Performing Beauty: What is Liturgical Beauty?

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am teaching an undergraduate and graduate level course on liturgical aesthetics (Performing Beauty: Liturgy, Theology, and Aesthetics–see the link for the syllabus). One of the key requirements of the graduate course is that students are required to keep a blog as they go along, enabling their learning to extend beyond our little community. Each week, I hope to feature a short collection of some of the “bests” of these blogs for your own reading. In this way, I hope that the question guiding our class (what is liturgical beauty) generates commentary among our readers here.



Cathy Pearce

Religion Department

West Catholic, Grand Rapids, MI   

What is Beauty?  

What is beauty but a moment stopped in time

Standing in awe of the spectacular painted sky

In the early morning to gaze at the glow

Of God’s bidding a kissed color-filled hello

What is beauty but a whiff of a scent

That causes one to turn and bend

The scent of aromatic fragrant care

Of a lilac, God’s gift to sweeten the air

 What is beauty but the sound of a child

Stirring in the pew in front of you

Who coyly reaches out with innocent care

A soggy cracker, a treasure for you to share.

 What is beauty but a chorus of one voice

The old and the young, the rich and the poor

In full anthem singing God’s glory

In sacred space together reflecting on the Story

 What is beauty but a God who forgives

Sharing Christ’s life and love in eternal sacrament

The Son’s body and blood poured out for our salvation

An ever abundant gift, a blessing for every nation…

Continue reading Cathy’s blog.


image1Katie Yohe

Providence Christo Rey School

Echo 11

When learning a new topic in the classroom, it is important to differentiate instruction as much as possible to ensure total engagement. It’s obvious to every teacher that you can’t give up on confused students, but rather try different approaches to reach them. And when participating in different liturgies, it is important to engage as many feasible signs to be as present and transforming as possible. The ideal situation would be a liturgical celebration exploding with signs of beauty. But what if it’s not exploding at first glance or listen? Just as it is usually up to the teacher to differentiate instruction based on the learners in the classroom, it is up to the worshipper to find the beauty in the celebration.

When I was attending Mass in Ghana in a crumbling cinderblock structure with a partially rusted and deteriorating tin roof, convinced the old, warped wood benches would collapse beneath me, it would have been easy to drift off and get distracted because at first glance the beauty couldn’t be seen anywhere! My gaze and wonder may not have been on any statue or monstrance made of Gold. Instead, my focus was swooped up by Christ’s presence in the drumming and the bright kente cloth sewn into the priest’s vestments.Sacrosanctum Concilium explains, “…It is necessary for the faithful [to come to the liturgy] with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace…” (10). Being in the right frame of mind allows the worshipper to find the beauty that is always present.

It is essential to continue learning and continue finding and experiencing the most efficacious way to glorify God (10). As intelligence can be achieved differently, the mystery of Christ can be participated in differently as well. However, because we are discussing God and our innermost desire to be in a loving relationship with Him, we want to participate in the Paschal Mystery with our entire being. From our eyes contemplating the stained glass window to our ears being engulfed with the hymn, the more senses activated and the higher level of activation means the more present we are at the table of the Lord. The importance of experiencing the liturgy as beauty is even more vital than creating a classroom full of learners to a teacher. It may not be noticeable at first, but whether you are teaching or preaching, the beauty is present in the learner and the liturgy. The key is finding the beauty in all things.

Continue reading Katie’s blog.

CReuterCaroline Reuter

Roncalli High School

Echo 11

Why are there benches in art museums, upon which people may sit and stare? Why, when listening to Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau do I desire to press “repeat” for days on end? Why, in encountering beauty, is there within me the desire to prolong the experience infinitely?

Beauty is that which draws one’s entire being towards contemplation, wonder and a deeper sense of reality. It leads a person beyond the confines of oneself. It provokes the desire to act on what has been seen or heard, to share the experience with another, and to transform one’s very self into something greater, into something more conformed to the beautiful itself. Beauty captivates not just the mind but the heart as well.

How might the beautiful be found in the liturgy? Certainly one might encounter beautiful music, architecture, artwork and stained glass. One may also experience more subtle expressions of beauty—in well-timed silence, in the careful unfolding and placement of a corporal on the altar, in the steady swaying of a thurible and the slow rise of smoke, and at the sight of masses of people simultaneously kneeling towards the elevation of one host.

However, although beauty in the liturgy is certainly possible and even desirable, is it necessary? How might beauty be an intrinsic element of the liturgy of the Church?

Liturgy may be defined as the official public prayer of the Church. The mystical Body of Christ, with Christ as its head and the Church as its members, unite as one flesh in the praise and worship of the Almighty God. Liturgy involves both God’s glorification and the sanctification of the members of Christ’s body (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10).

God’s very nature provides one answer to the question of beauty’s necessity. Encountering one of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty points one towards He who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The presence of beauty in a liturgy can lead to a desire for the Infinite, as well as a desire to know the origin of this beauty. He who is the source of all beauty, the Creator of the universe, is the same He towards which all of liturgy is oriented. Hence, liturgy, which by its definition leads one towards God, ought to involve the true, good, and beautiful, and never their opposites.

