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Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo's "Adoration of the Magi"

Unless the temporal activity of social life goes forward within a framework of leisure and liturgy, it becomes misshapen. Liturgy conforms the whole of life to the harmonies of heaven.

“The celebration of divine worship is the deepest of the springs by which leisure is fed and continues to be vital” (Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 70).

“Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours” (Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy).

In our pursuit of the spiritual life it is good and encouraging to remember that God is a master of practical living. He not only calls us to the truth, he also teaches us how to live by the truth in the daily affairs of life. He not only gives us high ideals, he also shows us how to incarnate those ideals in the stuff of life so that they can be sustained over time. While he teaches us that “man does not live by bread alone,” he also knows that we need bread. This attention given by God to our practical needs can be seen in his gift of the Liturgy. The Sacred Liturgy involves many things; it is rooted in unseen realities that transcend the bounds of the natural and its inner essence runs off into mystery. Yet at the same time the Liturgy is productive of many good things in the realm of practical life.

In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit to France. While there he met with a group of Ministers of Culture, a gathering of France’s most eminent personages in education, the arts, politics, in all that goes into cultural life. They met at the College des Bernardins, a beautiful Cistercian monastery in Paris. The Pope was to speak about the state of European civilization. A sophisticated scholar, he might have engaged that erudite gathering at the level of anthropological, sociological, philosophical, or theological theories. He might have touched on any number of current political, economic, or moral challenges. Instead he spoke to them about - monks. He began and ended his presentation with comments about Benedictine monasticism. It may have seemed an odd choice of topic for such a gathering, but Benedict knew what he was doing. He was alerting his hearers to the necessary connection between cult and culture, between the worship of God and the development of a healthy human social and cultural world.

The noted German philosopher Joseph Pieper wrote about the relationship between worship and culture in a now-classic essay, “Leisure the Basis of Culture.” By leisure, Pieper did not mean cocktails at poolside or weekends away at the cabin. He was speaking of the human need to lift the gaze of our hearts and minds off of what is passing and to rest them in what is eternal and of lasting value. For Pieper, unless the temporal activity of life went forward within a framework of leisure understood in this sense, humanity would become misshapen, and social life would degenerate into a kind of slavery. Among the various expressions of leisure that Pieper identified, he counted worship as the most significant, the anchor and mainstay of human culture.

The history of Benedictine monasticism and the forms of religious life arising from it present an interesting case study in Pieper’s theory of leisure. St. Benedict has often been called one of the fathers of European civilization, and with good reason. For many centuries the monastery was a key institution in Europe’s development. Monks preserved and passed on the learning of the ancient world, they gathered up and gave order to the social world around them, and they furthered the development of music, architecture, and art. They even made signal contributions to such this-worldly pursuits as accounting, agriculture, and animal husbandry. Many of the great personalities who helped build European civilization were nurtured in the monastic discipline. Yet it is remarkable that these influential monks did not set out to preserve an ancient culture or to build a new European civilization. The opposite is closer to the truth. They were leaving behind normal life, including normal Christian life, to seek God in solitude and to carry on spiritual warfare. They were explicitly fleeing this world in order to gain the next.

The Sacred Liturgy involves many things; it is rooted in unseen realities that transcend the bounds of the natural and its inner essence runs off into mystery. Yet at the same time the Liturgy is productive of many good things in the realm of practical life.

How did such an unlooked-for development take place? How did isolated groups of men and women who had broken most of their ties with their society exercise so great an influence on the society they had left behind? The cultural power of the monastery was in the inherent strength of its social and spiritual life. Benedict structured the life of the monastery almost entirely around the Liturgy. Monks and nuns worked, studied, ate and slept; but they did everything according to an architecture of liturgical prayer. The Psalmist had said, “Seven times a day I praise you for your just decrees” (Psalm 119:164). The monasteries set that ideal of prayer into a daily framework with the hours of the office from Vigils through Compline, and celebrated the liturgical year with great attentiveness and richness. The penitential and celebratory seasons, the feast days and fast days, the Christian narrative embodied in the Liturgy, constructed a pattern that pervaded the whole of monastic life. The Liturgy ordered their eating, their relationships, their study, their work, their mode of speaking and of holding silence, and of course their prayer. It was an attempt to conform the whole of life in all its varied details to the harmonies of heaven.

Then, while the monks weren’t looking, this remarkably potent pattern of life began to expand beyond the monastery walls and became the seed crystal around which the chaotic world they inhabited began to gather, such that the whole of the society came under the influence of the rhythms of the monastery. This unwitting monkish contribution to cultural life is an example, written into history, of Jesus’s teaching: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matthew 6:33). Monks were intent on seeking the kingdom, and then found that an ordering principle of great potency for building a whole civilization was somehow “thrown in.”

