Danneels on Liturgy: Understanding

We’ve been looking at America’s coverage of Cardinal Danneels lecture at Boston College in April this past Spring. Skipping ahead a bit in his talk, I’d like to explore a bit of the cardinal’s assessment of “understanding.”

He asks:

What exactly is understanding? It is evident that if the liturgy is the epiphany of God’s dealings with his Church then the deepest core or heart of the liturgy will never completely be open to our grasp. There is indeed a hard core in the liturgy–the mystery–which is ungraspable. One can only enter into it in faith.

This should go without saying: that in the language of God (accepting the principles that in liturgy, we join in Christ’s prayer to the Father, we do not make something entirely our own) there are some things we simply will never understand.

I like the cardinal’s suggestion in the following section:

Our contemporaries often conceive understanding as the ability to grasp at first hearing. Something is understandable if we can grasp it immediately.

Where the depths of human–and divine–reality are concerned this approach does not work. Love, death, joy, solidarity, knowledge of God, can never be grasped at once and on first inspection. In these cases, understanding is more a question of the biblical notion of “knowing-penetrating.” It is a lengthy and progressive process of becoming familiar with a particular reality. The same is true for the liturgy. It is not an object of knowledge in the commonplace sense of the word. It is not an object of knowledge at all, rather it is a source of knowledge, a source of understanding. This is why analysis is out of place here, only a prolonged listening and familiarization is appropriate.

Liturgy, then, is not the object deserving of our penetrating intellect. If it is the source of knowledge and understanding, whom or what are we understanding?

I might suggest we are seeking knowledge of God. Perhaps at times, we are seeking self-knowledge or awareness. One example pops into mind, that of grieving loved ones at the funeral. If one expects the liturgy to function as an emotional salve, then Christian burial rites will be conducted in a certain way: favorite music, comfortable remembrances of the deceased, family participation.

If, however, the funeral readings, music, and prayers are allowed to be the source of knowledge (as opposed to a eulogist) then we are open to the knowledge of God’s relationship with the deceased. And with us, too. That might indeed be a source of comfort, but it strikes me as a more mature expectation to permit the liturgy to do its task.

Cardinal Danneels continues to say that the liturgy will only have meaning for those who approach it in faith.

Many changes in the liturgy in order to make it understandable have been inefficient because they focused on the immediate, cognitive, informative aspect of understanding. They wanted to explain everything, to provide commentary, to analyze. They never lead to familiarity with the liturgy. They are surgical and medical interventions (abbreviating, replacing, scrapping, describing) on a dying reality, a sort of palliative care which can never heal the sick individual. The only approach is the “dialogical” approach: allowing the liturgy time to say what it has to say; listening attentively to its harmonics and allowing its deeper meaning to unfold; not looking for an alternative but letting the liturgy speak for itself and expose its own virtualities.

I prefer a lectio approach to the liturgy–which is what the cardinal describes here. Naturally, the demand on liturgists is greater. We must provide the silence and space for reflection within the liturgy. Outside of the liturgy, we must also provide the formation so that people can approach the liturgy with more mature expectations.

Any thoughts?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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