Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: On Liturgical Theology by Aidan Kavanagh

Liturgy. From 2007 until March of 2013 traditionalists talked of rite, form, liturgy, history, the people, the priest, and the deep inter-connectivity between all these elements of opus Dei. Reformers had the same conversation within their own circles in the early and mid-20th century. But what is rite or liturgy or the point of a priest? Why does liturgical tradition matter in the 21st century, a era in a faster and more rapid rate of motion than any previous period. Why care about liturgy? Aidan Kavanagh's On Liturgical Theology provides some answers.

On Liturgical Theology is a book version of two sets of lectures given by a Benedictine monk, Dom Aidan, in 1980 on "Liturgy and World" and in 1982 on "Liturgy and Theology." Those with even a passing knowledge of liturgy readily recall the now trite misquotation of St. Prosper of Aquitaine lex orandi lex credendi. The misquotation is not insignificant, in that the implied est creates a false equivalency between the two. The proper quotation, which Kavanagh applies at the opening epigraph of On Liturgical Theology, is ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi: " that the law of supplication might form the law of belief." This aphorism reflects the basis of a truly orthodox understanding of liturgy.

Orthodoxy, or orthodoxia, as a concept derives from the earliest Christian experiences with prayer. As one priest said succinctly, "the Christian is someone who prays." Orthodoxy is "true praise" or "straight worship." Worship for Kavanagh is the manifestation of God to His earthly people. God created the world and He saw that it was good, and the fall of Adam and Eve wounded the world rather than blacken it. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. One could similarly say, and St. Athanasius did, that man is charged with being an icon, an image, a lesser but definitive reflection of God. In a like way human society, most perfectly manifest in a city and not in a rural setting, is an icon of the heavenly kingdom of God. There is the City of Man and the City of God, one an imperfect image of the other. The liturgy makes God manifest in Presence, in spirit, in Word, and in the Sacraments to the City of Man, sanctifying it and bringing it closer to the City of God.

In the liturgy, Kavanagh argues, God operates in a worldly manner, using the language, ceremonies, gestures, and ideas of human societies to make Himself know to mankind. St. Prosper's aphorism is "a civil and worldly statement if ever there was one." Through the gradual assimilation of a structured liturgical praxis the various churches came to know God in light of their own cultures, contributing to the Church as large and learning from the other local churches. Kavanagh does not adduce this particular example, but the Grecian concept of logos fits his thesis well. Liturgy is structured and formal because it is a human endeavor, but it should have a strong enough internal force to it such that it brings the Christian to the brink of spiritual violence. And the liturgy is something that happens always and everywhere. "Where there is the bishop there is the Catholic Church," wrote St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. If the bishop's presence effects the Church's assembly then the bishop's presence effects Church liturgy. Those who formed the liturgical praxes of the Church understood the significance of the bishop and brought him throughout the various cities to celebrate the hours of prayer anywhere and everywhere on every day.

The celebration of the Eucharist was special, reserved to feasts and Sundays. The Mass, or Divine Liturgy, is both "Word and Liturgy" to Kavanagh. The "Word" is both Christ's Presence in His words and the actual words of scripture proclaimed to the City of Man in a powerful event. At one point in On Liturgical Theology Kavanagh laments the deleterious influence of printing on spirituality. The abecedarian experience of reading the Bible hardly matches the unique experience of a weekly proclamation of the Gospel or the use of the psalms throughout the Eucharistic celebration. In a twist of irony, the fundamentalist groups who insisted on sola scriptura devolved into oblivion while the more holistically minded descendants of the Apostles retained a moderate perspective on the place of Scripture in the Church.

Kavanagh, having established the purpose and use of the liturgy, then asks what is liturgical theology. It is not, contrariwise to instinct, a theological exposé on the various rites, usages, texts, and ceremonies celebrated abroad in the Church. It is theology done through the liturgy. It is theology done in motion, in worship, in the Presence of God. It is the primary theology of the Church. The more academic brand of theology—forming and testing proposition to create well worded doctrines—is a later and secondary kind of theology, import to say the least, but far from the center of the Christian's life. The primary theology forms the secondary theology, although the secondary theology can enrich the primary theology that is the liturgy.

Through the various forms of liturgy molded in the Holy Spirit and with human cooperation in art, in movement, in writing, and in rituals, people begin to understand and to know Who God is. In understanding God and standing in His Presence He sanctifies them, making people holier and raising them up and He rose on the third day, inaugurating the eighth day of creation, the "first and last day" in the last aeon of the earth. This is liturgical tradition. This is why the liturgy matters. The liturgy is not just a series of texts and movements about God, but rather it is of God. To change the liturgy is to change how people understand God, how they meet, Him, how they come to know Him, and how they relate to the previous inhabitants of the City of Man who have gone to their rest and moved on to the City of God (or the other place): "As Christians have traditionally understood it, their liturgy does not merely approach or reflect upon all this from without, nor does it merely circle this mystery from a distant orbit. Rather, Christians have traditionally understood their liturgical efforts to be somehow enacting the mystery itself, locking together its divine and human agents in a graced commerce, the effective symbol of which is that communion between God and our race rooted in the union of divine and human natures in Christ Jesus."