Benedict founded Monte Cassino in 529, and for close to a thousand years the monastery and the family tree of religious life that emerged from it – including the Mendicant orders and the societies of Apostolic Life – provided much of the inner form of European society. The religious orders were the special caretakers of the Liturgy and gave strength and ballast to the strong current of the Church’s liturgical life. The grand narrative of creation and redemption enshrined in the Liturgy, brought to vivid life by art, architecture, drama, and music, reverberated through the whole of the society and became so much a part of an assumed cultural atmosphere that it seemed impregnable and hardly needed to be justified. From one point of view this was a natural and a good development; but from another it meant that there was a growing vulnerability present. The moral, spiritual, and cosmic order expressed by the Liturgy was increasingly taken for granted and was often hardly understood. When an attack upon that order came, it was not clear to many what needed to be protected, nor why.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century saw Christendom divided and the cultural foundations of Christian society shaken. The Protestant reformers did not (usually) abolish liturgy entirely, and some Protestant bodies, notably the Anglican and Lutheran, developed their own rich liturgical traditions. But Protestantism was much less comfortable with a sacramental view of reality as a whole, and was hostile to the traditional consecrated life of religious orders. In Protestant lands the monasteries were dissolved and religious orders disbanded, with the result that the main caretakers of the Christian social architecture were removed, and with the loss of their sacramental vision and the cosmic order implied in it the society as a whole tended to become de-sacralized, organized according to a more secular structure.

In Catholic lands the earlier liturgical traditions were reformed and strengthened, and flowered for a time in what we call the Catholic Reformation and Baroque culture. Yet during the seventeenth century a current of thought began to take root among some people in both Catholic and Protestant Europe whose goal was the organization of human society around an entirely different ordering principle. We usually call that way of thinking and the broad movement it inspired "the Enlightenment." It burst upon Europe in a sweeping political and cultural form at the time of the French Revolution (1789). That famous revolution was not just a shuffling of political power; it represented a cultural and anthropological rupture. It was an attempt to re-devise the whole of human society, and those who were trying to accomplish it understood that the only way to successfully refashion European culture was to do away with Liturgy; not just the Mass, but the Christian architecture of time and space held together by the whole cycle of liturgical practice. They had an intuitive understanding of the principle later expressed by Pieper: that cult – liturgy – was the formative principle of culture.

What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.
Pope Benedict XVI

The revolutionaries didn’t always get their way, but it is telling to see the goals of their project, since that project spread widely and has continued in various ways down to our own time. The first target was the liturgical year, the Christian ordering of time. It was announced that 1792 was the Year One. No longer was Christ's birth understood as the center of the human drama; instead it was the Revolution that signaled the coming of a new age. The seven-day week, with its echoes of the creation account in the Book of Genesis, was abolished, and a ten-day week was imposed in its place. The revolutionaries renamed all the days and months, and they canceled the traditional round of liturgical fasts and feasts, replacing them with newly invented ones. They even went so far as to replace the celebration of the Mass with a grand feast to the Goddess Reason in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

The same cultural innovators also went after the keepers of the Christian Liturgy, the priests and the religious orders. Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies did whatever they could to cancel those cultural strongholds of Christianity. Monasteries were emptied, religious houses of both men and women were disbanded, and thousands of clergy were either killed or exiled. The number of monasteries and religious houses went from many thousands to a few hundreds. Revolutionary armies would sometimes march far out of their way, even to the tops of mountains, to knock down monasteries, not only because they were strategic militarily, but because they were strategic culturally. The Church of the time, having grown soft and comfortable, was not well-prepared to protect itself. Many of its religious houses had lost their originating spirit, and they proved fairly easy prey.

Much of the last 200 years in the Western Church has been the story of the Church attempting to respond to this seismic rupture, to maintain her life and integrity in the midst of the onslaught, and to find ways to re-evangelize an emerging secular society that was no longer ordered even in theory according to heaven’s rhythms. Given the importance of the Liturgy for incarnating and maintaining Christian life and culture, one of the early responses to the revolution was a movement for liturgical renewal, set on foot especially by blessed Dom Prosper Gueranger, who refounded the Benedictine order in France in 1830. Dom Gueranger re-established the Abbey of Solemses, which then became a center of a reform that included a renewal of Gregorian Chant. He published a series of books in 1840 entitled The Liturgical Year in which he outlined the historical development of the liturgy and laid out a plan for its practice. In doing so he helped bring back into prominence a liturgical tradition that for a thousand years had been the heart of European civilization, but that had been for a time neglected, and then attacked and largely destroyed. His reforming work set on foot the impetus for liturgical renewal as a key element in re-animating the Church’s inner life and an important step for the re-evangelization of a largely secular society, a project that was notably taken up and given further encouragement by St. Pope Pius X.

It has been a serious challenge for Catholics to maintain a Christian sacramental way of seeing the world and to remember and its narrative of salvation amid a culture with a very different way of understanding God, humanity, and the drama of life. It is not easy to sustain a genuinely Catholic culture – an incarnation of the truths of the faith into all the material and temporal aspects of life – under the pressing weight of a contrary, if chaotic, secular culture. Even those who have remained faithful to getting to Church on Sundays can find that Masses and other liturgical celebrations have tended to become isolated events, something to squeeze into a differently organized social and temporal architecture, moments of great goodness in themselves but not fulfilling the broader ordering function for the whole of life.

It was perhaps with thoughts such as these that Pope Benedict spoke to that French group of cultural custodians about monks. His final comments to them express the necessary connection between the worship of God and a healthy human culture, and by inference point to the importance of maintaining that connection by remembering and ordering personal and communal life according to the divinely given narrative, expressed and brought alive most profoundly by the gift of the Liturgy:

“Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him – that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”

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