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The Spirit of the Liturgy, Part One: Mental Exertion

By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 17, 2016 | In The Liturgical Year

This Lent I joined Leila Lawler in reading of The Spirit of the Liturgy by Romano Guardini. Although I haven't been able to keep up with the discussions, I've been reading on my own, hoping to find some time to share my thoughts. I'm looking forward to reading together the next book of the same title by Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. Leila has just announced the beginning of the new study.

What is this book about? I won’t even attempt a summary because Pope Benedict XVI has a perfect one in his Preface of his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy:

This slim volume may rightly be said to have inaugurated the Liturgical Movement in Germany. Its contribution was decisive. It helped us to rediscover the liturgy in all its beauty, hidden wealth, and time-transcending grandeur, to see it as the animating center of the Church, the very center of Christian life. It led to a striving for a celebration of the liturgy that would be “more substantial” (wesentlicher, one of Guardini’s favorite words). We were now willing to see the liturgy—in its inner demands and form—as the prayer of the Church, a prayer moved and guided by the Holy Spirit himself, a prayer in which Christ unceasingly becomes contemporary with us, enters into our lives (Preface, Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy).

I admit that at times it was difficult reading, not necessarily for the content matter but trying to enter into the book during my swirling family life. "Life goes on" and at times it can be quite difficult to extricate quiet time to read and ponder. After making the effort, I found the book rich and rewarding, providing me with so much food for thought. I'll keep my observations to two points that directly relate to life in the domestic church and the Liturgical Year in two parts. Part One will be on our work and the liturgy and Part Two discusses the balance of Liturgy and popular piety.

Mental Exertion

The Spirit of the Liturgy has been on my "to read" list for years. As a wife and mother I try to make the effort to understand the "why" behind the liturgy of the Church, and how it applies to me and my family. The family is the church in miniature or the domestic church, and "parents...are the first heralds of faith to their children" (Lumen Gentium, 11). The majority of our family's faith life reflects or corresponds to the Liturgical Year. At times the liturgy is brought home and prayed, such as the Divine Office. And so what I learn about Her liturgy can bring our domestic church more closely united to the Church.

The Liturgy is the universal prayer of the Church. We are all called to deepen our understanding thereby enriching our participation in the Liturgy, whether we be laity or otherwise. In Chapter 3, "The Style of the Liturgy,” Guardini speaks of this very need. He states that modern man views the Liturgy as formal and non-reflective of his personal needs of his inner life. But that isn’t a weakness of the Liturgy, but rather the worshipper. Guardini's response to this view is one of my favorite lines in the whole book (which is why I'm highlighting it): 

Liturgical formulas, unlike the language of a person who is spiritually congenial, are not to be grasped straightway without any further mental exertion on the listener's part; liturgical actions have not the same direct appeal as, say, the involuntary movement of understanding on the part of someone who is sympathetic by reason of circumstances and disposition; the emotional impulses of the liturgy do not so readily find an echo as does the spontaneous utterance of the soul...

It’s easier to turn to personal prayer than to sort through the the meaning of the liturgy and how it applies personally.

”Liturgical formulas…are not to be grasped straightway without any further mental exertion on the listener's part.” I’m going to stretch this line a bit, but I think this can be the basic response to the common criticism of "I'm bored at Mass" or "I don't get anything out of Mass." Liturgy requires work to get at the heart of the matter. We can't just be passive attendees and expect everything to leap off the pages of the missal and hit home in our hearts or make us “feel good.” I think Guardini implies that “mental exertion” is required for all of us, no matter what our state in life, which means even this wife and mother can benefit reading deeper on the liturgy. Taking his quote a little further, I do think "mental exertion" is part of this "active participation" so often discussed since the beginning of the Liturgical Movement.

I've been involved in several conversations where a person was complaining about the updated Roman Missal translation from 2011. "Why are these stilted and complicated words and phrasing used?" The answer is precise language is chosen for the translation, matching more closely with the original Latin, using words such as “consubstantial” in the Creed and “adoption” during the Easter Vigil. The language might seem more formal and require more “mental exertion” to understand, but the Liturgy requires specific language for expression. The burden is upon us to go deeper to grasp the meaning.

With Guardini’s direction, reading about the Liturgy (including this book) is part of my personal work to entering more deeply into the Liturgy. And because we are humans dealing with divine matters, we have much to grasp — in fact, the amount is limitless.

…[T]he liturgy is our teacher. It condenses into prayer the entire body of religious truth. Indeed, it is nothing else but truth expressed in terms of prayer…. It is only such an overwhelming abundance of truth which can never pall, but continue to be, day after day, all things to all men, ever fresh and inexhaustible.

There are many remote and proximate preparations for the Liturgy for the entire family, all of us applying "mental exertion" to grasp the liturgical formulas. There are various ways we can do this, individually, or together in our domestic church. We can pre-read the Mass readings and propers. We can listen to or read liturgical commentary, and follow along the Liturgical Year with the whole Church. There can be reading and studying of matters on the liturgy, such as this book by Guardini. And then there is the actual praying with and meditating on the actual liturgy.

It will take a resolution of applying mental exertion for enhancing our appreciation of the Liturgy -- but the riches are infinite.

Next: Part Two, discussing the balance of Liturgy and Popular Piety.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is a wife, mother, homemaker, CGS catechist, and Montessori teacher. Specializing in living the liturgical year, or liturgical living, she is the primary developer of’s liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 19, 2016 2:24 PM ET USA

    When I substitute teach the junior high and high school CCD classes, I exhort the students to follow the Mass on the English side of their missal. I tell them that I have been doing this for the last 20 years, and that I did it when I was their age. Even after 20+ years of contemplation on the mysteries of the Mass that are revealed in the missal, I still learn something new about the faith on almost a regular basis. The Mass recounts worship from the beginning and adds Christ to perfect it.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Apr. 18, 2016 6:17 AM ET USA

    I needed to hear this. Thank you!