There is a very thinly dissimulated criticism of the Pope who began to change the Roman Church's liturgy by subverting it to secondary, academic theology and by unambiguously changing the Church's teaching on liturgy, and hence on everything else:
"To reverse [lex orandi lex credendi], subordinating the standard of worship to the standard of belief, makes a shambles of the dialectic of revelation. It was a Presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush, and what happened there was a revelation, not a seminar. It was a Presence, not faith, which drew the disciples to Jesus, and what happened was not an educational program but his revelation to them of himself as the long-promised Annointed One, the redeeming because reconciling Messiah-Christos. Their lives, like that of Moses, were changed radically by that encounter with a Presence which upended all their ordinary expectations. Their descendants in faith have been adjusting to that change ever since, drawn into assembly by that same Presence, finding there always the troublesome upset of change in their lives of faith to which they must adjust still. Here is where their lives are regularly being constituted and reconstituted under grace. Which is why lex supplicandi legem statuat credendi."
In his last chapter Kavanagh regards the Christian as an abnormally normal person, the person who is living a changed and restored life, a life renewed and put the way God wants it to be lived, coterminously the proper life and the life that most in the world do not want the Christian to life. Chastity is normal, but it is far from common. The grace to do this descends from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit—and by the liturgy.

The only criticism I can levy against this book is that On Liturgical Theology is almost entirely theoretical, laying down principles of how the Church does its primary theology through the liturgy and experiences God's Presence. This is inevitably the result of the initial lecture format of the chapters. One could see each chapter lasting about one hour and plus time for questions. Yet some of concepts, particularly on the ubiquity of the bishop and his relationship to the liturgy, could have been fleshed out in the historical record. One thinks, pertinently, of the ancient practice of the Pope celebrating the full Divine Office and Mass at a different parish church in Rome every single day of Lent.

"Like poetry and art," Kavanagh concludes, "liturgy provides us a means of knowing the kind of thing that can only be known transrationally; that cannot be analyzed, taken apart, spelled out and reassembled." The liturgy is what the Church does, what makes the Church orthodox, what gives it its place in the City of Man and the City of God. The liturgy is the Church's "service and mission of the life of the world."

On Liturgical Theology can be summarized in one line sung during Orthros (Mattins) in the Byzantine rite: "The Lord is God and has appeared to us, blessed is He Who comes in the name of the world." The Lord, the Jewish substitute for the fearsome named of Yahweh, denotes an actual person. That person is God, not a god, but God Who created heaven and earth and Who loves both. And He has come to us and "dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.... full of grace and truth." 


  1. Thank you for this review, this is fascinating. I'll definitely need to read the book at some point.

    I still wonder though about whether this concept of liturgical theology entails that the truths of faith are true because they are in the liturgy, or whether they are part of the liturgy because they are true. I can certainly see how Christians come to a greater supernatural knowledge of God - theology - by means of the liturgy. This knowledge is indeed superior to that knowledge which we gain through the secondary, scientific theologies - something I think even the scholastics, or some of them, would readily admit. Prayer, not analytical theology, is the primary means by which we not only express but are formed in faith, a supernatural virtue. In this way the law of prayer determines the law of faith. But I'm not sure this is the same as to say that what we believe is only true BECAUSE it is what we pray.

    I'll have to read the book. It sounds quite good, anyway.

    1. The truths of the faith are in the Liturgy precisely because they are true and so the Church, from its earliest days, has seen fit to make them present in prayer, to relive these truths in the Presence of God. "Truths" seem to be the essentials of the faith (what Christ did, what He commanded etc) and not doctrines, which, while important, are formulaic and academic expressions of the faith already held. Doctrines become necessary one could say when people do not understand something clearly enough in the Liturgy (although I think it unlikely) or when a controversy brews and needs to be resolved by some authoritative means.

    2. I think I can agree with that, for the most part. The distinction between doctrine and truth makes sense to some extent. But when it comes to particular examples - and I am thinking in particular of our discussion about Addai and Mari - what is the "truth" there that is prior to the liturgy and incorporated into the liturgy precisely because it is true? In the discussion we had, we hadn't resolved the question of whether the truth about the moment of consecration was determined by liturgical practice or vice versa. Certainly, there are various "doctrines" about the moment of consecration, but cannot doctrine be still a question of truth? Is not doctrine meant to be an expression of what is true?

      Moreover - this is perhaps an aside - it seems to me that we can't really limit "faith" to those truths which are contained in the liturgy - truths, indeed, which are the most important aspect of our faith, but not the only part. There are some things which are necessary to the faith but are not contained in the liturgy. I seem to have observed among certain Anglican or Eastern types a tendency to place such an emphasis on the liturgy and liturgical tradition that they forget or disregard other truths which are also necessary. The emphasis on liturgy is of course necessary, but it seems to me that "doctrine," insofar as it is the main means whereby non-liturgical truths are communicated, is also necessary - not just as a back-up plan for when people do not understand the liturgy, but because the liturgy does not contain all truths. The doctrinal approach seems necessary to me more on the level of principle than merely practice, even granted that it is inferior to the mystical experience of the liturgy.

      Anyway, I've picked up Kavanagh's book from the library at my school and have read snippets of it (hopefully I will find more spare time to sit down and read it more properly). I do like much of what he says and I hope to be able to find an answer to some of my questions in those pages. He noted that faith is consequent upon an experience with the source of faith, which is God - an expression which initially seemed to smack of the modernist "experiential" definition of faith, but which Kavanagh happily clarified by pointing out something to the effect that that faith does not originate in us, but starts from God who is already "out there" waiting for us. We do not invent our faith or even our way of worship, ultimately; rather God forms it in us and/or forms us in it. That is certainly not a modernist way of thinking.

      I'll have to read the book some more and reflect on these matters more deeply.

    3. Gracious, I can go on and on...

  2. There is yet another aspect of this question which bothers me... Some have complained, for example, of Pope Pius XII's Assumption propers, in which he evidently strove to express explicitly the doctrine of the Assumption. What exactly is the difference between incorporating the "truth" of the Assumption and the "doctrine" of the Assumption into the liturgy?