Self-Giving Love is Reality

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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I exist.  My life is real.   At least once-a-month, I come anew to what may seem like a rather unsophisticated insight.  After all, the “realness” of a life seems obvious to the observer.  I breathe.  I eat.   I encounter other human beings.  I get up in the morning, go to the gym and then to the office.  I come home at the end of the day and eat dinner with my wife.   I read a book, and then I go to bed.

But, there is more to living than physicality; more than simply fulfilling the tasks that come my way each day.  The insight regarding the reality of my life is one in which I awaken to the fact that I exist here and now.  I am in this place, in this time, in relationships with other people who are also very real.   And everything that I do each day has a tangible effect upon a world, a world that is not imaginary.  The life I live is not merely a phantasy, a postmodern universe of simulacra.  I am really here, right now!

This summer, I had the privilege of watching over sixty undergraduate students come to an analogous insight.  These undergraduates, mentors-in-faith with the Notre Dame Vision program, ministered to 1200 high school students around the country.   Through their witness, they guided those younger than them to perceive that there is a God who calls, one who revealed the depths of divine love in Jesus Christ, and who has called each of us to live according to this logic of self-giving love through the Spirit.  That is our vocation.   And over the course of the summer, the mentors-in-faith lived in a community in which they practiced dwelling together according to this logic of love.   They saw that the Christian life is not an idea or a series of moralistic maxims.  It is love unto to the end.   And as they practiced such love over the course of six weeks, they began to see that this love is the reality of the cosmos.  Self-giving love is reality.

Of course, now their summer together has come to an end.   They have departed campus and returned to the “world”.  And the recurring question as they left:   how can I live this way, how can I love like this once I get back to the “real” world?

Most of what we mean by the real world is in fact a series of falsehoods:

  • In the real world, the covers of magazines tell me what constitutes true beauty, true happiness; to be beautiful, to be worth anything, I must look like that.
  • In the real world, complete happiness is only possible when I achieve the career of my dreams, becoming famous and rich in the process.
  • In the real world, only those who are important to the function of society of matter; everyone else is relatively expendable, to be “used” as long as they provide some benefit to me.
  • In the real world, politics operate according to a hidden violence, whereby candidates do whatever it takes to not only remain in office, but to remain entrenched there.

Christians, including these mentors-in-faith, know that this “supposed” real world is false.  A lie.   The true simulacra.  Creation is no accident but the “logic” of a God, who loves unto the end, who creates humanity in the image and likeness of God.  Our “imaging” of God is not a matter of power, of prestige, of transcendence, but of humility, of self-emptying, of love.  Of learning to dwell according to the order of gift, rather than the economy of exchange.  And true happiness is only possible once we have given ourselves away in love in imitation of the Triune God.

This self-gift is the real world.   It is the meaning of creation.  Of the covenant in the Old Testament.  Of the prophets’ call for Israel to return to the Lord, our God.  Of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross on Calvary.  The biblical narrative purifies our imaginations so that we can look at reality clearly, developing the proper vision for judging the created order.

The problem with the supposed “real” world is that it rejects such self-giving love as naïve, intellectually unsophisticated, as revealing weakness that will be taken advantage of by the strong.  Quoting John 3:16-21:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.   For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.   And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.   For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.   But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God (Jn. 3:15-21).

In the Gospel of John, to believe in the only-begotten Son is to believe that he is the Word made flesh, the Incarnate logos, the fashioner of all creation now become human.  And his presence is the manifestation of God’s own love for the world, a light that shines into the darkness of the world, exposing our half-truths.  In Christ, the very reasoning behind reality takes flesh and shows us that love is the meaning of existence.  And his resurrection is a sign that love (despite all signs to the contrary) does conquer death, light does shine into the darkness of the world.  But the source of the light’s strength is precisely, to use Paul’s own language, the weakness and foolishness of God.  It is Jesus Christ himself:

The living body that achieves this is the world’s supreme work of art and love; in it, the ugliest side of our history, in all of its realism, is transformed from within into what is most beautiful:  bearing, forgiving, and transforming Love, and it is therefore proper that this memorial is made over to us forever in the sacrament of the Eucharist.   It would not be what it is if our own dying were not also taken up in it and transformed into an achievement of theanthropic love.   We drink the blood that was shed by us, yet, on a deeper level, for us.  And if we are afraid of dying because we do not know how to do this:  to consent to being swept away as a whole, then we should not forget that someone was able to do it for us beforehand, someone who did not die as some individual next to us, but who, dying and suffering, already bore our death in himself (Hans urs von Balthasar, Life Out of Death:  Meditations on the Paschal Mystery, 37-38).