One characteristic of beauty is that it draws a person outside of oneself. Liturgy, likewise, has this aim—of transforming self-centeredness into gratitude at the wonder of one’s being and thanksgiving directed towards God. Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions that part of the Church’s very essence is directing the visible to the invisible (2). What is beauty within the liturgy, if not that which, through tangible means, draws the mind and heart towards the invisible God?

The Church, itself a visible sign of God’s presence on earth, is rooted in an incarnational worldview. The externals of our world matter, for God himself became visible in this same world.Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasizes the faithful’s awareness of the liturgy and of their being led to “fully conscious, and active participation…which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (14). How might full awareness of one’s participation—rather than just a bystander’s simple observation—in the mysteries of Christ be promoted? If one’s environment is elevated, if one walks into a liturgy and finds the atmosphere different than a school board meeting or a play, and if one is somehow drawn in and transformed by what is seen and heard, will not observation itself be transformed into participation? A full awareness of what the liturgy is can be promoted through the externals, through one’s surroundings. An elevated environment—one of order and harmony—promotes the elevation of one’s entire being and spurs one to a deeper consciousness of that which is really real. Would not one then want to “actively engage” in this beauty that is directed toward the Beautiful? (SC 11).

Continue reading Caroline’s blog.



Surprised by God

Currey, AshleyAshley Currey

Notre Dame Vision, Mentor-in-Faith (2013 and 2014)

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

I have a lot of wonderful memories from the year I spent living in Dublin, Ireland—but it’s the less glamorous parts of living in a foreign country that I’d like to share with you.  For example I once spent an hour at the grocery store because I was dying for some homemade cookies and I could not, for the life of me, find sugar anywhere.  I honestly walked down the baking aisle a thousand times with increasing frustration, finding nothing that even resembled sugar.  I finally gave up, deciding that the Irish must be aMI-Lidl-Grocery-store-Ireland sugar-less people and  I turned to leave, resigning myself to an evening sadly devoid of chocolate chip cookies. I happened past another aisle and spied the sugar sitting on the shelf next to the boxes of tea bags.  Which makes perfect sense, if you’ve grown up in Ireland where drinking tea is practically a way of life—if you’re Irish, the sugar  obviously belongs with the tea, not with the flour and the baking soda and the little cupcake tray liners.  Of course, if you happen to not be a born and raised Irishman, you might—like me—waste a frustrating hour fruitlessly searching for sugar in all the wrong places.

The grocery store wasn’t the only place in Dublin where I felt lost and frustrated—in fact, I was usually at my most bewildered and discouraged at the one place where I thought I’d be most at home: church.  The Masses I went to were sparsely attended; I usually had a whole pew to myself and I often drew curious stares from the grey-haired parishioners around me, all easily forty or fifty years my senior.  I was coming from two years spent at Notre Dame and a
summer spent at Notre Dame Vision; I had, admittedly, been spoiled by the Band of St. Cecelia, by vibrant dorm masses, frequent Grotto visits, and by a campus culture where discussions about faith and God were frequent and welcomed—basically any church outside of the Notre Dame was bound to seem rather Spartan in comparison.  Ireland was no exception.

I constantly reminded myself that Mass isn’t about how it makes me feel and that Christ is present—wondrously, sacramentally present– no matter how unenthusiastic the priest or my fellow parishioners might seem.  Knowing those things intellectually, however, and really, truly knowing them are two different things.

Grotto in springSo despite knowing that bare-bones Masses shouldn’t be a big deal, I could tell that they were wearing away at my spiritual life. Some Sundays came and went where I couldn’t work up the will to make it to Mass at all.  I missed Notre Dame Masses, I missed my friends, and I especially missed the grotto. There was nowhere prayerful or peaceful in Dublin to retreat to when I needed a break from the constant noise of the city.  Some nights I felt like all of my frustration with the Irish church and my own rather lackluster prayer life would all be put to rights if I could just spend one hour at the Grotto.

In the middle of all this, I decided to tag along on a trip to a small village in the southern part of Ireland.  We arrived to our hostel Saturday night and realized that the heater was broken, the showers were freezing and-worst of all- the wifi didn’t work, which was a catastrophe not simply because it meant I would have to do without Facebook for the next thirty hours.  It also meant that I couldn’t look up Sunday Mass times for the next morning.  All the hostel manager IrishStreetswas able to tell me was that he was sure there was a Catholic church somewhere in town, although he wasn’t sure exactly where, and that he thought that 7:00 AM might be when they held Mass.

So I left the hostel before sunrise and spent the next forty-five minutes hopelessly wandering the streets in search of the church. I spotted a handful of steeples rising above the other buildings and started a process of elimination, walking from steeple to steeple and successfully finding the Methodist and Presbyterian churches.  Still no sign of a place to celebrate Catholic mass.  At this point, I was not at all in a charitable or prayerful mood; it was cold and raining, I’d been wandering the town for an hour without any success, and it seemed like I was never going to find the elusive Catholic church.  Honestly, I was angry and annoyed and ready to give up on the entire endeavor—it wouldn’t be the first Mass that I’d missed during my months in Ireland.

