Almost any parishioner can tell you the Catholic Church has a liturgical crisis. What many don’t know is that the liturgical crisis itself is old news, and maybe the solution is too.
Typical popular narratives treat the liturgical crisis as strictly a post-Vatican II phenomenon related to liturgical innovations from the 1960s. Two popular stories around these innovations vie for attention. The first claims that the changes in worship achieved the Council’s goal of increasing full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy. According to this narrative, the liturgical crisis is that the reforms have not gone far enough. The liturgy still retains a shred of patriarchal clericalism that irks enlightened parishioners. The second narrative claims that innovations (at least those not directly called for by the Council) unsurprisingly and unfortunately involve at times a confusion of roles, a watering down of symbolic richness, and a forgetfulness of what symbols remained. These innovations have in places rendered the inspiring insipid. Little surprise should be expected, therefore, when seminaries and pews lie empty. The innovations amounted to a loss of the Church’s mother tongue. (I mean more than just Latin, here.) The generations that followed Vatican II forgot how to speak the language of the liturgy…sign language.
Romano Guardini, in his early 20th-c. work, Sacred Signs, provides a solution to the liturgical crisis and the desire for renewal expressed by the Popes of his own era. For just a moment, put aside–if you would be so kind–the solutions suggesting more change or less change. Instead, consider the possibility that it is the worshiper rather than the liturgy that ought to change.
True liturgical renewal calls the worshiper to remember the forgotten language of the sign, to recall the union of the body and soul. In Guardini’s words, “what does help is to discern in the living liturgy what underlies the visible sign, to discover the soul from the body, the hidden spiritual from the external and material” (intro). “For it is not liturgical scholarship that is needed,–though the two things are not separable,–but liturgical education. We need to be shown how, or by some means incited, to see and feel and make the sacred signs ourselves” (intro). Guardini hopes to draw the distinction between these modes of understanding: knowledge about liturgy, and knowledge of or in the liturgy. In athletic terms, liturgical renewal requires a kind of “muscle memory” for the soul.
To learn the liturgy requires not the sprinkling of meaning onto strange, alien signs, but rather a spurring forth into bodily expression the real state of the soul in a moment of worship. As Guardini suggests, we should “start off in the simplest way with the elements out of which the higher liturgical forms have been constructed. Whatever in human nature responds to these elementary signs should be fanned into life” (intro). Central to his insight is the notion that something in human nature responds to the elementary liturgical signs; their meaning, that is, corresponds to some fundamental orientations of the human soul united to and expressed in the human body.
As my efforts will pale in comparison to this master’s, I will allow him to speak for himself. Consider with Guardini the meaning of “hands.”
Every part of the body is an expressive instrument of the soul. The soul does not inhabit the body as a man inhabits a house. It lives and works in each member, each fiber, and reveals itself in the body’s every line, contour and movement. But the soul’s chief instruments and clearest mirrors are the face and hands.
Of the face this is obviously true. But if you will watch other people (or yourself), you will notice how instantly every slightest feeling,–pleasure, surprise, suspense,–shows in the hand. A quick lifting of the hand or a flicker of the fingers say far more than words. By comparison with a language so natural and expressive the spoken word is clumsy. Next to the face, the part of the body fullest of mind is the hand. It is a hard strong tool for work, a ready weapon of attack and defense,–but also, with its delicate structure and network of innumerable nerves, it is adaptable, flexible, and highly sensitive. It is a skilful workmanlike contrivance for the soul to make herself known by. It is also an organ of receptivity for matter from outside ourselves. For when we clasp the extended hand of a stranger are we not receiving from a foreign source the confidence, pleasure, sympathy or sorrow that his hand conveys?
So it could not be that in prayer, where the soul has so much to say to, so much to learn from, God, where she gives herself to him and receives him to herself, the hand should take on expressive forms.
When we enter into ourselves and the soul is alone with God, our hands closely interlock, finger clasped in finger, in a gesture of compression and control. It is as if we would prevent the inner current from escaping by conducting it from hand to hand and so back again to God who is within us, holding it there. It is as if we were collecting all our forces in order to keep guard over the hidden God, so that he who is mine and I who am his should be left alone together…
But when we stand in God’s presence in heart-felt reverence and humility, the open hands are laid together palm against palm in sign of steadfast subjection and obedient homage…it may be a sign of inner surrender. These hands, our weapons of defense, are laid, as it were, tied and bound together between the hands of God.
In moments of jubilant thanksgiving when the soul is entirely open to God with every reserve done away with and every passage of its instrument unstopped, and it flows at the full outwards and upwards, then the hands are uplifted and spread apart with the palms up to let the river of the spirit stream out unhindered and to receive in turn the water for which it thirsts. So too when we long for God and cry out to him…
There is greatness and beauty in this language of the hands. The Church tells us that God has given us our hands in order that we may “carry our souls” in them. The Church is fully in earnest in the use she makes of the language of gesture. She speaks through it her inmost mind, and God gives ear to this mode of speaking. (14-15)
There it is. Doubtless you will never fold your hands the same way again. May we all “carry our souls” in our hands. Where are your hands right now? Where is your soul? Let the liturgical education begin.