Catechesis Week #4

Last week we looked at the theme of how God sets the terms of our encounter with Him.  This week we will explore another - that formality is not a barrier to intimacy but rather the door to it! It must be asked, why would we ever see formality as an obstacle?  At least two answers can be given, one ancient and the other rather new.  The ancient is that our fallen nature (so vividly captured in the image of the arm outstretched towards the forbidden fruit) constantly tempts us to try and seize, rather than patiently wait and graciously receive.  It is just these latter dispositions which formality helps to protect and foster.  The second answer follows up the first but is more particular to our times.  Whereas man once tried to build a tower up to heaven, now he has turned to burrowing into protons and neutrons, subjecting everything to the criterion of empirical measurement and pronouncing the results to be the only indisputable reality.  It is ironic that with the increasing discovery of order in the physical universe, man rejected the parallel implication of an equally objective order regarding the soul, the moral law, and the purpose of life.  Instead, spurred on by increasing technological mastery and a desire for unfettered liberty, he could declare, in the words of one fateful Supreme Court decision (Planned Parenthood v. Casey) “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”   Not only has the forbidden fruit of complete self-determination proven deadly (as happens whenever one person’s fabricated universe is not welcoming of all others), but also exceedingly bitter.  Rather than fulfillment, there is emptiness; rather than passion, there is boredom.  Perhaps the most telling sign of the modern predicament is the tragically mounting suicide rate.  A 2013 cover article of Newsweek, treating of the modern suicide pandemic, could not help but notice “ accelerating paradox. Over the last five decades, millions of lives have been remade for the better. Yet within this brighter tomorrow, we suffer unprecedented despair. In a time defined by ever more social progress and astounding innovations, we have never been more burdened by sadness or more consumed by self-harm.” [1]  The paradox begins to dissolve, however, if one is willing to acknowledge a deep connection between the two statements quoted above, namely, between a new concept of liberty and unprecedented despair.

Yet what does this have to do with formality?  We can summarize this succinctly by saying that formality and ritual simultaneously protect and reveal that which is most important in life, especially that which cannot be disclosed by a simple scientific measurement or mathematical formula.  Let us survey the elements of ritual that have reigned across civilizations until just recently – the family meal, paternal blessings, elaborate dress tailored to each type of significant occasion, grand regalia at the court of the monarch, extended periods of romantic courtship, public and elaborate ceremonial for marriage, a sacred privacy regarding the incarnation of love in the conjugal act, and somber and solemn rituals for reckoning with death and honoring departed loved ones.  Not only are the classical elements of dress, manners, customs, and hierarchy part of what it means to be human, they also are the safeguard of meaning.  It is just this meaning at the heart of the world that defeats emptiness, boredom, and despair and fires the imagination with dreams of grandeur, romance, heroism, and victory because liberty finds an objective goal beyond itself that is every bit as real as the laws of physics.  There are great goods to be fought for and won.

While scientific advance and the prospect of unfettered liberty have made war with ritual, it has not succeeded, and likely never could, in wiping it out entirely. We still wrap presents instead of leaving them in the mailbox, and, as yet, the president is still sworn-in with a ceremony rather than tweeting his oath.  It is interesting to note that one of the greatest defenders of ritual in the secular world is one that deals with the serious business of fighting and dying, namely, the military.  Even in a context where efficiency is one of the sought-after goods, it must bow to a still higher good.  Combat training forms the mind and body for war.  Ritual training forms the soul for courage, patriotism, and nobility.      

Nonetheless, just as the sacred must be vigilantly protected from profanation, so too, it’s venerable guardians, ceremony and ritual, must be wary of degenerating into frivolity.  When a simple high school graduation is lauded with so much pomp and circumstance (literally!), it might be asked if the world has not simply transferred its allegiance from the putatively discredited realm of religion to the new myths of adult freedom and self-determination.  While there is certainly no problem with honoring significant events such as an educational achievement, when they come to be crowned with greater solemnity than the truly defining elements of life (as we are beginning to witness now) such as courtship, marriage, worship, and death, the question becomes more pressing. 

Christians may rightly reject the gradual dissolution of ritual or its transference to things less worthy of it, but no one is entirely immune to the influence of the present climate.  This is just one more facet of being human – everyone bears the stamp of the culture in which they have been formed.  There is yet one very important modern element that cannot but leave a deep impression - the technological revolution and all the social and psychological implications which follow in its wake.

Let us note just a new which can be easily observed.  As so-called “social networking” expands, circles of real flesh-and-blood friends grow thin.  The constant chatter of texting erodes the ability to hold meaningful, personal conversation.  Sound bites and tweets shrivel the attention span such that it must strain through a Sunday sermon.  Multi-national corporations and streamlined production mean that what could once only be bartered through a personal relationship is now tendered across the globe by parties that never meet each other.  Persons have simply become producers and consumers, and a handshake or word of honor is now an anonymous click on an end-user license agreement.  Excessive welfare encourages infantile dependence while State propaganda slowly levels a hierarchical universe into an egalitarian footpath of utopian progress.  Paparazzi, talk shows, and professional gossiping diminish a common respect for privacy.  The proliferation of actual news outlets offers the catharsis of privately commiserating from a living room with the suffering in every part of the world save for the neighbor’s house next door.  Courtship is seen as quaint and naive and yet perpetual fidelity is then reckoned to be impossible.  The price of transforming sex into a commodity is a pandemic spiritual impotency to make love.  Drama, passion, sorrow, and the other sinews of humanity are just as often experienced at the end of a remote control rather than with all the attendants (beginning with reality!) that history has normally accorded them, and which assist in the all-important work of soul-formation.  That was precisely the aspiration of the classic liberal arts – to form not just a power or faculty, but the soul, or whole man. 

Now, we adamantly defend the “intrinsic” value of our advancements but often fail to see how difficult it is to avoid their negative consequences.  Everyone likes the convenience of shopping on the internet and having items delivered right to their door.  Less enthused are those who must call technical support and find an unfamiliar voice from a foreign country responding.  Is it possible to have the cake and eat it too?   Regardless of which elements we may personally reject, the cumulative effect is that, as a society, we have been trained to want food fast, entertainment streaming on demand, clothing casual at best, and all things as efficient as possible.  Facebook, Twitter, and similar things have further accustomed us to having unreflective opinions, and even daily trivia, lauded by digital “likes”, and therefore tailored to affirm our spontaneous self-expression.  Is the self-portrait that is being offered back to us perhaps a bit distorted when virtual fans can so blithely impart their seal of approval to each of our activities before shuffling along to countless other cases undoubtedly awaiting review in their own respective social media feed?

The difficulty all of this raises, when we turn to the question of the liturgy, is serious.  What happens when we enter a world that demands reverence, patience, and inefficiency; that insists on privilege, privacy, and hierarchy; that subordinates spontaneous self-expression to formal and corporate acts?  Lastly, can we withstand the mirror that is held up for us which quickly cuts through all of our own self-delusion and carefully fabricated persona’s?  In light of this, we can perhaps understand a bit better our own knee-jerk reactions to formality and how we mistake it for an obstacle to intimacy.

Having looked at some of the obstacles to formality, next week we will explore more in depth the two-fold role of formality and ritual as it both protective and revelatory.

[1] Newsweek May 2013



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