I was still angry when I turned the next corner and found myself face to face with a perfect replica of the Grotto at Lourdes, exactly like the one at Notre Dame; there was St. Bernadette knelt in prayer, there were the candles sheltered under the rocks, and there was Mary, Notre Dame, looking down on the whole scene.  You know how sometimes God is in the quiet things, the still, small voice, the subtle parts of life—this grotto seemed like the very opposite of all that—it felt like God was shouting at me, since I obviously hadn’t been listening to all the other, more subtle attempts to catch my attention.  God didn’t take away my frustration about Irish Masses or magically grant me a stellar spiritual life, but somehow God gave me a grotto down a random street in a tiny village in the middle-of-nowhere Ireland and that was enough to make me realize how silly I’d been.

It was like the sugar at the grocery store all over again—I’d made the mistake of thinking that I couldn’t find God in Ireland just because I couldn’t find Him in all the familiar places I was used to looking for Him, like music-filled masses, or talking through faith with my friends, or quiet evenings at the Grotto.  I’d been so focused on the lack of those things that I failed to notice all the new ways that God was inviting me to encounter God; in the beauty of the liturgy itself, stripped of all the extra frills, in the unexpected friendship of the elderly parishioners at church, and in the breathtaking splendor of the Irish landscape that surrounded me.  Suddenly the sadness over the things I missed was nowhere near as important as the gift and joy of getting to seek God in new ways, to search for Him in surprising places and to find him in the strange and unfamiliar.

Even more of a gift was the realization that while I’d been busy seeking God, He had been patiently and lovingly seeking me, even if that meant giving me a familiar place to pray in an unfamiliar land.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: Rest, John Garvey, and Praise of Old Words

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) Brendan Busse, SJ at The Jesuit Post on our need for rest as we strive to live God’s justice in the world:

We need rest. We need hard work and creativity and struggle and sweat, but we also need rest. If we’re going to respond to the challenges before us, if we’re going to heal the wounds behind us, we need rest. The world is a weary place of late and we could use a break, a few deep breaths and a moment of silence. We need a place to get off of our feet for a while. We need to set our eyes on a distant horizon. We need to sense again the arc in this long road that bends towards justice.

2) John Garvey of Commonweal Magazine recently passed away. For many of us around my generation, it was his voice that taught us that a really deep spiritual life, a really deep sense of theological vision, and a deep love for the polis could be united in one person. Here is Peter Steinfels speaking of the now departed columnist:

John wrote about our self-delusions, especially of control and autonomy, and our ways of propping them up: therapeutic clichés, media clichés, conservative clichés, liberal clichés. A favorite theme was the confusion of faith with certainty. Believers could turn anything, including Jesus, into an idol to be manipulated to serve their self-interested purposes. Nonbelievers could equate all faith with fundamentalism and ignore their own certitudes.

John’s columns—at least in the years before the editors put tighter word limits on columnists—were spiked with hilarity. Writing of appeals to “get in touch with one’s feelings,” John reported that he had tried, but “they were out so I left a note.” Lamenting the mental befogging of our culture, John remembered a university job repairing academic jargon “that came by our desks by the barrelful.” A proposal for a program called “Human Development Counseling” bravely announced, “The process of human development, according to [recent studies], can be both constructive and destructive.”

3) A piece over at Dappled Things by Michael Rennier in praise of old words:

An unfamiliar word with the whiff of antiquity about it creates mystery for the reader to solve. The Mass is not “contemporary” (a hilariously archaic word in its own right) or “modern” (again, funny). It is not an everyday newspaper article that will be out of date the next day. It is a timeless artifact that requires a close reading. It is an adventure! The low-level grumbling in response to the new translation was enough to put the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to shame. Particularly odious to the complainers was the change in the Nicene Creed, which went from “one in being” to “consubstantial.” What old-fashioned nonsense is this, proponents of modern language cried! This new word, the complaint goes, is archaic. It has lost its meaning. It is technical. No one knows the definition and it is not user-friendly. What such a complaint overlooks, though, is that the word has the great virtue of being incredibly precise. It emerges from the crucible of a philosophical discussion with deep roots. This one little word has worlds of meaning packed into it. It brings us back to ancient Nicaea and Plato’s Ladder of Being and Santa angrily punching the heretic Arius in the face. This is a word that is experienced in vibrant color, it smells of incense, whereas in the service of relatability and ease of understanding, the previous phrase was gray and boring. Worse than that, the “modern” translation was quickly falling out of fashion. The now more faithfully rendered translation, archaism and all, is timeless.



I Cry Mullarkey: A Misreading of Balthasar

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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This semester, I am teaching a course entitled Performing Beauty: Liturgy, Theology, and Aesthetics.  We recently read a short piece by Hans ur von Balthasar in his Explorations in Theology (Volume 1: The World Made Flesh) entitled, “Revelation and the Beautiful.” The lecture offered an account of what Balthasar is doing in the essay. Placing beauty under the shadow of the cross, he sketches the contours of a theological aesthetics in which the human being encounters the glory revealed in the crucified and risen Lord, a beauty that must be enfleshed in a program of discipleship. At the same time, he speaks against the claim that only what is religious is beautiful. Beauty offers an object for contemplation, a way of gazing at creation as sheer openness, sheer gift, sheer delight. The artist or craftsman, Christian or not,  can offer to us an encounter with the beautiful, one that changes our perspective upon the world. And the Christian artist, in particular, must (attuned to the saving beauty of Christ himself) reveal to us what precisely the world is.

