Remembering Aidan Kavanagh

(This is Neil.) I’m happy to see that my post on discipleship as a craft has gotten some undeserved attention (see this very interesting thread at Intentional Disciples and Todd’s post below). After rereading my post, I’d like to clarify two things. First, the craft of discipleship is not necessarily learnt in an easy and comfortable process, and can even be characterized as an inner struggle. Second, it shouldn’t be imagined as a scheme for self-improvement, but rather a more comprehensive and radical acceptance of the “mind of Christ.”

That said, I was interested to see that Todd very aptly mentioned the name of the late Benedictine liturgist Fr Aidan Kavanagh in his post. Fr Kavanagh passed away last year. In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ obituary (Kavanagh was a monk of St Meinrad’s Archabbey), we read:

The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Directors honored him with its Frederick R. McManus Award, noting that he “showed us how to use liturgy’s rhythm to help us stand awestruck in the presence of God.”

The Anglican Theological Review described Father Kavanagh as “perhaps the single most significant figure in American Catholic liturgiology in the last 50 years.”

A longer obituary from Yale Divinity School is here.

I wonder, though, if a significant number of people first encountered Fr Kavanagh in Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, where he is mentioned in the entry for “orthodoxy.” Norris happened to come across Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology in the study of a house in a small town in North Dakota where she happened to be staying during an artist-in-schools residency. In Fr Kavanagh’s lectures, she says, “I encountered an ancient tradition of the Christian church, lex orandi, lex credendi, which translates into a truth that seems radical in our own suspicious, divisive, and narrow-minded age, that ‘orthodoxy first means right worship, and only secondarily doctrinal orthodoxy.’” At first, this might sound rather slippery. But Norris then meditates,

Much of the exasperation with what people term “organized religion” comes from the fact that the Christian church has often given so much weight to doctrinal accuracy that the life-giving potential of worship, and faith itself, gets lost in the shuffle, made all but inaccessible to the skeptical multitudes. The poet Jonathan Holden epitomized a common attitude when he stated in The American Poetry Review that because ‘religion doctrine delivers us an already discovered, accepted, codified system of values – official truth,’ a truth that he defines as ‘static,’ it can never attain the authenticity of a well-made work of art.

Norris does not mean to devalue doctrine at all, but wishes to warn us of the loss that we suffer when it becomes abstracted from life and artificially standardized. The notion of “orthodoxy” as “correct doctrine,” Fr Kavanagh said, occurred amidst the anxieties of the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth century, when Christians had to construct distinct and impregnable identities. And then, unfortunately, it became much easier to imagine religion as nothing more than a set of “static” and “already discovered” truths. As Norris, herself a poet, writes, “Theology moved from the mouth, ear, and breath onto the page. Words set in stone, as it were, that had the unintended effect of fossilizing doctrines that were meant to be lived and breathed.”

So, perhaps we should take care to remember Fr Kavanagh’s words that Todd quoted:

For in Catholic tradition at its best, faith is not a creedal confession that gives rise to certain forms of life. Faith is, rather, a definite way of life in common that generates creedal confessions not as surrogates for but as symptoms of its vitality. In this sense, the Church is neither a religion nor a denomination. It is simply the way a re-created world coheres in constant praise and adoration of the one who is its source.

Finally, I would like to excerpt from an article written by Jeannete Cezanne on her teacher, the late Fr Kavanagh, from the online version of the current Notre Dame Magazine (this was actually meant to be the point of the post):

On a very sunny Sunday afternoon this past October, I was back in New Haven, more than 20 years after graduating from the Yale Divinity School. I wasn’t back for a reunion — I’ve never quite gotten the point of those — but rather for a memorial service.

The world became smaller this year: Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, is no longer in it.

Perhaps the single most significant figure in American Catholic liturgiology, Aidan Kavanagh founded the doctoral program in liturgical studies at Notre Dame and went on to become professor of liturgics at Yale University and acting dean, at different times, of both the Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. His texts on liturgy, on rites of initiation and on liturgical theology remain among the finest and most clearly articulated descriptions and analyses of the community of faith transacting its business and life before its God.