To practice living then “a real life” involves giving ourselves up to death, to carry out the Eucharistic vocation of each Christian to love unto the end.   The supposed “real” world will reject such love, precisely because of the effects of sin that are still quite real.  The Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” encounters the graceful love of the Grandmother, and he’ll react to such love the only way that sin knows how to:  through violence.  The darkness is afraid of the light; the light threatens it.   But even as the Christian encounters such rejection, he or she responds with the same self-giving love of Christ himself.  For Christian love is bearing, forgiving, transforming.   It is the love of God incarnate in the world.

And slowly, one will notice a transformation of the supposed “real” world.  Those who live in the truth of self-giving love, who choose gratitude above greed, are the source of creation’s transfiguration.  As our vision is reformed, enlightened, purified, we begin to gaze upon creation and ourselves in the proper light and see reality as it is.  We become saints, soberly gazing upon all of creation in love; and where there is darkness, we do not respond with violence, with anger, but the gift of ourselves.

So to those mentors (and all those who return from summer retreats), who are concerned about being a faithful Christian in the “real” world.   Let the reality of self-giving love that you have experienced come to shape your vision, your dwelling within the world.   Only then can you dare to call the world real.

Happy, Happy Friday: Beware of Pedastals (July 20)

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

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PRELUDIO: So I don’t know about you folks, but in this video I’d happily have Scotty from Star Trek beam me to either of the places that they are (I feel like if they can get a massive piano to both of those places, then it shouldn’t be too hard to transport me there somehow):

Anyhoo, folks, I hope you’re feeling the chill-itude J and HAPPY FRIDAY, PEOPLE!!!


So whenever you drive past a Chuck E. Cheese, have you ever wondered if you would still fit in the awesome plastic tubes in the play area? (Answer: yes, you can, because parents follow their kids into those things all the time. It was always just tough when you were a kid, darting around in there as free as a bird, and you encountered a parent whose parental devotion was making them squeeze through those pipes like toothpaste coming out of a tube. It was tough, but somebody had to do it.)

Sometimes it’s kind of entertaining to see how many pieces of tiny playground equipment you can pull yourself through (do not attempt this without a trusted friend who can call 911 if you get stuck. That, or go buy some axle grease to pry you free.) This must be done with caution, however: if you break a piece of playground equipment, then you risk being labeled a ‘young neighborhood hooligan’ who goes around pulling essential pieces of the playground off and running away with them. Do you want to be labeled as a hooligan? Then treat playground equipment with RESPECT, SON. It’s done nothing but make your life better (except when you fall off of it and break things, but hey, life’s risky), and darn it, you should be sending it flowers and chocolates for all it’s DONE for you, you ungrateful…hooligan. And now we can keep moving along 😉

THE HEART OF THE EMAIL: Or, Beware of Pedestals

Youtube clip of the week:

Dorothy Day has a wonderful quote that goes like this: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

At first this quote sounds like it’s full of self-importance. Is Dorothy Day saying that she’s more than a saint, or that calling someone a saint is a bad thing? I guess the answers to those questions would be “No” and “It depends.”

Folks, we are a naturally inquisitive people, and we like to feel that we’ve ‘figured someone out’ or that we get who they are. But we have to be vigilant with just how tightly we hold on to what we’ve ‘figured out’ about someone else. In “A Grief Observed”, C.S. Lewis was tormented with the fear that the memory of his wife would eventually become less and less like the real woman that she was when she was alive. He wanted to remember her truly on her own terms rather than adorn her memory on his terms until the imagined form bore no resemblance to the real person.

It doesn’t take the death of someone we love for us to fall into the trap that Lewis feared. In our desire to ‘figure each other out’, we can put each other on pedestals and assume that the friend in our memory is identical to the real one. And when we actually spend time with that other person, we have a choice. We can let the person be real on their own terms, revising the impression of them in our mind where it’s not true to life. Or we can cling tenaciously to the person we imagine them to be, rationalizing away their faults and dismissing their complexity in favor of our mind’s false image (after all, an image that we can control tends to be much simpler to understand).

It’s a bit like this: say we have a drawing of our best friend, one we’ve sketched from memory, and we meet up with them the next day for lunch. When we see them in person, we realize that we’ve gotten some of their features wrong in our drawing. We can either adjust our drawing to reflect the real thing…or we can cling to our drawing because we’re unwilling to admit that we’re wrong. By doing so, we don’t allow the other person the chance to be as real and human as we are.

