Lessons for Catholic higher education from the Sacra Liturgia 2013 gathering in Rome
Here are my initial thoughts on Sacra Liturgia 2013 in Rome, which was for me an inspiring conference on the importance of liturgy in Catholic life. Here I give some general reactions on what I heard and its impact particularly on Catholic education. I will follow up with a number of shorter articles. Some will illustrate more what I say here, and others will just offer little lessons learnt aside from this broad theme. I should say that I offer my thoughts here as one who in this scenario is a student who hopes he has learnt well from the greater authorities who spoke (and not as authority giving a critique on the speakers).
In his book The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (which I have written about in more detail here), Jean Leclerq describes a tension that existed in medieval education. In very simple terms it was between those who rely strongly on the literary culture and the beauty of literary forms to communicate the truths of the Faith on the one hand; and those who rely more on a precise technical language of logic to do so on the other. The first would be from the monastic schools and St Bernard would be the figurehead; the second is the ‘scholastic’ approach of the ‘schoolsmen’ exemplified by St Thomas. From experience of Catholic education at the college level in the US, this tension still exists today and it is played out especially in the Catholic colleges that offer Great Books programs. Usually the debate is one over the content of the curriculum and the value of literature in the communication of the truths of the Faith relative to, for example, Thomistic philosophy and theology.
In contemplating all of what I heard at Sacra Liturgia 2013 what struck me is that sense of Sacred Liturgy that they were describing offered the means by which these two approaches can be reconciled. While educational institutions, in their discussion of curricula tend to talk about the right formation of the person, the emphasis here was on transformation. Speaker after speaker made the point that man is made to worship God and through right worship in the Sacred Liturgy he is transformed, partaking of the divine nature. This is a real transformation. It will be realised fully at the end of our lives, we hope, when our current pilgrimage is over. But by degrees it is happening now to the degree that we participate actively (properly ordered in spirit) in the Sacred Liturgy. United to the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church, we are shining with the divine light of His Transifiguration, and are part of his sanctifying presence on earth. To the degree that we conform, the grace with which we do anything, mundane or sacred, radiates the beauty of God and calls people to it, and then beyond to the source of that Beauty.
Sacred liturgy is the worship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit and this is how we love God most profoundly. It is the purpose of life – the summit to which our lives point – and the most powerful source of grace that will help us to get there.
The variety of value of the fruit of the lifturgical life for ‘homo liturgicus‘ – liturgical man – was astounding. We were told that sacred liturgy both evangelises and makes evangelists of us; it is a school of love that perfects our social relations and our family life and by this society as whole. Accordingly, where there is concern for sacred liturgy there is also concern for the poor. This school of love deepens our faith that is reflected in ‘intelligence of the heart’ that is a knowing of things in the fullest way, in love. It gives us wisdom, it stimulates the undercreative and forms the creative; and cleanses us so that we have ‘mental hygiene’ and an inner peace. This peace is so profound that it that allows us to enjoy solitude without loneliness. It catechises the ignorant and evangelises the faithless and provides an answer to our deep need to know the meaning of life.
How does this impact education? Well first of all, I think that any Catholic colleges that listed the above as the fruits of their particular brand of education on their website homepage would never struggle to fill places (if it was believed). So isn’t the answer then to identify the ‘Catholic’ part of a Catholic education one primarily concerned with an education in the liturgy? I think that the answer is ‘yes’, but with one very important caveat.
As speakers listed the fruits of Sacred Liturgy they emphasised also that we cannot instrumentalise the liturgy. In other words, as soon as these benefits become the primary goal, supplanting the worship of God as our purpose, we do the liturgy ‘violent’ injury and, presumably, the fruits are not realised either. Bishop Sample of Portland, Oregon put it as follows : ‘Liturgy is not a means to pedagogy or evangelisation although these are the fruits.’
It seems to me that Catholic education is directed towards deepening our active participation in the liturgy. Our speakers told us that this is possible. Most of their discussion, given the audience at this conference was directed at the education of priests in their celebration of the Mass and the liturgy. Nevertheless, the same principle could as easily be applied to lay people in accordance with their particular vocation I think.