“To know Christ only in terms of bread and wine can be to know him only in the dining room as guest and host,” he wrote in 1978, of the need to celebrate both Baptism and Eucharist. “It is a valid enough knowledge. But it is inevitably partial and perhaps too civil — easily layered over with a brittle etiquette soon rendered obsolete when cultures change. It is a knowledge prone less to robustness than to niceness, reducing Eucharist to a sort of ecumenical high tea. The Lord as guest is readily sentimentalized. The Lord as host is readily transformed into an indulgent therapist of whatever lusts are monetarily ours. This produces arrogance in the young, depression among the old, and apostasy for the Church.”

Born in Mexia, Texas, on April 20, 1929, Aidan Kavanagh attended school in Waco and went on to study at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, and at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. He was invested as a Benedictine novice at Saint Meinrad, took his simple vows, and by 1957 had been ordained to the priesthood. His licentiate in sacred theology was received from the University of Ottawa in 1958 and his doctorate in sacred theology from the University of Trier (Germany) in 1964.

In the 1960s, Kavanagh taught courses in liturgy at the Saint Meinrad School of Theology before going on to Notre Dame to direct the graduate liturgical studies program in 1966. He went to Yale in 1974 where he remained until his retirement. At age 77, he died at his home following a long illness, and a funeral Mass was held on July 14, 2006, in the church at the Saint Meinrad Archabbey, with burial in the Archabbey cemetery following the Mass.


He was equally unequivocal about the world: “Genesis says,” he wrote in the seminal On Liturgical Theology, “that we began in a swamp teeming with life, but that something went vastly wrong one evening at dinner. Apocalypse says that the difficult was finally resolved into something called the Banquet of the Lamb. Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear. Suburbia prefers its meat wrapped in plastic, all signs of violence removed so as to reduce the necessity of entering into the dark and murderous transaction with reality which one creature giving up its life for another entails.”

Kavanagh never advised leaving the development of liturgical rites to either the academic elite or church leaders. He posited, instead, that it is the interaction of Christians with the world that creates a liturgy reflecting and sustaining meaning within the chaos of human existence. In The Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style, he rejected carpeted churches, the clericalization of the liturgy, and disorder and last-minute makeshift; he applauded finding serviceable places for altar and font and leaving them there, making the lectern a place for reading not in competition with the altar, and designing liturgical things for the assembly’s purpose.

In 1994, as he prepared to retire, Kavanagh wrote of what he had himself learned: “The World is not without its follies, some of them lethal; academics are not immaculately conceived; religiosity is a form of immaturity that is rarely innocent; do not argue in footnotes; dress for dinner; use adjectives only as a last resort; don’t take theology too seriously; listen hard to Mrs. Murphy; bean sprouts and tofu are overrated; respect authority and keep your vows; things you can afford are usually not worth it; tradition and language don’t mean much unless you master them; grow up; love God, honor the Church, suffer bishops; stay off television; read the New York Times only for its comics . . . do something politically incorrect every day to stay in shape for the Eschaton.”

The last rays of the sun were touching Marquand Chapel as Palestrina’s Sicut cervus was sung by a small ensemble of present-day divinity students. Sicut cervas desiderat as fonts aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus. Aidan Kavanagh’s soul was eternally aspiring to God while he was on earth, but his feet and his being were firmly rooted in the clay and air and water of God’s earth, experienced through the work — the liturgy — of the gathered community of faith.

And now that he is no longer in it, the world is indeed a smaller place.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Remembering Aidan Kavanagh

  1. Steve P in Madison, Wis. says:

    I’ve only found your blog entry tonight, on the eve of Fr Aidan’s year’s mind. I was privileged to study closely with him at Yale, and he became one of the handful of most significant people in my life. Your note, and the people you quote, capture him very well. Thank you for the tribute!

  2. I am surprised to find my cousin is so famous.

  3. Pingback: Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style by Aidan Kavanagh | Lay Reader's Book Reviews

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