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 is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.