I suggest that if a teacher or a school cannot justify a subject placed on the curriculum by virtue of what it contributes to this liturgical end then there is no purpose to teaching it all. Furthermore, such a college cannot really legitimately call itself Catholic. Every student should understand clearly why they are learning what is taught, again with reference to the liturgy. For Sacred Liturgy is the summit of all that we do. If our formation directs people to the Sacred Liturgy in the right spirit making the worship of God the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit the central focus of all that we do, then the fruits will ensue, as God chooses to bestow them and to the degree that each person cooperates with God’s grace. This last part can never be controlled by any institution, of course. We can simply help by shining a light on the path of pilgrimage.
All of human activity and culture – all of it – can, potentially, be imbued with the grace that derives from this liturgical spirit and our work will through its beauty direct those who see it to God. The wider culture is not as some suppose, we were told, there to lead us to High Culture, but rather to instill in us a liturgical instinct that stimulates our sensitivity to liturgical forms – a ‘liturgical high culture’. Fr Paul Gunter OSB recommended that a liturgical education therefore, should aim to develop an understanding of beauty through the study of art, music, architecture and literature, so that it would stimulate our ‘liturgical instincts’ and enable us to pass on these traditions and place each in a theological context. Various books were recommended (and I will talk of these in later pieces) but along with the official Church documents about liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy was highlighted by Fr Gunter as a key text.
The liturgical instinct is caught as much as taught, Dom Alcuin Read told us, and so as well as teaching about it, participation in it teaches us. Above all the liturgical life is lived. It seemed to me, therefore, that on every campus there should be the opportunity of participation in beautiful sacred liturgy and this means the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours (we were told that the norm for both is that they should be sung). Eucharistic adoration should be encouraged and all private devotions and prayer should be understood as being derived from and pointing to the liturgy. I feel as a teacher, that while it is probably not right, beyond the requirement of teaching exercises to oblige attendance, there should be a constant invitation to be part of Sacred Liturgy by having Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours sung constantly. Here the example of participation by the faculty is an important part of that encouragement, I suggest.
While part of me would love to encourage everybody to come to Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, where I work in New Hampshire, not all people, I admit, are meant to study Great Books programs for four years. Some do not have the academic ability and others will specialise in other less literary subjects, such as science.
It occurs to me also, that this view of the liturgy helps us to see how the Catholic education of vocational subjects that are not normally considered intrinsically Catholic might happen. Generally any discussions about being a Catholic doctor or nurse, for example, tend to focus on not much more than teaching the subjects as you would anywhere else with the restriction (as it might appear to some) of subjecting to Catholic morality. For liturgical man, all work or study, if it is worth doing can always be justified in the context of how it aids the person in his love for God, in the context of worship. For those who personal vocation it is to be, for example, an engineer, this will be a development of the mind and the directing of actions that contribute to the common good. As such they are activities in love that are particularly suited to that person so that they deepen his relationship with God and therefore his participation in sacred liturgy. The Catholic education of these things teaches him about the liturgy and its relationship to culture and then he will see the place of his personal vocation within that panorama. So alongside his studies there will be an education in liturgy and one that communicates this all embracing liturgical view of culture. Once grasped, and again through the grace of God, the Catholic person – nurse, doctor, engineer, plumber, gardener, father, mother – will be more loving in their dealings with their fellows and, most importantly the worship of God.
What about the imagined battle between the monastic and the scholastics? The answer it seems to me is one pointed out by Leclerq and is affirmed by what I heard at the conference. Each person will have particular strengths and some will be more suited to one mode of learning than another. However, the underlying truth that is communicated is intrinsically neither literary nor scholastic but is one, good, beautiful and true by virtue of its existence. However, the truth that is communicated is only known fully through an intelligence of the heart. That is, it is known in love. It is participation in the liturgy that increases our capacity for this loving knowledge.