It is thus, with some surprise, that I found myself reading Maureen Mullarkey’s essay at First Things : Beauty, Balthasar, and Boilers. A frank assessment of the piece must note that it offers a similarly impoverished reading of Hans urs von Balthasar as she provided for Pope Francis several weeks ago. Balthasar functions, like Pope Francis did not as interlocutor, but as a prop in an already composed argument regarding philosophical and theological snobbery. Addressing Balthasar’s claim that beauty has left the world, Mullarkey writes:

When it does descend to things, speculation is often colored more readily by status—a socioeconomic bias—than by perception. Remember Henri de Lubac’s comment that Balthasar, his acolyte, was “perhaps the most cultivated man of his time.” It is tempting to ask if the flattery might have been less fulsome if Balthasar had whistled and played the harmonica instead of the piano. Even if he performed with the eloquence and delicacy of the great Belgian jazz musician Toots (Jean-Baptiste ) Thielemans, odds are that de Lubac’s tribute would have had a dent in it.

There exists tremendous beauty in man’s ingenuity in creating the ravishing abundance of goods that deliver us from mere subsistence. All the implements and resources that permit us to live longer and more easily deserve honor in discussions of what constitutes beauty. In reality, there is no inherent opposition between beauty and serviceability. Those who presume to hold a measure—the aesthetician’s sword of Merlin—by which to determine true beauty and fix it in place pride themselves unnecessarily.

Mullarkey’s argument is simple enough. Balthasar may speak “beautifully” about beauty but his snobbishness, his attachment to high forms of art, results in an aesthete, who cannot perceive the beauty of the ordinary. Of craft. Of human life. Of boilers.

Of course, to accept Mullarkey’s argument means that you have to presume with her that Balthasar has no interest in the mundane. That his attachment to “high” forms of art means that he could not vonBalthasarcomprehend the ordinariness of beauty. The proof that such a claim is true rests upon Mullarkey, who asserts without evidence. She quotes Balthasar on beauty only once, out of context, refusing to give her interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.

Mullarkey would not have had to look hard to refute her own argument. Indeed, Balthasar perceives beauty in such art insofar as it reflects upon the depths of the human condition–the things that really matter to people located in time and space. Life and death. Love and marriage. The dramatic living out of nature and grace.  He sees human life as striving toward art, toward the creation of a form that seeks to survive death itself:

I face the contradiction of my existence squarely, for I know that the matter into which I want to sink a definitive form will not hold up, whether it be the matter with which I am working as a craftsman or the matter of my hours ticking away, and it will be taken away from me on my last day with absolute certainty. What I will be able to say then at best it: in my clearest moments, in my positive basic decisions, I would have liked to make of my existence something lasting, valid, even though I knew that most of this existence would at least disintegrate into trash and decay. Not only my biological, but also my personal life, which I have tried to shape into something meaningful, will end…(Hans urs von Balthasar, Life Out of Death, 20-21).

Balthasar’s lament for the beautiful is not a European cri de coeur against boilers and modern art and craft. Rather, it is fear that in modern life, we no longer live as if there is meaning in the world. We too often cease to function as poets of the possible.

Of course, he finds the most beauty not in these art forms but in the hidden beauty of Christ himself. Christ, who is the only artist who forms the human body entirely into a work of art. He writes:

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 its realism, is transformed from within into what is most beautiful: bearing, forgiving, and transforming Love…(Life Out of Death, 37).

El Greco CrucifixionFor Balthasar, the truest form of beauty is thus not revealed in high forms of art. Rather, true beauty is the revelation of total, Absolute love become flesh. A “becoming” that still takes place, a logic of self-gift, which unfolds in the Eucharistic rites of the Church.

For this reason, theology itself is not meant to be an art form divorced from human existence. Instead, it must live in vital contact with reality, the festive and “erotic” contemplation of the Fathers and the medieval Church. The saint is a source for theology for Balthasar precisely because it is in the enfleshed life of the saint (and not just those saints who published tomes) in which the mysterious beauty of the Word made flesh is manifested.

As Cyril O’Regan has made clear in his recent study of Balthasar, his interest in sanctity is not a fascination with the bizarre or esoteric. Rather, as O’Regan writes,

…as Balthasar insists again and again, what is important about the saint is not an individual genius or idiosyncrasy. To think this is fatally to succumb to the subjectivist modern paradigm. The saint is an ecclesial person whose aim is to excavate the unrepeatable call or mission that defines them and to which he or she bears witness. In this sense the less idiosyncrasy the better; for idiosyncrasy is what darkens the self that would be a mirror of Christ (The Anatomy of Misremembering, 79).

That is, it is the sheer forgettable and mundane beauty of the saint that enables the saint to become a divine artwork. The saint is not religious genius or specialist. He/she is the one who submits him/herself into the mundane life of the Church. And this, ultimately, is the artwork that interests Balthasar. The transformation of humanity into the beautiful Beloved of the Song of Songs.

Mullarkey bludgeons Balthasar, just as several weeks ago she ripped apart Pope Francis. While she had an easier time critiquing the Pope for an encyclical that has not been published, it’s more difficult to accuse Balthasar of the snobbery she does, because it’s possible to actually read what he said (whereas the Holy Father has not yet written this encyclical at all). If one immerses oneself in his writing, one discovers a theologian acutely aware of what it means to be a modern human being in the world; a theologian well aware that the most beautiful is not the highest forms of visual art, poetry, or music. It is a life conformed to the self-emptying, self-giving mystery of Christ. And it is those who conform themselves to this mystery, who become the greatest artwork of all.


Making Sense of the Body

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 6.34.16 PMRiley Parrott

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015
Liberal Studies, Environmental Science

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”   (1 Cor 12:2–14)

In 1 Corinthians, Paul draws our attentions to a very beautiful and somewhat counterintuitive fact: we Christians are the Body of Christ. We are one, regardless of race, regardless of social status, regardless of culture, united as one whole. And yet, this model can be irregularly displayed in the life of the Church. If we believe we are one body, then why do fellow Christians persecute and speak hatefully about each other?  Why do we bicker and fight to such extremes that we have shed blood?  I remember thinking as a child that the fact that there even are divisions in Christianity was utterly unfathomable. Why on earth is there such contention? Part of these questions may have come from my background. I grew up in an interdenominational family with a Catholic father and a Presbyterian mother. It seems to me that my family worked well together and was able to speak peaceably about its differences, so why couldn’t other Christians? If only it were that simple.

As I have grown older, I have come to understand the naïveté that existed in my early thinking.  Truth is incredibly important, and we as humans are built with a desire to strive for the purest form of the truth.  When we perceive a falsehood being spread, we rise to do battle and proclaim the truth. And because we have not all grown and lived in the same places with the same people and the same inclination, we are inevitably going to see the world in slightly or sometimes drastically different ways. I honestly don’t think this is necessarily bad. God created us each to be unique, holding our own strengths and gifts so that we can better reflect and understand God’s infinite glory. But it also allows for us to fall away from each other. It allows us to make in-groups and out-groups, turning away from and disparaging ideas that are different from our own.

Dieric_Bouts_013 Returning to Paul’s image of the body, we can see this penchant for  division in how the Church behaves and relates to itself. Sometimes Christianity looks like an organism trying to tear itself apart rather than a healthy, whole being.  The eyes proclaim that sight is the only way to perceive the world and that if a body part is incapable of sight, then it is wrong and dysfunctional.  Or the feet claim that the ears are heretical for failing to support the legs.  But all of the parts of the body are meant to help the whole person flourish.  Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely think there are some lines that need to be drawn.  There can be cancers in the Body of Christ just as in any physical body.  And just like the physical body, those diseased and misdirected cells need to be removed before they can destroy the whole organism. The important thing to remember is that different does not mean deadly.  We must use discretion guided by the Holy Spirit when determining what is a cancer and what is simply a different organ.  It is through the many different skills and functions of its parts that a body is able to thrive, and with the totally infinite mystery of the triune God, there should be many parts of his body working together, each understanding some aspect of God differently from another, yet all moving in conjunction to give a fuller picture of the true Body of Christ.

jpiiecumeAnd this true Body of Christ is active, living and moving and full of purpose. Fr. Robert Barron reminds us in his Catholicism series, “The Church is the vehicle by which the One God wants to draw all people into unity with Himself.” We as the Body of Christ are meant to draw others in, to care for and love all those around us. We are Christ’s hands and feet, his voice, calling humanity out of the realm of “unlikeness” and into “God’s way of being.” United in our missionary purpose, we Christians are called not to many ways, but to one Way, one Truth, and one Life (cf. Jn 14:6).

That They May All Be One: Knowing Jesus and Christian Unity

Anna Adams

University of Notre Dame

Doctoral Student, Liturgical Studies

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“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (Jn 17:6–11)

John 17 has always been on of my favorite passages of Scripture. Whenever I read it, it conjures up for me not a picture of Jesus praying with the disciples, but images of Christmas Eve worship in my home church. That is probably a little strange, since the passage has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional Christmas story. But in our culture, particularly where I’m from in North Carolina, Christmas Eve is functionally the biggest feast of the year. Everybody comes to church. And when I process into the back of the nave, I see everybody that I love—my family, my friends, even a few people who, during the rest of the year, really annoy me. And it is the most beautiful sight in all the world. When I read Jesus’ words this week in John 17:10, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them,” all I can see in my mind’s eye are my Church family not only transformed by the excitement of the feast, or the beauty of the candle light, but even transfigured by the pure joy and hope of their encounter with Christ in worship. We encounter God when we are united in worship.

