Last semester, I had a handful of students approach me, asking if they could read more about liturgy. In my mind, I was in 1947, with Hans Anscar Reinhold, Godfrey Diekmann and Therese Mueller, imagining what exciting things we could talk about as a reading group, or, as I like to call it, our “Liturgical Study Club.”
“Study Clubs” were a fairly common way amongst mid-twentieth century Roman Catholics to gather together to consider a topic related to faith and morals. Organized groups, such as Catholic Action cells, the National Council of Catholic Women, and the National Council of Catholic Men, ran study clubs. Professors in seminaries ran study clubs; groups of college students ran study clubs. On the one hand, study clubs were meant to be educational—but they also served to affirm and shape Catholic identity. People who desired to delve into their Catholic faith and theology took part in these groups, but participation also became a mark of active participation in Catholic intellectual culture and involvement with a Catholic social network. Aside from socializing and snacks, study clubs also required work…and the beginning of any such club often had a much brighter future than at its middle…or end.
Nonetheless, to my inner liturgical-movement-pioneer’s crazed delight, a group of a dozen students (!) past and present, gathered with me and my husband to discuss our chosen topic: liturgical time. We came prepared, having read 1) a section of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951); 2) a selection from St. Augustine’s Confessions from the section on “Time”; and 3) Irénée H. Dalmais’ introduction to The Liturgy and Time volume from The Church at Prayer series (Liturgical Press, 1986).
During the course of our meeting, I was surprised by how some students saw a sharp distinction between Heschel’s and Augustine’s presentation of “time” and “eternity.” One student observed that, while Augustine distinguishes between God’s time, or “eternity” and the human experience of “time,” Heschel sees continuity between God’s “eternity” and human “time.” Augustine begins his book XI of the Confessions by proclaiming:
“Lord, eternity is yours…. Who will lay hold on the human heart to make it still, so that it can see how eternity, in which there is neither future nor past, stands still and dictates future and past times?” (11, 1 & 13).
For Augustine, “time” is a human invention—humans attempt to control time, but descriptions of a “long time” or a “short time” all seem absurd in the face of God whose “Today is eternity.” (11, 16). In the end, Augustine asks with exasperation, “What then is time? ” (11, 17).
Meanwhile, the students noticed how differently Heschel describes time. As Heschel explains:
“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. … Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events….” (8).
For Heschel, the Sabbaths, marked by hours, form “great cathedrals” and the ritual of the Sabbath, festivals, and years, create an “architecture of time” which is God’s time and is—qadosh—or holy. (9)
Why did this distinction matter? As our discussion continued, I was fascinated that part of the concern the students had with Heschel’s presentation of sacred time…was that sacred space seemed left by the wayside. Which then, is more significant for the liturgical experience—sacred time or sacred space? Though I would be the first to embrace a classic Catholic sacramental worldview and claim that creation reflects the goodness of God, I have to admit I am compelled by Heschel’s argument: what was the first “holy” object in the history of the world? It was no object—neither mountain, nor altar, nor tree nor river. For Judaism, and for Christianity, the first “thing” which is blessed is not a thing at all: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Gen 2:3 ; Heschel 9.)
God created the world, and has asked humans to bless God’s name by building sanctuaries in which they might gather as a community to worship God. But, first, humans are invited to participate in God’s time—eternity—through remembering to keep it. Humans begin their worship of God by taking time for the holy. Space, then, becomes the human vehicle to participate in God’s time, when we living, time-bound creatures “give glory and honor and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever.” (Revelation 4:9)
We meet again this week. Wish us luck, as we take time, in community, to remember the liturgy.