When other people disappoint us, do we wonder if it’s because we expected them to be more? It can make it harder to forgive others’ faults if we have already made them out to be incapable of fault. If we let the division progress between imagination and reality, then maybe we will become like the person who can think loving thoughts about their spouse and then go home and treat the real spouse badly. We have to be vigilant that the people we love will not be placed up on a pedestal or put away in a neatly labeled box just so we can feel that we understand them fully. If we don’t even understand ourselves perfectly, how can we expect to completely predict and comprehend another human being? Shouldn’t we allow them room in our minds to be human, to change our impressions, to make mistakes, and to be real?

Do you often feel like you don’t have it all together in life, that you want your weaknesses to be understood and forgiven, and that you’re just a living, breathing, broken yet worthwhile human being most of the time? If you feel this way about yourself, you must give others space to be as real as you are, to feel the same things, and to be broken on their way to being made whole. God will have us know the world as it is, and we must not attempt to turn away from the truth when we find it.

Friends, I hope that this day is a grand one 😉 and I send along, as ever, my



Inklings of a New Evangelization: Inside the Song

Miriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

Contact Author

Other columns in series:

The Beacons Are Lit

Of Myths and Maps

Even though I made something of a promise in an earlier post that I would not be strictly chronological in this series, I cannot help but return to the beginning.  And for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the beginning is in a song.  Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew both employ music as the means of a world’s creation (Arda and Narnia, respectively).  In the interest of time, I shall focus on the Silmarillion in this post.

For your average Lord of the Rings or Hobbit aficionado, the Silmarillion can seem a little daunting at first.  It includes a number of unusually-spelled names (which were, of course, laden with significance for the author, but whose meanings are often lost on the audience) and dialogue which sounds high and strange to our ears, like we are eavesdropping on a conversation between King Arthur and Merlin…they could be discussing the best way to cook a stuffed pepper or the most effective strategy of going to war…it all sounds rather the same.

So, yes, a good deal of the book reads like an Elvish version of the Iliad, and it is epic in every classical sense of the word (before “epic” meant dizzying special effects and intolerably loud three-dimensional explosions).  But before it relates the stories of dramatic battles, heroic expeditions and general mischief, it begins with a spectacular account of creation.  It has all the thrilling anticipation of Genesis and all the poetry of the Johannine Gospel.  It begins with a name; or, to be more precise, six different names in one sentence.  “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones…”  Much ink has been spilled over the role of Iluvatar (the God-figure) in Tolkien’s work: why is he so remote?  If he’s so powerful, why doesn’t he give more evidence of being in charge?  Why does he allow the Wickedly Terrible Enemy (there’s one in every story, isn’t there?) to lay waste to the beauty of Arda?  About 27 seconds in to asking these types of questions, it becomes clear that these inquiries are not very different from the questions we grapple with concerning the Christian God.   Tolkien has given us a way of thinking these matters through, inviting us to enter, via his story (yes, you read another word there) into the depths and heights of human experience (that some are elves and dwarves does not take anything away from this).  Here is a preview of allegory versus applicability, which I will return to later; but I bring it up now because
the setting of these stories should feel familiar, but just extraordinary enough to give us the sense of stumbling into something new.

And certainly one new element would be how creation is brought about (I don’t remember much singing or lute-playing in Genesis).  Iluvatar “declares a mighty theme” to the Ainur (think a Greek pantheon, but without all the wild parties and corruption), gathers them all together and says:

“Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music.  And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.  But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

First of all, anytime an author puts in a Capital Letter, you know he means business.  This is not any ordinary kind of music.  It has the power to give shape and form to living things. Each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.  Iluvatar honors the creativity and the freedom of each of the Ainur.  Some will sing of the sea, others of the trees, and still others of the stars.  And every tune, each one as glorious as it is different, weaves together in splendid fashion to create a vision of the world.

For in these first pages, it is still only a vision.  It is only a little later (perhaps a day, perhaps thousands or millions of years, it doesn’t really matter) that the Ainur leave their heavenly abodes and enter into the realm of the world.  And it is there that the real work begins – shaping the world according to the vision of the music.  Each Ainu (by this point, they are referred to as the Valar) is dedicated to his or her specialty: sub-creation at its finest.

About seven pages into the story, we come across a section called “Of the Enemies”.  Really, already?  They couldn’t manage more than seven pages worth of peace and harmony?  Sigh.  Isn’t it always the way….But then, it is the point that you saw coming from the start:  sub-creation can go riotously wrong.  There was one of the Valar (the most powerful one, in fact) who wanted “to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”  Power?  Check.  Insistence on secrecy and solitude?  Check.  Deviously cunning and makes a career out of coveting everyone else’s stuff? Check. The makings of a perfect super-villain and, yes, one that sounds an awful lot like Lucifer.  And he plays a mean harp.