I think that, perhaps, that aspect of Christ’s prayer for unity sometimes gets lost, or underplayed, as we pray during this Week for Christian Unity. Most often, I read—and write—about how important it is for God’s Holy Church to speak, preach, and serve with one united voice. That is important. The Church’s divisions and schisms oppress her proclamation of the Gospel. Infighting harms our credibility, and outsiders wonder what exactly we Christians mean when we proclaim a Gospel of love and forgiveness.

While this focus on our witness to the world is important, it misses the more foundational aspect of Christian unity: we encounter Christ in and with one another. Christ prayed that we might all be one not “for the sake of the world,” but on behalf of those given to him by God. Christ asks for our sake, because we belong to God. And we can never fully belong to God, unless we belong to one another in the Body of Christ. Praying for Christian unity, then, isn’t simply hoping for a more convincing version of the truth. We pray for unity so that by our prayer we can be transformed—even transfigured— into the whole and complete Body of Christ. We cannot experience the entire joy, or truth, or love of the Gospel unless we enter into the prayer of Jesus together.

Every year during this week I focus my prayer on John 17. I don’t yet know how the Church will become one. But I rely on Christ to teach me how to pray, and to wait, and to receive small flowerings of unity when they appear. In the past, I have always prayed that we can be one so that our witness will be believable. I will still pray for that. But this year, I am praying that we may be one because I want to encounter the Lord, and I know that I cannot do it without his whole Body.

“I’m Here!”—The Cry for Human Communion

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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“Aunt Jessie, I’m here!” gleefully announced my three-year-old nephew as he jumped out of his car seat and dashed across the driveway toward me. This was the warmest greeting I had ever received from Sam, who has often been known to furrow his eyebrows and wag his finger at me while yelling, “No, not you!” But now, declaring his presence, he threw his flailing arms around me, laid his cow-licked head on my shoulder, and melted into my jacket. His declaration of self, so appropriate to the three-year-old child, was not merely a verbal statement of fact, but indeed an embodied request for recognition and affection.

“I’m here!” The grandeur of his annunciation is as remarkable as it is commonplace. As a child in the womb, Sam first indicated his unseen presence through morning sickness. Later, he becoming a bit bolder: he announced himself through fluttering sensations, then through sharp jabs, somersaults, and kicks. As an infant, he announced his presence through sound—crying, shrieking, laughing, gurgling, oohing and aahhhing. As a three-year-old, he announces his presence by nesting in the arms of his mother, standing on chairs, dominating conversation, wrestling with his father, and exclaiming, “Look at me!” As he ages, he will, I suspect, express his desire for human communion in new ways, developing a repertoire of more and less subtle ways to announce his presence—to request recognition and affection. By the time he nears the final years of his life, he may recognize—as his 83-year-old grandfather (my father) said to me just yesterday—that one of the most fundamental of human desires is “to be touched and cared for by other human beings. In the end, that’s all we have.”

In the end, this is exactly what God has done for us in Christ. He has made known to us the tenderness of his love in the very flesh of his Son. The divine and the human have not only come into accidental contact, as one might brush against another in the subway, but have embraced. Indeed, ours is not a distant, remote God, but a God who caresses us and holds us. Ours is a God who loves us with a love so fiercely tender He became an infant. Our is a God who declares in the Christ, “I’m here!” and in this declaration answers our plea for recognition and affection.

Yet, increasingly it seems that we cultivate attitudes, enact practices, and structure our world in ways that silence the pleas of the forgotten and the poorest—from the unborn child and her mother in crisis, to the homeless veteran, to the elderly and dying. Each human being by her participation in the vocation of existence cries out, “I am here; love me.” “I am lonely; lavish affection and tenderness on me.” “I am invisible; do not forget me.” “I am small; protect me.” “I am vulnerable; draw near to me.” “I am scared; comfort me.” “I am fragile; hold me.”

Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling and the concomitant Doe v. Bolton ruling. Together these two federal decisions effectively sanctioned the right to access abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. Every year since 1973, people from around the country have gathered on the National Mall to march for life in prayer and protest. For the past two years, I have been one of these pilgrim marchers requesting legal recognition for the lives of unborn children. This plea, which on the surface can appear one-dimensional, is actually a plea for what Pope Francis has called a “revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium, §88). It is a plea for policies—economic, social, educational, and legal—that support families. It is a plea for the formation of communities of men and women that encounter the unborn child and her mother, the disabled, the homeless, and the elderly not as burdens to be cast off, but as those who cry out in all their particularity and need the desire for human communion, for human embrace, for recognition and love.

Created for Glory: A Lesson in Love of Self

Molly Daily

Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2013–14)
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2014


“What’s wrong with your face?”
“Do you have like, a problem?”
“Oh my gosh, did you just wink at me?!”
“STOP making faces. Just hold still!”
“Are you like, retarded or something?”
“Guys—it’s twitchy! She’s at the waterpark!”

 These sorts of comments and questions plagued me throughout my childhood. Sometimes, I couldn’t get through a week—or even a day—without having to fend off a few of them. See, since a very young age I have suffered from a mild neurological disorder that causes me to have nervous “tics”—slight movements and contortions of my face, hands, and neck. Usually they look like funny faces, and a lot of the time I can just play them off as such. But they are unconscious. They happen outside of the realm of my control, and they have caused me embarrassment to no end.

