The Fruit of Liturgy

Most of what little I know about the Christian religion – about what Christianity means – I did not learn in books. Oh, I’ve read some books, but not so many, really. And most of the books I have read about religion have appealed to me in the first place because it seemed that they might explain something to me that I had already encountered in the liturgy. It is liturgy that has taught me the most.

I always carry a pen into church, attached to my surplice, because I know for a virtual certainty that at some point in every service some word or phrase will leap out at me from a hymn or prayer or verse of scripture that I have rehearsed a thousand times without noticing, and absolutely knock me down with some new insight or question, some reproof or solace. Then I shall want to scribble a hasty note about it in the margin of the day’s bulletin to be sure I don’t forget it. This often catches me quite by surprise. It’s like walking down the familiar halls of a house where I have always lived, when without warning one of the floorboards will leap up and smack me. It is not unusual for the impact to bring tears to my eyes (for this reason, I always carry three or four paper towels into church, folded up at the back of my hymnal, just one page ahead of the motet). At such moments, the floorboards reveal themselves as hatches, opening onto fathomless abyssal depths, immense, warm and bright. They hit me as they open.

The effect is intensified when I am reciting prayers or psalms. This intensity is doubled when I am singing or chanting. It is strongest of all when I am reading scripture aloud. It is a good thing I am not a priest, because I could then never make it through a single service without stopping to choke up a little bit at some point. That would be embarrassing for everyone, and tiresome after a while, too.

The liturgy keeps pushing me further and further. I have concluded that its power to teach is limitless. It never lets me rest in such comprehension as I have so far achieved, or rather, allowed. It keeps asking me to give up more and more of what I had thought I knew, in order to open up room for more than I thought I could know.

All the stones of the house of God are scandalous. If I have not yet tripped over some of them, and so completed my comeuppance, that is only because I have not yet come near enough to them. If I keep at it, keep exploring the Temple, why sooner or later every single one of them will reach out at least once and thwack me, and knock me down. What good teachers they are, to be sure!

20 thoughts on “The Fruit of Liturgy

  1. “But the Mass just doesn’t speak to me Father”
    “My dear lady, our task isn’t to make the liturgy say what we wish, but to learn to want to say what the liturgy says.. . And bask in awe on that day” [recounted by Fr RJ Neuhaus]
    Alice had to become small (humble) to enter Wonderland.
    God didn’t deign to become an Angel, If the Eucharist and its anticipation takes the ‘breath’ away of mighty intellectual beings . . then no surprise Kristor. Seraphim sing and adore

    “Behold the lamb of God . .”

    In the sight of the angels He did this thing. His own creation nailed Him naked to the Cross and delighted in his innocence writhing in agony. Nothing has gone this low. … and raised up so many of the unworthy.

    There’s no thing but Him, praise and honour to you Lord Jesus Christ King of Endless Glory.

  2. It is remarkable what could, in principle, be learned as a consequence of attending church services.

    When the Book of Common Prayer was compiled by Cranmer, it was apparently envisaged that the Church of England Christian would either read through at home, or attend – especially on Sundays, both morning and evening prayer (Matins and Evensong) *every day* – plus attending Eucharist on Sundays.

    In the course of these services the Psalms would be recited or sung every month, the New Testament three times each year, and the Old Testament read aloud right through every year.

    And this, I repeat, for the normal average Christian – not for just for monks or clergy!

    On top of this is the Anglican Liturgy itelf (which is mostly taken from scripture).


    Nowadays, Christians are operating at an altogther lower level – as is very obvious.

  3. I’d like to attend church, but I don’t want to be preached at about how I need to give all my money to Africans and Mexicans and then share a communion cup with a bunch of people with the flu. What to do?

    • Sermons are mostly useless. Vanishingly few priests know both theology and how to preach (this being one of the main reasons they fall back on bathetic appeals for the poor and for the healing of “broken” relationships). The theologians have no poetry, and the preachers have no understanding.

      So unless there is some interesting nugget the priest has turned up in his research on the lection of the day, I often read and ponder it during the sermon, making notes about stuff I’d like to look up myself. I often devote Sunday evening to that. Lots of my posts start out during that hour. Wikipedia makes it really easy to learn amazing things (so that there is really no excuse anymore for an uninformative sermon).

      The uselessness of sermons is nothing new, by the way. In the old days, excellent preachers like Newman or Donne (or, indeed, St. John Chrysostom, St. Clement, Origen, or Fr. Eckhart, or any number of other masters) would publish their collected sermons, and parish priests and ship’s captains would buy them and read them to their congregations, instead of trying and failing to come up with something good on their own.

      Would that this practice were still considered honorable! Think how much more we would all have learned! Think of all the heterodoxies that would never have been uttered, or therefore taken root!

      As for the cup, I have been communicating that way for 44 years and I don’t think I’ve ever caught anything from it. But you can always pass on the blood, and stick to meat.

    • Shop.

      If you live in a metro area, you can find a good church. If you are Catholic go to a board where either Conservatives or Traditionalists or both hang out (Fisheaters is good, for example, but there are others), introduce yourself and identify the metro you live in, and ask for advice. If there is a Fraternal Society of St Peter or Institute of Christ the King parish in your metro, go there.

      If you want good sermons go to audio sancto.

      I’m sure the Protestants can give advice if you swing that way.

      I feel for you, by the way. One category of things which put me off Christianity when I was young was the sermons preached in the assemblies my mother dragged me to some Christmases and Easters. I remember one Christmas sermon by a Presbyterian about how Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were homeless illegal aliens and that this meant we needed to give a lot of money to homeless illegal aliens. And the sermons I heard from the priests at the Catholic grade school I attended. Ugh.