Melkor (the Lucifer figure) devises his own theme, which was “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes” (like an elementary school band that hasn’t rehearsed enough).  It is interesting that Tolkien describes Melkor’s efforts not only as ugly music but boring as well, in its bland unison, unable to blend in with the other melodies.  And as such, he cannot truly create – he can only destroy and distort the good things that his fellow Valar have created.  An illustration of some tragically subpar sub-creation.

The theme of sub-creation plays out on a few levels here: first, and most noticeably, in the story itself.  The Valar are at work, creating within the all-encompassing theme and vision of Iluvatar.  But then there is the story behind the story:  in a 1951 letter, Tolkien wrote:

“Do not laugh!  But once upon a time…I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairystory…I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched.  The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.  Absurd.”

And of course, it’s not absurd.  Tolkien knew that others would pick up where he left off; telling (through a variety of mediums) the kinds of stories people need to hear, at those times when true heroism and radiant virtues seem in short supply.  His letter gives us a glimpse into the groundwork that God has laid (not in a Clockmaker sense, it should be noted).  As with Iluvatar presenting the vision of Arda to the Valar, God has placed a heavenly vision in our hearts, and it is our great task to persevere in the building of a kingdom which reflects all the designs that He has had in mind since before time began.

When Frodo and Sam (the two most famousest of hobbits) are walking through the land of Lorien, a beautiful and untouched Elven sanctuary, Sam explains his puzzled look to Frodo: “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of.  I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.”

We should take his meaning, and take it to heart.  For we are inside a song, the greatest one that has ever been sung; and if that were not enough to make our hearts swell with happiness, we also have the tremendous honor of being asked to sing in the choir.


Happy, Happy Friday: God is On Our Side

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

Contact Author


PRELUDIO: As a YouTube comment on this song put it, “Even his butt can play better than me.” Without over-thinking that sentence, just enjoy the song (and the fact that his hands look like footage of a hummingbird in flight, or the wing beats of the large and terrifying insect that dive-bombed you yesterday. Your choice):

Anyhoo, folks, HAPPY FRIDAY!!!


So here’s one part of childhood that was a sad farewell in my life: really decorated classrooms in school. In college, all of the rooms were so indistinguishable from one another, like the movies in “The Land Before Time” series (after the first one, that is). (Fun fact: there are 13 movies in that series. By the time they got to the end it should have been “The Land Before Time: The New Bipeds In Town”).

But back in the glory years of elementary school, posters of butterflies and puppies and flowers were EVERYWHERE, like Technicolor overload. If you didn’t feel like learning about the state capitals, you could always read the poster that said “Reading Takes You to the Stars!” And once you finished reading that, you could stare at the class’ pet hamster (who was usually asleep, but at least you could pretend he was awake and doing cartwheels or something). And then you could play with the contraband blob of Sticky Tack that you thieved in September and stored in your desk in case you became desperate. And then you could pull out your Lisa Frank poster and your eyes would start watering (not out of emotion, but because those colors were so intense that it made your color-saturated classroom look beige by comparison). So really, there was a lot you could accomplish in third grade without having to learn about photosynthesis, and it all began with your teacher having an explosively colorful and decorated room.

I guess in college they figure you can feel secure without the posters that say, “Be a Gold-Star Student!”, but really by then you’ve just evolved more sophisticated ways to distract yourself (like wondering where the professor bought his tie, striving valiantly to stay awake by eating 6 Tic Tacs at once, and pretending that you’re industriously typing notes on your laptop when really you’re reading about the Denver Broncos on ESPN). But I digress: I just miss the overstimulating, extremely colorful decorations of my youth in academia. But we can keep moving along now 😉


YouTube clip of the week:

A wise Dominican sister once told my high-school religion class a beautiful story, and here’s how it goes:

A woman’s Bible study group was examining the line from Scripture that says, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” The line piqued the interest of one lady, and subsequently she sought out a silversmith and asked him if she could watch him refine silver. He agreed, and as he held the silver in the fire, he explained to her that he had to watch the silver constantly. If the silver was held in the fire for a moment too long, it would be destroyed. The woman asked, “But how do you know when it’s ready?” The silversmith answered, “Oh, that’s easy: when I can see my image in it.”