When I was very young, I was largely unaffected by my tics. No one else really noticed them other than my parents, and I never understood them to be a part of who I was. Though my mom did her best to figure out what was causing them and try to get me to stop, I saw no issue with this. All I knew was that I needed to make these movements—and that if I didn’t, the urges would get stronger until I couldn’t focus on anything else. Even when I did try to fend them off, they’d start up again involuntarily. It was easier to just ignore my tics—because after all, who cares if my face looks funny sometimes?

Then came middle school—where, it turns out, a lot of people care if your face looks funny. Around the same age I began to realize what I looked like when I was ticking, other kids wised up as well. They noticed what they liked to call my “twitches,” and they thought they were just the funniest thing. I remember distinctly one group of girls in seventh grade who followed me around calling me “twitchy” and making my life miserable. People would open-mouthed stare at me as I passed in the hallway, making me want to just disappear. What was worst was when my closest friends got in on the action. I was mocked mercilessly, and it seemed like I was always the butt of a joke. They laughed at the funny faces I made, they imitated me, they called me mean names. They never let me forget that I was different—that I was weird. Because I desperately wanted this to stop, and because I desperately wanted friends, I joined in on the jokes. Everyone always said to just laugh it off—so why not just make fun of myself? So that’s what I started to do. In middle and high school, I joined in on the fun. I called myself “twitchy” and poked fun at my ridiculous faces. I laughed at myself, because it was easier than sticking up for myself. After all, it was better to be laughing with friends than to have a bunch of enemies who laughed at me, right?

Wrong. Turns out, I wasn’t just “laughing off” what these people were saying. Instead, I started to believe them. I started to agree with my friends and with the bullies about my face. I was so ugly—what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be a normal person and stop making these faces? I would find myself ticking and then get so angry with myself. I would become stressed and frustrated, which in turn just made my tics worse. I would hide my worst tics from my friends out of fear that they would completely reject me. I started to see myself as nothing other than my tics—I let this part of my life define me. How could I ever do anything with my life when I looked like this? I wanted to be an actress, but after countless judges’ remarks from speech team meets about my tics, I abandoned that dream. How could I ever act if I couldn’t stop ticking? How could I do anything?

At some point, the tics came to represent a whole lot more about myself. I didn’t like that I was awkward and anxious. I didn’t like all the things about myself that my friends made fun of. I was a nerd. I was a worry-wart and a crybaby. I always said the wrong thing. I didn’t have any real friends. I wasn’t good at sports. I wasn’t good at anything. I let this self image completely tear me down, to the point where I felt completely alone. Even after I left a destructive group of friends to find myself, I continued to feel alone and abandoned. I remember several nights where I sat at home with my mom and sister, in tears because no one saw the real me. I had built up this wall and this world where I put too much value on my tics—so everyone else did, too. I joked about myself and hated myself, because that was easier than asking for the compassion and love I so craved. I was afraid to be myself, because I was afraid I would be rejected—so I hid behind sarcasm and jokes about myself.

I wish I could say I had some sort of beautiful vision from God, where he came down in the form of a dove and told me that I’m beautiful and that I should love myself. But that’s not what happened. Over time, as I came to grow in my faith life, I heard a thousand times over that I was God’s precious treasure. I heard that He loved me and that He wanted me to love myself before I could love others. But that never really did the trick. It wasn’t that I was angry at God for “giving” me tics—even if I did think that was the case, I knew somewhere within me that He didn’t want me to treat myself that way. I learned over time to understand His presence in my life, and when I accepted that He made me out of love and with a purpose, I had to do something about it. I knew I had a lot to offer, and I knew that I should treat myself better. But it was so, so hard! I’d built up these layers of sarcasm and this wall of jokes so thick that I wouldn’t let anyone in.

Then came college—a chance to re-invent myself. A chance to completely start over with new friends. And with that came terror. I was so scared to make myself vulnerable and open to the love of others. After all, what if these new people around me—my roommate, my new friends, the guy I liked—just saw my tics? Even when they didn’t bring them up, I waited in horror for the day they would notice that I wasn’t “normal,” that I was weird and different and not worth their time. So as time went on, I noticed myself falling into my old routine of joking about myself. I would poke fun at myself, bringing up my tics before they even noticed them. I would put myself down. But this time, something was different. They didn’t respond in quite the same way. They didn’t make fun of me; they treated me with respect and love. And so I stopped myself. I decided that I didn’t need to be defined by my tics. I could be my own unique, individual, beautiful girl. I had so many strengths that my new friends saw, and they looked past my failings. When I felt myself feeling down, all I had to do was talk to one of them and they would remind me how beautiful I was and how much good I had to give. While I still often struggled and sometimes still prefer to make fun of myself, I have come to a place where I can see myself as beautiful and good. I am not my disorder. I am a child of God.

