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Monasticism Will Save the Liturgy

Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s famous adage, “Save the Liturgy, Save the World,” nicely sums up the way God’s presence and grace are conveyed through the sacraments and how our disposition to receive the graces they provide is enhanced by well performed ritual. A liturgy filled with beautiful physical things helps us, body-soul composites that we are, to receive grace. Inasmuch as this is the case, the salvation of the liturgy is also highly relevant to the salvation of mankind. But we live in an age when the liturgical prayer of the Church is regularly sub-par, un-edifying to the faithful, and sometimes offensive to God. So who will save the liturgy?

Monasticism will save the liturgy. “Save monasticism, save the liturgy, save the world” is how I see things. The very job of contemplative monks and nuns is performing the liturgy well! According the father of Western monasticism, St. Benedict, the essence of a monk’s life is the opus dei, the work of God, the chanting of the Divine Office and fitting celebration of the sacred mysteries of the Mass.

Now, that’s all well and good, you may say, but right now that’s not helpful, because monasticism is in a crisis, too! However, this is not the right way of looking at things.

The solution to liturgy and monasticism is actually a self-solving circle, for vocations thrive only when the liturgy thrives, and the liturgy thrives only when vocations do. More bluntly put, the present (read: post-Vatican II) crisis of vocations will be fixed only when the Old Mass, and the effect it has on souls, is rediscovered.

A religious vocation is an invitation to a special kind of union with God, a union with the mysteries of the Cross and the Resurrection. Note that the “religious vocation” is not a “special invitation,” but rather, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, a universal invitation. God calls everyone to be perfect: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

While every Christian is called to renounce the world, the visible manifestation of this self-abnegation differs from person to person. Consequently, saints of the Catholic Church are found among all walks of life: St. Monica and St. Gianna Molla, mothers; Saint Isidore the Farmer (he really was a farmer); the medical doctors Sts. Cosmas and Damian; and Louis IX, king of France, to name but a few. Nonetheless, the majority of the Church’s canonized saints are religious of one sort or another. This is not because, as some cynics say, the orders have more time and more money to promote the causes of their own members. It is rather because this life is designed by the Holy Spirit to bring people to the greatest possible holiness and fervor of charity in a life of prayer and service.

A religious is a call to a special kind of union and way of life. It is a special way of life because the evangelical counsels are not according to natural desires of man. God asks the Christian to give up the things of this world, not because they are bad in themselves, but because they frequently distract and hinder the soul from loving God completely.

This brings us back to the liturgy. Because vocations are supernatural, they must come from the supernatural – and our best present means of encountering the supernatural is through the liturgy. Vocations come out of the liturgy because that is where God comes to us, where we are united to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In the Eucharist, in Scripture, and in the apostolic ways of praying that Tradition gives to us, the Christian soul is brought to the gate of heaven, there to become divinized, united to the life of God.

The prayers, ritual, and music of the Latin Mass are the perfect vesture for making present again the reality of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Son of God’s infinite act of love. Guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, added to and embellished by the greatest saints of the Church, the Latin Mass takes into account the handicaps of fallen humans by providing the richest prayers and most beautiful ceremony possible. It is by such vehicles as St. Gregory’s Roman Canon, the chant that bears his name, and the poetic, theological sequences of St. Thomas Aquinas that the mysteries of the Catholic faith are made more accessible to our weak intellects.

Vocations to religious life, whether active or contemplative, occur when the soul begins to see God as attractive. People become monks and nuns because they have discovered their thirst for a God Who is Beauty. They will not be satisfied with anything other than the pearl of great price. Because of this, the place where God comes to us, the sacred liturgy, must aid us in seeing the attractiveness of God; otherwise, no one, man or woman, will want to seek Him in the consecrated life.

This is why I love the Latin Mass. Not only are the Catholic mysteries made more accessible to our intellects by the traditional prayers, but they are made more beautiful and attractive to our slothful wills and clouded appetites. Let me offer a few examples.

I have a beautiful prayer card that a priest friend sent to my family. On one side, it has a prayer for priests, on the other a remarkable illustration. It depicts the priest at the minor elevation gazing at the host and chalice held in his hands. Directly above the chalice, Christ bends over the altar to place on the head of the priest His own crown of thorns. The priest seems not to notice as the thorns are pressed into his brow. The look on Jesus’ face is calm and tender. Likewise with the liturgy: it presses a crown of thorns into one’s head, and this makes one all the more intimately a partaker of the total offering of Christ. As Dom Marmion says in one of his letters: “It is impossible, dear child, to arrive at intimate union with a crucified Love, without feeling at times the thorns and nails. It is this which causes the union.”

Even in college, I am an avid proponent of picture books, particularly The Life of Little Saint Placid, one of the most profound books I have ever read. One quotation is particularly relevant here: “The liturgy put into his mouth words he never dared utter. His words formed his thought and his thought formed his being. And so, the liturgy enfolded him as in a mould, and when it had transformed him, then rose to God as the expression of his own being, Little Placid.”