Friends, there’s something that we can ‘lose in translation’ as we journey through our daily lives. We spend so much time caught up in the trees that we forget about the big picture; either that or we spend so much time reading the fine print that we forget the words that are written across the entire page.


I’m guessing that if any of you are like me, right now you’re thinking, “Well, YEAH.” But there’s a difference between knowing something as fact in our minds and believing it in our hearts so completely that we stake our lives upon its truth. We might know how a rope works, but it’s only when we have to hang our lives on it that we really start to care if it can hold our weight. We might say someone is trustworthy, but what happens when we must stake our lives on their reliability? It is in that moment of truth that what we know as fact deepens into part of our daily reality, one that is tested by fire and eventually found worthy.

We know that God loves us, and we’ve known it for a long time. But how many of us live as though He really did love us infinitely? How many of us have placed that truth as the cornerstone holding up our life? Do we forget that God is on our side, that He WANTS us to be with Him in Heaven, and that He loves us? By that I don’t mean that we forget that like we forget the capital of Albania: it’s more forgetting that something is true because other things get in the way, like fear and mistrust making us ‘forget’ that a dear friend is really as good as we remember them to be.

We can’t make ourselves feel the love of God that surrounds and carries us: it’s a conviction that we receive from Him, one that we have to ask Him to give to us through grace. The belief that allows us to hang all of our hopes on His love, to put all of our life’s eggs in the one basket of His care for us…it comes with time, and we have to ask for it as a gift. And folks, we have to trust that He will give us that conviction: NOT when we feel like we need it, but when He knows we really need it. It’s on His time and His understanding, not ours, so we’re called to trust in His timing.

Don’t you know that God loves you? Like, REALLY loves you? Maybe it would be easiest to break this down:

GOD IS NOT: looking for ways to trip us up, checking off marks on some celestial tally-board every time we do something wrong, loving us in a detached, impersonal way (like a guardian that’s mildly interested in our fate but has other things to attend to), or telling us to be perfect without intending to see us through.

GOD IS: taking every opportunity to lead us Home, shouting our name in our pain and confusion, carrying us tenderly even when we don’t feel His arms holding us, wiping away every tear with infinite gentleness, willing us to exist in every moment because He loves us (because we would cease to exist if He stopped willing for us to be), offering us mercy that we can’t earn, understanding every detail of our life with infinite interest and care, giving Himself away on the Cross for our sake, taking advantage of every crack in the armor we build against Him and finding every way in to our hearts. He longs for us to draw near, and the love that motivates His longing is not cold or distant. It is love that purifies and refines that which it cherishes, purifies its beloved until the image of God shines out from the beloved’s face. The prodigal takes one step home and the father covers the remaining distance at a sprint.  If we do not yet live and breathe in the reality of His love for us, then we must pray that someday what we know now as bare fact, we will also trust as a lifeline and a solid ground. We can hang every hope on God: He is a strong enough line to bear all of our burdens and more.

Friends, I know this was a longer Heart than normal, I hope that today is such a GRAND and GLORIOUS day for each of you, and I send along, as ever, my



Autobiographical vs. Liturgical Memory

Kara O’Malley

Director of Christian Formation, St. Joseph Parish, South Bend, IN

Echo 1 Graduate

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Recently, I discovered the previously untapped joy of the Pandora Radio “Summer Hits of the 90s” Station.  This is joyful to me because the mid-to-late nineties directly correspond with my junior high and high school years when I became aware of the glorious world of pop music.

Listening to the songs that cycle through on this channel has been an exercise in time travel.

  • I hear the opening strains of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and am instantly transported to my 8th grade graduation dance, a memory that includes the awkwardness of early adolescence.
  • I am on the beach with my cousin trying to get a radio signal on the Walkman when I hear the peppy rhythms of Fastball’s “The Way.”
  • And I am back in the throes of overwrought drama and indecision over my breakup with a boyfriend when I hear Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want.”

None of these songs was my absolute favorite tune at the time (mostly far from it), but they have retained the power to transcend time and space and make present today the emotion (often overly dramatic) of my past.   Scientists have found that there is evidence that songs can trigger strong memories (we hear them and they become the “soundtrack” for our memory), and anecdotally, I expect we have all experienced this to be true.

As I was thinking about this phenomenon in the car the other day, it occurred to me that I experience a similar kind of time travel on a regular basis in the liturgy.  However, in the Mass, we are not transported back to the events of salvation history—rather, they are made present for us, lived anew in a time and place that is beyond time and space.  Each time we pray the liturgy, we are uniting our prayerful voices with the heavenly praise of the angels and the saints, and all times are present.