Looking back now, I think God was acting through my college friends. He was inviting me to start myself over—to see myself as He sees me, not as I often see myself. God doesn’t see my tics, my awkwardness, my stupid mistakes. When He looks at me, He sees a smart girl with a passion for politics and a knack for speaking Spanish. He sees my giftedness and my ability to bring His love to others. And He so desperately wanted me to see all that, too. When I was allowing myself to be labeled by others and by my tics, I was limiting myself and the way I could contribute to the world. God didn’t create me so I could wallow in self-pity and shut myself off to the world around me. He created me for His glory. While I still struggle sometimes to see myself as beautiful or as more than my tics, I know that God will show me the truth. He has surrounded me with incredible people who love me and who are always happy to remind me of why I’m here.

Longing to Pray Like This

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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At the beginning of January, I spent several days in Minneapolis at the North American Academy of Liturgy. In a seminar on 16th-20th liturgical history, we opened our first session with morning prayer in common (led by Frank Senn). In the room were ELCA Lutherans and the Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans, Catholics and the Missouri Synod Lutherans. That morning, we chanted Lauds  in English as it was done by early to mid-twentieth century Lutherans and Episcopalians. We did so with great trepidation, lacking musical accompaniment, for the most part sight reading notes that we were glancing upon for the first time.

And yet, we prayed. At the end, it did not feel like it was some exercise in re-constructing old liturgical rites. It did not feel like a session on the history of musical notation. It was prayer, shared in common by Christians who (without a doubt) have quite different views about ministry, theology, development of doctrine, ecclesial discipline, and the moral life.

The unity of the Church today, to be frank, is not something that we can will into being with great ease. There are serious disagreements to be had among us Christians about points of doctrine and practice that really do matter to our identities. In reality, many of us Christians are in open disagreement not simply with other Christian communities but those who subscribe to the very same articles of belief that we do. Methodist against Methodist. Episcopalian against Episcopalian. Orthodox against Orthodox. Only a bloodless approach to unity wants to pass over these differences without real dialogue and argument alike.

Yet, in such moments when we really do pray together, we are offered a glimpse of the kind of unity that Christ intended within the Church. That each of us profess faith in the “catholic” Church, a Church made one through the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That every human being is to be gathered together into that one body of total praise. And that one day, through a grace that we can only desire, argument and discourse will give way to praise and adoration.

In reality, we are not one. We are not yet there. The arguments and disagreements remain present and must be had. But through times of praying together, of learning to dwell together in unity (even in the midst of our very real differences), we practice that vocation of total praise which is our destiny. We long to pray not simply as an Orthodox or a Methodist or a Catholic. Rather, we long to pray as together as one body, one spirit in Christ.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: Feminists for Life, Evil, and the Ugliness of Porn

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) As nearly 700 University of Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff travel to Washington, DC for the March for Life, this piece by Serrin M. Foster, president of Feminists for Life, in America addresses the reasons why one could call oneself a feminist and be pro-life:

For decades, abortion advocates have asked, “What about the woman?” And pro-lifers have answered, “What about the baby?” This does nothing to address the needs of women who are pregnant. We should start by addressing the needs of women—for family housing, child care, maternity coverage, for the ability to telecommute to school or work, to job-share, to make a living wage and to find practical resources.

As pro-life employers and educators, we must examine our own policies and practices in our own communities, workplaces, colleges and universities. With woman-centered problem solving, we can set the example for the nation and the world. We must ramp up efforts to systemically address the unmet needs of struggling parents, birthparents and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

2) On learning to dwell in silence before the problem of evil by Meredith McCann at Dappled Things:

The nexus of this question is found in Gethsemane, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or the site of every school shooting. Turn on the news, and you visit Gethsemane. Inside the Basilica of Agony you will find traditional Byzantine Christian art, “the rock” where Jesus wept (according to traditions), and what you would generally expect in a Christian Holy site- except for one motif in the Church that goes to the very heart of Christian Existentialism. Above the beautiful altar and “the rock” where Jesus wept, you will NOT find a giant imposing crucifix like you see in most Catholic Churches and certainly most Christian holy sites. Instead of a crucifix, you see a mosaic of the scene in Gethsemane, and if you sit there at dawn in silence looking at the scene you might ask God about His goodness, and Jesus is asking the same question with you. You see no imposing figure of Jesus above the altar. Instead, you see a small and lonely figure collapsed on a rock surrounded by a moonless void of a sky. Far off to the right you see the apostles asleep, unwilling and unable to help Jesus carry his question. Way up in the top of the sky is an angel, but he is too far away to offer any consolation to Jesus. The angel is only a vague reminder of hope- all but lost in this scene. The Franciscans of the Basilica are right- you will find no explanations here.

3) I’m teaching a course on liturgical aesthetics for undergraduates and graduates alike this semester. This week, we read the following by Roger Scruton in a book entitled Beauty: A Very Short Introduction:

The human form is sacred for us because it bears the stamp of our embodiment. The wilful desecration of the human form, either through the pornography of sex or the pornography of death and violence, has become, for many people, a kind of compulsion. And this desecration, which spoils the experience of freedom is also a denial of love. It is an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is what is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture…it is a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love (148).