by Timothy P. O’Malley
Last time I wrote for Pray Tell, I described the link that Romano Guardini made between the cultivation of cult and world. For Guardini, the construction of a humanizing, transcendent social order is necessary for the flourishing of divine worship. That is, social and cultural renewal is not separate from but intrinsic to liturgical renewal.
One area that the liturgical theologian must attend to in the present milieu, specifically in the United States, is the emphasis upon authentic subjectivity. American religion (and in fact perhaps the entire national project) is founded upon the inviolability of the subject’s experience. Walt Whitman sings a song of myself. Henry David Thoreau goes to live alone at Walden Pond so as to test the authenticity of his own existence. Revivals of American religion take place as the individual testifies before the assembly that he or she has authentically experienced the saving power of Jesus. The consumer forms a “supposedly” unique and authentic self around purchases made.
This culture of glorifying the authentic subject has spilled over into Catholicism in a variety of ways. The thin conception of confirmation employed by most catechetical programs defines the sacrament as “making” Catholicism one’s own, encouraging an “authentic appropriation” of the religion. Youth ministry, for those who participate, establishes a habit in adolescent and emerging adult Catholics of connecting the flourishing of religious affections with a robust faith. Only the subject who “feels” has religion. Only the one who “feels” should attend the Eucharist. This culture of authentic subjectivity shapes the Eucharistic worshipper, who seeks to attend the liturgy when he/she authentically wants to. The individual is at the center of such worship.
It is obvious that this concern with authentic subjectivity is not conducive to the Church’s liturgical rites. Liturgical prayer is not oriented to confirming the authenticity of personal experience. The Church’s rites are occasions in which doing what is prescribed, participating in a social order beyond one’s particular desires, is the way of salvation. The couple participating in the nuptial liturgy does not create unique vows reflective of the authenticity of their love. Rather, they take up patterns of speech that have been handed to them. They say the words that have been given to them in the same way that the assembly chants or sings the Sanctus after the Eucharistic Preface rather than composing their own more authentic hymn expressing Eucharistic desire. Of course, subjective incorporation is to be encouraged and fostered. But the rite works unto itself as rite.
If the practice of liturgical prayer is to flourish anew in the age of authenticity, we need social and ecclesial ways of counteracting an exclusive concern with authenticity. Relative to confirmation, if one is not going to restore the proper order of the sacraments of initiation (and it should be noted that 7 year olds are less concerned about authentic subjectivity than 14 year olds), then the emphasis should be on the kind of authenticity that comes about when one gives oneself over to a religious tradition. Saints, for example, are authentic “subjects,” who happen to share in common a body of practices that enable them to flourish as human beings. A curriculum for confirmation that focused more on membership in the communion of saints might counteract the idolatry of authenticity pervasive in youth ministry as a whole.
Further, Christians necessarily look for ways to express their faith personally. Exclusive attention to the liturgy is not the way to do this, and perhaps, the de-emphasis upon the devotional life in the years after the Council, has placed too great a burden on the liturgy. A more healthy vision of the relationship between liturgy and subject is evidence in the liturgical spirituality of Hildegaard of Bingen or Gertrude of Helfta. Such spirituality is always personal, always an act of encounter, always moving of the affections, yet simultaneously grounded in the Eucharistic vision of the Church herself.
Perhaps from the side of civilization, it is cultivating the virtue of solidarity that may enable a more robust form of Eucharistic worship. The present political atmosphere in the United States is evidence of a culture devoid of solidarity. The “other” is always the enemy, and the enemy is always the “other.” Rather than see the particular humanity of the neighbor as gift, everything that makes the neighbor “not me” must be expelled from the body politic.
In such a cultural milieu, the Eucharistic life of the Church makes no sense; or it must be performed in a society of the like-minded, a kind of contemporary Donatism that one finds endemic in both conservatives and liberals. If we work to re-build a sense of neighborliness, of care of the local body politic, our Eucharistic worship will contribute to a form of human flourishing that is not simply about authentic subjectivity. But, rather, a liturgical humanism in which the very practice of giving part of ourselves over to the parish, to the Church, to the Christ hidden in the life of the poor, will restore the cosmos to its original sacramental state.
In other words, the search is no longer to be an authentic worshipper. Rather, it is to worship and to discover all along an authenticity that was impossible to perceive before: that I was created in the image and likeness of God to be in communion with the triune God and the created order. Not to subsist unto myself.
Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a Concurrent Associate Professional Specialist, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love.