So the wonder is only that my memory does not fire up more often during the liturgy. I do not immediately think of baptism each and every time I dip my hand into the holy water, but sometimes just concentrate on getting the perfect amount of water so I don’t get “too wet”.  Instead of hearing the heavenly hosts of angels when we sing the Gloria, I instead try to discern who is singing so loud and off-key.  When I should be prayerfully offering God the gift that is my life, I usually end up standing and stretching while I say, “Lord, accept the sacrifice at your hands…”  And though I receive Christ into my body and my life, I do not always do a great job preparing the way.

But maybe this “liturgical memory” is actually the opposite of the autobiographical memory I experience when listening to Pandora.  In the songs I hear, I am conscious of events that happened some time ago.  But in the liturgy, I am witness to (whether I realize it or not) a mystery that is still unfolding.  Because even though I do not always consciously remember these signs of Christ’s presence, they are nonetheless real in each celebration of the liturgy.  And they are real in a way that is bright and new and meaningful, not dim and nostalgic as my high school memories invariably are.  I recall my life, but through the lens of the salvation narrative, rather than my own personal narrative.  In each celebration, the mystery of Christ’s salvific love works on me again, in a kind of reverse passage of time, pruning and prodding me back toward the person God made me to be.

Feast of St. Benedict: Benedictine Liturgical Theologians

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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On this feast of St. Benedict, I wanted to feature a short excerpt from the writings of four Benedictines, who have formed the liturgical imagination of the Church in the twentieth century.  First, Odo Casel, O.S.B., a monk of the Abbey of Maria Lach and a pioneer of the liturgical movement in German:

The Christian thing, therefore, in its full and primitive meaning of God’s good Word, or Christ’s, is not as it were a philosophy of life with religious background music, nor a moral or theological training; it is a mysterium as St Paul means the word, a revelation made by God to man through acts of god-manhood, full of life and power; it is mankind’s way to God made possible by this revelation and the grace of it communicating the solemn entry of the redeemed Church into the presence of the everlasting Father through sacrifice, through perfect devotion; it is the glory that blossoms out of it.   At the mid-point of the Christian religion, therefore, stands the sacred Pasch, the passage which the Son of God who appeared in the flesh of sin, makes to the Father.   The pasch is a sacrifice with the consecration of the person that flows from it; it is the sacrifice of the God-man in death on the cross, and his resurrection to glory:  it is the Church’s sacrifice in communion with and by the power of the crucified God-man, and the wonderful joining to God, the divinization which is its effect (The Mystery of Christian Worship, 13).

Second, an Anglican Benedictine, Dom Gregory Dix, O.S.B.:

The resurrection is not Jesus’ survival of death; all men do that in any case.   It is the reversal of His death.   The Divine acceptance of Calvary is in Easter and Ascension, and in what follows from them in the World to Come.   For the latter we have only picture-language–the ‘entering in’ of the eternal High-priest to the heavenly altar; the bestowal of the crown and dominion of the everlasting kingdom; the ‘coming’ of one like unto the Son of Man upon the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days.   These and other scriptural pictures are so many attempts to represent that real entrance of the temporal into the eternal, which is just as much a consequence of the incarnation as the irruption of the eternal into time.   There is about them all a ‘once-for-all’ quality in consequence of which there is (paradoxically) something new but permanent in eternity, just as there is something new but enduring in time.   It is this doubt and mutual repercussion of time and eternity upon each other in that act of God which is the redemption of the world by Jesus of Nazareth, that is the essence of primitive christian eschatology.   And of this the supreme expression from the beginning is the eucharist (The Shape of the Liturgy, 747-48).

Third, Virgil Michel, O.S.B., a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, the founder of the American liturgical movement:

The prayers of the liturgical mysteries are the best expressions of the mind of Christ that the ages of Christianity have formed and passed on to us.   Active participation in them is an intelligent and voluntary steeping of our minds in the very mind of Christ.   And so the liturgy is not only the source of divine life or grace, not only the divine inspiration to put forth generous efforts towards the growth of the kingdom of God in souls, but also the divine school of the formation of our minds in the way of Christ.   The more actively and intelligently we participate in the liturgical mysteries, the more truly will our efforts also be directed in God’s own way towards the flourishing of the true Christian spirit among men.   All of this is but a summary of the divine purpose with which the love of God has pursued man in spite of his infidelity.   Truly the kingdom of God is at hand for everyone of us at all times.  It remains only for us to understand and to act.   Nor will any amount of effort on our part exhaust the possibilities before us.   Our natures are finite, it is true, and what we attain through God is the divine and the infinite, which our natures can never possess in its entirety.   But by that same token, also, there is never a time coming for us when we may say:  now we have attained all there is to attain.   There is never a time when we may not attain yet more of the divine life that exists in infinite abundance.   And so the pursuit of love, which is on our part a sharing in the divine love of God, can go on with ever greater efficacy and success.   That, in fact, is the glory of the goodness God has shown to us and has put within our reach in the divine enactment of the liturgical mystery.   What woe for us, that we have been heirs to so great a neglect and loss of the true liturgical spirit!   (“Back to the Liturgy,” Orate Fratres 11 [1936], 13-14).