      • ‘Homeless illegal aliens’? They were citizens of Judah dutifully reporting for the census, for Heaven’s sake. And last I heard ‘homeless’ the way we normally use the word implies something pretty distinct from ‘temporarily stranded.’ What idiocy.

  4. All I thought while reading this and smiling: “I’m not the only one!” I hope they never noticed that odd member of the choir tearing up.

  5. God bless you. I had similar experiences over Christmas. Pray for more vocations so that the liturgy can continue to be worthily celebrated as widely as possible.

    May I ask, do you attend the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form?

    • You’re an Anglican!? I had always assumed that you were Catholic. I suppose the reason why the personal ordinariates worked so well is because the difference between High-Church Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism is truly slight.

      Just out of curiosity, why is it that you accept the authority of the English monarch over the more ancient office of the Roman Pontiff? And I further assume you are familiar with the shameful origin of the Church of England.

      • Well, as an American I don’t accept the authority of the Queen in any department of life, although I admire the British crown. I have never thought that it was wise for the monarch to be head of the Cof E. That was a terrible mistake, and a grave devolution of the social order of the High Medieval.

        As for the shameful origin of the CofE, yes, agreed. I wish that Henry had remained Defensor Fidei. But his perfidy did not altogether extinguish the Christianity of the CofE: did not altogether obliterate its holiness or orthodoxy, did not sever the Apostolic succession or continuity with the Fathers, did not eliminate or pollute the Sacraments. So I have always felt that the Anglican Communion is to Rome as any disobedient archepiscopacy might be. I view their disunion as a temporary situation, a short term blip in Christian history, like the Arian controversy (which went on for longer than the Anglican schism from Rome has yet done). I expect that in fifty years or so, most Anglicans will be extremely conservative, the liberal Anglicans having mostly died, or else admitted their liberal nihilism and totally ceased their Christian observances. At that point, it would surprise me if the Anglican Communion did not mostly join with Rome in rather the way that the Maronites have done. There is no reason why there may not be an Anglican Rite alongside the Roman, Eastern Catholic, etc.

        In the meantime, I flirt with the Anglican Ordinariate. But there is as yet no Ordinarial parish in my neck of the woods. And the Catholic parishes in my area are less Christian in their doctrine and liturgy than my current 1928 Prayer Book Episcopal parish. I have found also that Roman liturgies celebrated in the vernacular are peculiarly flat, undignified, saccharine: in a word, not very numinous. This is certainly so of many Anglican parishes too, but I am fortunate in my own parish to enjoy a healthy dose of good old fashioned spookiness and gravity, every week.

      • I see. I suppose you’re right; the Church is two millenia old. We mortals (myself included) often arrogantly forget that a lifetime for us is barely any time at all for an entity as monolithic and ancient as the Church. But let’s hope and pray this little tussle can be resolved quickly, so we can get back to the modernist-bashing, eh?

        I will remember this in my prayers.

  6. The Anglican Catholic site doesn’t seem to be working.

    I have often wondered if Benedict’s outreach to Anglican conservatives is in part an attempt to inject back into Catholic practice some of the liturgical traditions and music that have been preserved only in the Vatican itself and in the high Anglican communion.

    • I certainly hope so. Blessed JPII, for all his sanctity, was an old-time Polish cleric and had no interest in Anglicanism, either theologically or liturgically. Our current Holy Father “gets it”, and I think that the Anglican patrimony can enrich the wider Church in two ways: firstly, in terms of the liturgy; and secondly, in terms of devotion to Our Lady. My own primary interest is in the sacred liturgy, and anything which can raise the standard of liturgical worship and music in the average parish church is more than welcome. I long for the day when the Catholic Church in England has something to rival the liturgical jewel of Anglican Evensong – and perhaps sung Compline too, if that’s not being greedy.

    • And here is the poem I was trying to link to:

      I am an Ultra-Catholic-No ‘Anglo-,’ I beseech you,

      You’ll find no trace of heresy in anything I teach you.

      The clergyman across the road has whiskers and a bowler,

      But I wear buckles on my shoes and sport a feriola.

      My alb is edged with deepest lace, spread over rich black satin;

      The Psalms of David I recite in heaven’s own native Latin,

      And, though I don’t quite understand those awkward moods and tenses,

      My ordo recitandi’s strict Westmonasteriensis.

      I teach the children in my school the Penny Catechism,

      Explaining how the C. of E.’s in heresy and schism.

      The truths of Trent and Vatican I bate not one iota.

      I have not met the Rural Dean. I do not pay my quota.

      The Bishop’s put me under his ‘profoundest disapproval’

      And, though he cannot bring about my actual removal,

      He will not come and visit me or take my confirmations.

      Colonial prelates I employ from far-off mission-stations.

      The music we perform at Mass is Verdi and Scarlatti.

      Assorted females form the choir; I wish they weren’t so catty.

      Two flutes, a fiddle and a harp assist them in the gallery.

      The organist left years ago, and so we save his salary.

      We’ve started a ‘Sodality of John of San Fagondez,’

      Consisting of the five young men who serve High Mass on Sundays;

      And though they simply will not come to weekday Mass at seven,

      They turn out looking wonderful on Sundays at eleven.

      The Holy Father I extol in fervid perorations,

      The Cardinals in Curia, the Sacred Congregations;

      And, though I’ve not submitted yet, as all my friends expected,

      I should have gone last Tuesday week, had not my wife objected.

    • My dear Joseph, thanks for the honor you pay me, but … bite your tongue! I am a despicable sinner, a worm and no man. I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his table. A thousand thousand times have I cheated my Lord of the return he is justly due on the talents he has entrusted to me. Indeed, I’ve squandered almost the whole lot in profligate spendthrift living. It’s criminal.


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