses seem to be receding.

    We can’t lurch back to the other extreme and limit our encounters with the living God to “liturgy done right.” It is not all about Latin, ritual and poetry. God is present in the mundane if we choose to look for him. He is with you at your breakfast table as you wolf down your eggs and sausage before a guitar Mass. And that is not my construct: that is God’s choice. It is the reality of the Incarnation. As we prepare for Christmas, a visit to a real cow’s stall with a pregnant teenager might drive the point home.

    • Tony

      Dear DS: I see your point, but I’m not sure that you see mine.

      God is immanent, yes, and He is present with you as you wolf down your breakfast before Mass. He is also present with you as you check the football scores before Mass, or bicker with your wife before Mass, or fornicate with your girl friend before Mass, or do anything at all before Mass. The question is instead whether you are with Him, and in what way.

      There is no conflict between the bodily expressions we employ at Mass and the good earthy things of this world. That’s part of my point. The bishops have acted as if there WERE NO inherent meanings in the good earthy things of this world. They have paid not too much attention to them but far too little. They have not taken the world seriously enough.

      No one is suggesting limitations at all. The real limitations are the result of reductive reasoning and reductive habits. There is also nothing “extreme” in reverence.

      • Rosemary58

        When something is obtained with little effort, it has less value. This is the psyche of man, and it also true as the law of supply and demand. When something is plentiful and easily gotten, we tend to place a lower value on it.

        I have read that the abstaining from eating meat on Fridays is still required, unless some other sacrifice is performed that day in its place.

      • DS

        Not sure why you always need to lurch immediately to formication.

  • Stanley Anderson

    The whole column, but particularly your line, “But God, the true God, is the ultimate poet of the world and the cause that there should be poetry in us” has once again struck me in connection with something I’ve been lately contemplating. The phrase “Wherefore Art?” (as an obvious take-off on Juliette’s famous line) has been in my head as a possible title for something — I’m not sure what, an article or series of images, can’t think what just now, it’s just something that “feels” like it needs to be something (And on a quick search, I just now notice that, as I might have expected, there is already a website with that name — nothing new under the sun, and all…)

    But your comments begin to flesh something out along that line. I’m reminded of a comment I made as an analogy to an earlier TCT column (perhaps again one of yours but not sure without looking it up) about a large square “plate” apparently hanging flush up against the wall of a museum. The title of the work is “cube.” The work is being gazed at and commented on by three observers. The first, an atheist, says that the title is meaningless, and that it is only an abstract shape on the wall. The second, a Protestant, says that it does indeed represent a cube, but that it is only an image and that the actual cube is in another building currently inaccessible to the patrons of the museum. The third, a Catholic, says that it is one face of the actual cube, but since it is only sticking out from the wall a half an inch or so, it looks like a square, and that if they could just get “outside” (they seem to be locked inside the museum), they would be able to see the rest of it.

    But reading your column today makes me want to expand that in some way, especially “the cause that there should be poetry in us” part. And I’m suddenly just now wondering (like Indiana Jones’ line in “Raiders of the Last Ark” when Marianne asked what his plan was, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go”, I’m not at al sure about this idea, but just wondering out loud) if “art” whether in poetry or any other form might be a “result” of the Fall where Eve was tempted to be “as gods”. I don’t suggest this at all to imply that art is evil (though of course it may be corrupted and uglified and used to evil purpose, as anything else, certainly), but rather that it is something God has given us as a result of the Fall that is properly to be used to “point” us back to him instead of running off on our own with these curious new “powers” of knowledge of good and evil — and art.

    Anyway, more to think about here…

  • vishmehr24

    “Zeus the Thunderer, even for a poet as religious as Aeschylus, could never really become an object of devout contemplation.”
    Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to dismiss thus religion and devotion of ancient Greeks?
    You could say that in decay of the Homeric and other Greek cults but to assert that they were never objects of sincere devotion is not supported.

    See also WKC Guthrie on the Greek religion.

    • Tony

      I have been teaching ancient Greek drama for more than 20 years. I did not say that Zeus was not an object of devotion. I said that he could not really become an object of devout CONTEMPLATION. That is quite different. There are one or two contemplative hymns to Zeus, but nothing like what we find in the Psalms, much less what we find in the long history of Christian hymns of praise and wonder. The trouble with Zeus the Thunderer is that he could no longer inspire the great poets once the philosophers had shown that he was, as it were, but a part of the universe.

  • Chris in Maryland

    “I will go up unto the altar of God, of God who gives joy to my youth.”

    I love that Prof. Esolen has recalled the wondrous opening invocation of the “extraordinary” Mass.
    I was privileged to hear that when I was a boy – before the age of the “ordinary” pushed so much overboard.

    Those words of the Psalm have magic in them…something like the effect when we hear the singular opening line of so many childhood stories: “Once upon a time….”

    Story-telling is vital to our cult/culture. When we are at Holy Mass, we are hearing and seeing a re-telling Jesus’ story. Jesus said and did the same as so many faithful Jews had done before him: “I will go up to the mountain of the Lord….Let us go up to Jerusalem.”

    When Jesus steeled himself to die for us, he said those same words for the last time, not as we story-tellers do, but as the hero himself: “I am going up to Jerusalem.”

    My sister-in-law, who is a professional portrait artist, once remarked that she wished that The Church had simply translated the “extraordinary” Mass into English, so that people could hear the beauty of it.

    We would be richer to hear those words, and the beautiful opening of the story of Jesus, to open every Mass: “I will go up unto the altar of God….”

    btw – The book by Fr. Nichols is superb.



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