Lastly, Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., the founder of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy:

This means that in a Christian assembly’s regular Sunday worship, a restored and recreated world must be so vigorously enfleshed in ‘civic’ form as to give the lie to any antithetical civitas–especially to one raised on the slippery footing of Pelagian optimism and the sovreignty of the individual to whom oppression is thought to come only from without.   The assembly is not a political party or a special interest group.   But it cannot forget that by grace and favor it is the world made new; that creation, not the state, is a theocracy; and that the freedom with which all people are endowed by the Creator is something which by our own choice is prone to go awry.   Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxia to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer.   This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the world stops being cute when told it is morbid.   The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh.   It is what his Body corporate is here for.  In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best.   It was in the doing of his own best that he laid down his life for the life of the world–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place.   His Church can do no less.   The Church doing the world as God means it to be done in Christ is the greatest prophecy, the most powerful exorcism, of all.   The Church is seen and felt by all to be doing its best most overtly and accessibly in its steady, regular round of what I have called orthodoxia, a life of ‘right worship’ which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.   It is a life whose enactment is festive, ordered, aesthetic, canonical, eschatological, and normal.   The liturgy is nothing more nor less than the Body corporate of Christ Jesus, suffused with his Spirit and assembled in time and place, doing its best by doing the world as the world issues constantly from God’s creating and redeeming hand.   What the liturgical assembly does is the world.   Where the liturgical assembly does this is the public forum of the world’s radical business, the Thingplatz of a restored and redeemed creation.   When the liturgical assembly does this is the moment of the world’s rebirth–the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age.   Nothing less rides upon the act of the assembly, determines its style, lays bares its service and mission for the life of the world (On Liturgical Theology, 175-76).

Do you have any favorite quotes on liturgy from Benedictines?   Any experiences of liturgical prayer in a Benedictine context?   What would you say distinguishes this prayer?  What would a liturgical movement that takes seriously the transfiguration of the world look like?

Sculpture and Liturgy

Joris Geldhof, STD

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Theology and Head of Liturgical Studies Institute

Catholic University Leuven

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The relation between the arts and the liturgy is a dazzlingly complex but interesting one. There is a longstanding tradition of Christian art and the connection of that tradition with the cult and rites of Christian believers is evident. When we think of art in a Christian context, however, we above all tend to think of music and architecture. The two of them introduce us in a particular way into the peculiar world of experiencing time and space as directed toward worshiping our Lord. Yet, there are other forms and expressions of art which have a rather hidden and less direct connection with the core of Christian worship. In this column I offer a brief reflection on one of them, sculpture. Let me start with a little anecdote which made me think about this topic.

Some time ago I was in Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal, a huge building situated on a hill outside of the city centre. I didn’t know the place before and had not really prepared myself for the visit, so I was drawn into the buildings in an almost spontaneous way. I was already impressed by the lower church but that appeared to be nothing compared to the upper basilica. The sheer size of that church is amazing, as are its modern look, its abstract structure, and its capacity to host large numbers of worshipers and pilgrims for liturgies. The altar, the organ, the lighting, the reliefs on the walls, they all make one feel like an insignificant creature; as if the worshipper is taken up into something bigger than him or herself. But on the other side, the church has a feeling of being cold and stony.

Warmth was something I felt in a small chapel just off the road to the upper parking lot. It was a modest wooden building which looked cozy and inviting.  Inside the chapel I only saw an altar (to be honest, a quite old-fashioned one), a communion rail, and many tiles on the walls. They expressed gratitude to Saint Joseph for his favors and for his intervention in all kinds of things. Experiences of illness and recovery were well represented. When I entered the chapel there was only one other person. She kneeled in the middle of the communion rail and I think she held a paternoster for some time. It was evident that she was praying. She prayed so intimately that I had the impression that I was unwillingly disturbing the entanglement of lovers; I could not help but feel somewhat embarrassed. In a strange way, however, her posture and her concentration made me pray, too. But I couldn’t concentrate in my prayer as long as the woman was doing. My curiosity was constantly drawn to the messages on the tiles and to the figures on the altar.