Here we can see that when a person accepts the liturgy as a truly good thing, as something from which there is nothing to be feared, as the most perfect prayer the faithful soul can ever pray, a soul must of necessity be changed. In some mysterious way, words unlock our rationality as humans, and while I do not equate rationality with the brain, we can see the connection between language and reasoning in the fact that children who do not learn to speak have their brain development stunted, thus preventing the rationality they possess from being fully realized.

This unique property of liturgical prayer – forming our prayer by forming our imaginations and memories – can be seen in other places. St. Mechtilde (c. 1240-1298), a medieval German mystic, often had visions prompted by the liturgical text of the day. In one vision, we find Our Lord telling her:

You shall understand that when you say any psalm or prayer which any saints prayed when they were alive on earth, then all of those saints pray to me for you. Additionally, when you are in your devotions and speak with me, then all of the saints are joyful and worship and thank me. (Booke of Special Grace, 3.9, 433-34)

These are truly amazing words! The very act of praying with hallowed words of tradition gives our prayers greater efficacy before the throne of God. How foolish it would be to depart from what centuries and sometimes millennia have yielded to us!

We read in a Mozarabic collect for St. Martin:

Grant, O Lord, that we, meditating on Thy law with our whole hearts, may bring forth that fruit which Thy saints and confessors bore in their several generations: so that we, following their example here, may be partakers of their glory hereafter.

What is the example of the saints if not traditional prayer? One of the books that has most influenced me is the novel The Mass of Br. Michel by Michel Kent. This book is both a swashbuckling romance and a contemplative meditation on the Mass as the heart of monasticism. Angelico Press recently re-published it in a nice edition that can be found here.

Gradually, as the sacred liturgy progressed, he became aware of a presence, intangible but real[.] … This reality pierced his insensibility, summoned him with insistence, demanded that he recognize it and give it a name. Something within him stirred and woke; he was in the midst of Beauty, and he knew it.

By the example of its main character, this book instills in one a powerful desire for God, as communicated in the sacred mysteries. It is the beauty of God as communicated to us in the sacred liturgy that will move souls to consecrate themselves to God, to say with the Psalmist: “To be near God is my delight.”

The Rule of St. Benedict appoints the love of the liturgy as the first love of the monk’s heart. When the bell sounds for the Divine Office, St. Benedict enjoins the monks to run with holy fervor to carry out the Sacrifice of Praise. There, in the choir-stall, in the public and solemn prayer of the Church, the Church’s monks and nuns, every day, every week, every month, every year, show forth in word and deed that the delight of their hearts is indeed to be near God.

Here we have the simplest and best explanation of why traditional and conservative communities are flourishing: they have, intrinsically, the right attitude toward worship, to the Church as “My Father’s House of Prayer.” But it is also why, over time, both conservatives and Reform of the Reform communities, are switching over to the traditional Mass and Divine Office. It is a better expression of the all-consuming search for God, a better outlet for their delight in Him, and a better vehicle for God’s love, the source of their delight.

Cardinal Sarah, at the solemn Mass for this years’ Chartres Pilgrimage, spoke to the multitude of youth who had gathered in the magnificent Chartres Cathedral about monasticism and the mass:

I pray that many of you will answer today, during this Mass, the call of God to follow him, to leave everything for him, for his light. Dear young people, do not be afraid. God is the only friend who will never disappoint you! When God calls, he is radical. It means He goes all the way to the root. Dear friends, we are not called to be mediocre Christians! No, God calls us all to the total gift, to the martyrdom of the body or the heart!

People of France, peoples of the West, you will find peace and joy only by seeking God alone! Return to the Source! Return to the monasteries! Yes, all of you, dare to spend a few days in a monastery! In this world of tumult, ugliness and sadness, monasteries are oases of beauty and joy. You will experience that it is possible to put concretely God in the center of your whole life. You will experience the only joy that will not pass.

Our hope can only be that in those willing to make such a pilgrimage, dotted along the way with the solemn celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, will be found the wellsprings of those future vocations that will heal the Church of her forgetfulness, lukewarmness, and activism.

I would like to close with a quotation from a letter of St. Padre Pio to his spiritual director, dated 1913. The saint is describing the words of Jesus to him in a vision:

Oh! My Heart is made to love! Weak and cowardly men put forth no concerted effort to overcome temptations and even delight in their iniquities. When My most beloved souls are put to the test, they come to Me less often. The weak abandon themselves to despair and dismay, and the strong gradually slacken their efforts.

They leave Me alone at night and alone in churches during the day. They no longer care about the Eucharist. People never speak about this Sacrament of Love, and those that do speak about it do so with indifference and coldness.

My Heart has been forgotten. No one cares about My love anymore, and I am always saddened by that. My house has become a theater of entertainment for many. The ministers whom I have always regarded with favour and have loved as the apple of My eye should comfort My heart, which is overflowing with sorrows. They should help Me in the redemption of souls. Instead – who would believe it! – they treat Me with ingratitude and neglect.

Well? Are we going to do anything about this? I challenge every reader of this article to do one small thing in reparation for the offenses Jesus bears every day in the Most Holy Eucharist and in the sacred liturgy, especially at the hands of His priests, His bishops, and even the pope. Pray for a deeper love of Jesus in the Mass and the Eucharist, and for an increase in vocations, that being near to God may be our delight!

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