Benedictine and Ignatian Views of the Liturgy

I have just received some links to two interesting articles on fundamental attitudes regarding the liturgy – The Ironic Outcome of the Benedictine-Jesuit Controversy and Sacramental or devotional. . . The latter article was written by a Lutheran.

This was one aspect with which I found it extremely difficult to come to terms as a young Roman Catholic convert in 1981. How important is the liturgy? To a monastic or someone in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as to many of us Anglican Catholics, it is the icon of Christ in which the whole Mystery of our Redemption is made truly and really present. To someone of the tradition going back to Saint Francis, Nominalism and the first strains of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, what was important was individual devotional life for which liturgy is only one of several means or “tools”.

After my arrival in France in July 1982, I began to discover the traditionalist world. Several religious communities were more or less associated with the Society of St Pius X, including the Benedictines of Le Barroux. The Society itself was strongly modelled on the Jesuit ideal, perhaps with the gentleness and broadness of spirit en moins. It was through them that I first experienced an Ignatian retreat. I later made another one with the late Father Hugh Thwaites in 1990. One is supposed to find God’s will through meditating by experiencing a “film” of Christ’s life and teaching. By following rules for the discernment of spirits, we would make what would most likely be the right decision in accordance with God’s will. I found a great amount of sympathy with that holy priest in London. The Jesuits essentially followed the Franciscan tradition of the heart as opposed to the pure intellect. St Francis was what would later be termed as a Romantic, placing the imagination and a person’s humanity before the rational and intellectual rigour. Oscar Wilde places St Francis of Assisi as a kind of Romantic before its time.

Something I found with Benedictines and Dominicans was a great clarity of thought and a Platonic philosophy of life and reality, but a shocking lack of heart. The Jansenists embodied this spirit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the Age of Reason. In my many reflections about Romanticism, I recognised this struggle within myself, and found myself unable to know where I was. As an Anglican, I loved the liturgy and churches, but I yearned for a human and humane Church, one that had the same generosity as Christ himself who forgave sinners and healed the sick. Succeeding and having were not among Christ’s priorities – no “prosperity gospel” for him!

The tension is between individual and corporate, to be sure, but it is far more than this.

It is no accident that Cardinal Ratzinger took the Papal name of Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Francis. Pope Benedict brought us images of the great and noble Benedect XIV of the eighteenth century, the vast amount of learning of that time together with cultural wealth. Pope Francis is bringing another message, when we have sifted through all the polemics about “de-ratzingerisation”. This opposition of two tides has created a great deal of confusion and distance in my mind. Both tendencies strike chords in me, and is perhaps the very distinguishing mark of Anglo-Catholicism. The Oxford Movement and Ritualism brought beauty and nobility to the lives of the poor and unfortunate. Pastoral gentleness was married to love of beauty, harmony and order.

Individualism and collectivism? These are two ideas that strike me very profoundly. I often read different views about life after death and the ways they parallel and diverge from traditional Christian teaching. Individualism (personalism too if you like – Eastern Orthodoxy makes a vital distinction between the two in the light of their Trinitarian theology) is a sign of our imperfection and alienation. Corporate man tends to miss the spiritual purpose of life in his effort to keep up with society. According to things I read, the soul falls into a “deep sleep”, goes through a tunnel towards a brilliant light or finds himself in something like the existence of an earthworm. The soul is then helped towards a level of life that corresponded with his life on earth. Then would follow several ascents, and individual personality would have decreasing importance until the soul would become a part of The One or whatever image a particular tradition uses to describe God and “everythingness”. The oriental mentality attaches much less importance to being an individual person than we westerners. Liturgy in the Benedictine perspective would reflect this surrendering of the ego to be a living component of the Church.

There is truth on both “sides”. We cling to our lives as persons at the same time as accepting our inevitable dissolution and our progressive “de-personalisation” and assimilation into the Divine. Many of us are alienated from Churches by bad experiences, or can only relate to a tiny part of institutional Christianity, as is my case. We have to live much of our spiritual life on our own in the vast spiritual desert of western Europe. I am a priest and my access to Mass is no more difficult than going to my chapel, putting on vestments and doing it. Many of my readers don’t have that “luxury”. I have often related my experience of being a working guest with the Benedictines at Triors. The smell of boot polish and unwashed sweat in the corridors made me think of the army or the sports changing rooms at school. My once weekly talks and spiritual direction with the Abbot left me with a lasting impression of the “heartlessness” of monastic life. It cannot and does not cater for individual persons, any more than the modern mechanised society of money and industry.

Perhaps we Anglicans are not always successful at living this via media between the head and the heart, but it is something I have found in our little Diocese in the Anglican Catholic Church. We are English, often of the Romantic spirit, and deeply attached to beauty, order, harmony and the worship of the Church. We have our soul as the Slavs have theirs, each culture living its own balance between what is apparently irreconcilable.

I hope these ideas will provoke discussion, even in these darkening days (in the northern hemisphere).

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4 Responses to Benedictine and Ignatian Views of the Liturgy

  1. Dear Father Anthony, This is surely you at your best. Thank you!

  2. I’m not an intellectual and to be honest sometimes what is written on Sarum Use does go over my head. I think it relevant to say that whatever else liturgy does it should engage the emotions whether of catholic believers or seekers after truth.

    I watched and listened to Tridentine Mass from St Nicholas de Chardonnet in Paris on a video recording this afternoon and my emotions were fully involved.

    They will be most assuredly be involved this weekend at the Kristskirkja, the Catholic Cathedral in Iceland. Helped along by the Cathedral being full of worshipers and the glorious singing in the Icelandic language.

    Surely uplifting emotions stirred through liturgical worship are helpful as we move along through this world?

    I hope what I have written has some relevance to this discussion.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have just lately read Sir Richard W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970), which is fascinating in its treatment of Orders, and also beguines and Gerhard Groote et suis. And not so long ago I finished St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent (begun long since and taken up again from time to time), with its attention to both communities and hermits. And I’ve been rereading in Andrew Louth’s Denys the Areopagite – his treatment of the Ecclesiatical Hierarchies comes to mind, in this context – which I think of as including varieties of ‘religious communities’, hermits and ‘solitaries’, and their relations to liturgies. These have all developed differently, as (I think) you can be taken to suggest, in different cultural, linguistic circumstances. For example, whether members of communities – or hermits – are often, or seldom, priests as well. Do – or in some sense, ‘must’ – people meet in both place and time, to participate liturgically, or, again, are they aware of ‘participating’ together with ‘clouds’ of others by way of a common liturgy (in narrower or broader senses). Are they ‘in fact’ doing so, whether aware of it or not? Soes something or another enable or prevent participating “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven”?

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