I left the chapel before the woman, and I made a short walk through the parking lot, which was almost empty. I was intrigued by the snow on the twigs of the trees and by the spectacle of light performed by the late afternoon sun, the clouds in many different grey tints, and the rolling urban plain afar. When I had sufficiently interiorized the landscape I turned around to go back to the visitors centre. But to my great surprise I saw the woman. Again I felt as if I somehow intruded her intimacy. She was caressing the statue of Brother André, the founder of Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal and recently canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. She caressed the feet and the cassock of the statue and although it was very cold, she had removed her gloves and kept her bare skin affixed to the statue for a long period of time. She bowed her front towards the statue and thereby expressed an extraordinary familiarity.  There was nothing ecstatic or exaggerated to the woman’s behavior. It seemed to be just love and tenderness. At that moment I could only wish that I had not disturbed the woman.

Afterwards, I tried to order my thoughts as I reflected on what I had seen. One of the elements that occupied me was the relation between liturgy and sculpture. At the surface there is not much to say about this relationship. The woman was involved in personal prayer and piety. She was obviously not participating in a liturgical ceremony. And her touching of the statue may at best have been an act of private devotion, if it were not a sign of idolatry or superstition. Case closed. This is indeed a way to look at what happened – one could call it the juridical or canonical way. But I sensed that this approach to interpreting the woman’s actions was too far reductionsitic and what it wins in clarity, it loses in profundity. If we approach this event, not from a hermeneutic of suspicion but from one of generosity, from a perspective which is willing to perceive connections, we can begin to think creatively about the way that liturgy and sculpture meet.

Let me just briefly discuss two ideas, while admitting that each deserve more thorough treatment. First, aesthetic theories have always found it important to classify the arts. Crucial to understanding art is its exchange with matter; it is through materiality that art mediates something and that it becomes possible to bear meanings. Correspondingly, sculpture has always been appreciated for its three-dimensionality and its obvious materiality, whether one uses steel, stone, wood, glass, ice, concrete, or anything else. However, these features may at the same time have caused problems among early Christians. Sculptures and statues were not only key to pagan religious life, they were also seriously mistrusted among the Israelite tradition. Because of their capacity to mirror physical reality almost too exactly, what they produce might easily divert worshipers from the transcendent and the spiritual nature of God to the physical realities themselves. Perhaps, it might be best to say that sculpture “represents” the deepest truths of Christian faith too exactly.  The veneration of sculpture can easily become idolatry. For that matter, Heidegger also realized that revering a deity through the mediation of a sculpture easily degenerates into the veneration of the sculpture itself.  Maybe, sculpture’s material flexibility has made it too difficult to limit the meanings attached to the object, unlike the limitations of subject matter and technique in icon writing, for example. And maybe that’s one of the reasons the relation between sculpture and liturgy has been less developed in the Christian tradition than, e.g., the relation between liturgy and music.

Second, it seems that there is a dominance of hearing and seeing in the liturgy. Comparatively speaking, touching is less represented. And when touching occurs, it is not always something which we do, but something which is done to us. We are anointed and thus touched at confirmation; we receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday; and when we marry we feel how a wedding ring is slipped on one of our fingers. On the other hand, we shake hands or kiss at the moment of the sign of peace in the Eucharist; as godparents we sign the infant with a cross at baptism; and we may touch a cross at funerals. All in all, however, we listen and see more than that we use the sense of touch. Since sculpture as an artistic expression corresponds with the sense of touching, it may not come as a surprise, again, that the relation between sculpture and liturgy is underdeveloped. And because we do not use the sense of touch in liturgy often, we do not produce an array of liturgical art, related to the sense of touch. However, this narrative may only function among the upper echelons of liturgical spirituality.  There surely is a lower level, a spiritual tradition that operates next to the official rites.  For, next to the main text are the margins. And in those margins something interesting is revealed about that which is not in the main text. The relation between liturgy and sculpture may be marginal, but the story about the praying woman who touched the statue of Brother André can tell us something about the liturgical life of the Church. It can reveal to us the importance of touching and being touched as gestures or actions which embody genuine faith. And it can open our minds to a more profound understanding of the role sculptures can play in our worshiping life. There are phenomenological and historical reasons why the relation between liturgy and sculpture has never blossomed like for instance the one between liturgy and architecture, but there are also reasons to look beyond that. That is at least what my hibernal experience in Montréal has invited me to do.