Liturgical Study Club 2016

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.


  1. Is this related to the distinction made between God’s eternity (timeless) and our sempiternity (perpetuity of time)?

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Thanks–I think you’re referring to Augustine regarding eternity and human time. I believe part of the point Augustine is making is the difference between God’s eternal nature–which doesn’t change–and human’s lack of constancy in temporal time (see, e.g., Book XI, 13).

  2. Nice. I’m reading Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music, and Time and wondering if these threads might ultimately connect to what you are discussing here. Good luck with the project!

  3. Speaking of space and time as an either/or reminded me of last week’s announcement of the detection of gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime caused by colliding black holes 1.5 billion years ago that passed through earth last September. Given that physics has for some time understood space and time as one thing, originating in the moment of the Big Bang, I find it fascinating to contemplate what that means for how we understand things like worship and prayer, as well as the images and words we use to describe them. For instance, the seventh day is no longer only a measurement of time. It is also 26 billion kilometers in every direction that the universe (space itself) has expanded. And if gravitational waves have passed through, then time and space itself has contracted and expanded during that day. Holy time is holy space and holy space is holy time? I sense deep Mystery that must be explored as we come to deeper and deeper understanding of what God has made.

    1. @Fr. Lou Meiman:

      ” And if gravitational waves have passed through, then time and space itself has contracted and expanded during that day. “

      In other words, this entire universe is but a series of heartbeats, as God’s heart contracts and expands. And if one heartbeat lasts 1.5 billion years, imagine the length of a day of heartbeats, and the size of the body that contains that heart.

      Macro—micro. The immensity of God and the smallness of me. Wow!

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        And if one heartbeat lasts 1.5 billion years

        Technically speaking, the heartbeat lasted a fraction of a second, it just took 1.5 billion years to get to us. But it was a truly powerful heartbeat to be detectable at such a distance, and yet required the finest-tuned “ears” to be detected. So the theme of immensity and smallness is still to be found here. I even see in this discovery an analogy of the immensity of God and yet how easy it is to overlook Him.

  4. Heschel would seem to see time as being punctuated by sacred events which are then memorialized in a space made holy by this very act. Time is redeemed–sanctified– through memorialization.

    For Augustine, God’s Eternity is outside of time. Time ‘is a human invention’ to the extent that our categories of time rest upon concepts which are themselves changeable.

    Perhaps for Christians, the Liturgy enacts the breaking in of Eternity to temporality. Our Liturgy is not a memorialization of a past event: it is the bodying forth in the present passing time of an Eternal event of redemption. In human terms it is a past event made present in truth and power that yet promises a future free of the depredations of time.

    I’m probably in over my head here…

  5. Mr. Armbruster, in the Byzantine East, there is no question that with the invocation at the beginning of the Liturgy of our holy Father John Chrysostom (i.e., “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages.”) Kairos intersects Chronos–time is touched by eternity. You have verbalized it exceedingly well, with no “perhaps” about it. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *