Saturday, February 23, 2008

Human Flourishing and the Liturgy

The topic of this essay will be human flourishing and its relationship to the liturgy. It will be philosophical insofar as I will use certain insights gained from philosophy. It will be theological insofar as any discussion of the liturgy must take into account theology and Divine Revelation. I will begin by defining the term “human flourishing.” I will then examine it in terms of both philosophy and theology. Finally, I will try to use the concept of human flourishing to shed some light on the true purpose of the liturgy.

Let us first define what we mean when we speak of “human flourishing.” Something is said to flourish when it grows, thrives, and prospers. These words all imply life and action. But we do not say a thing flourishes when it performs just any action. Rather, we judge a thing's flourishing in terms of what it is, in terms of its form. Flourishing, then, is action in accord with a thing's form.

Now, the actions that are proper to a thing are actions that lead it to the attainment of its end. Formal cause is oriented towards final cause. Thus, we can say that a thing flourishes insofar as it is moved towards, and attains, its end. Applying this definition of flourishing to humanity, we come to see that “human flourishing” is another name for man's motion towards, and attainment of, his proper end.

However, this definition of human flourishing does us no good if we are unable to say what the proper end of man is. For the answer to this question I will turn to Aristotle, who tells us that happiness is what all men seek.[1] This answer certainly corresponds to reality. When you question any man on the reason for his actions, sooner or later he will tell you that his ultimate goal was to be happy.

Yet to say that human flourishing is equivalent to happiness has still shed very little light on the term. For when we question men on what happiness is, we find that we receive a variety of answers. After proving that happiness is not those things that it is most commonly thought to be, Aristotle spends the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics exploring what happiness is. He concludes that happiness is the activity of our highest part (the intellect), aiming at its highest object (the first cause).[2] In short, happiness is contemplating God.

Now, we can see that over the course of history men have used their reason to contemplate God under a variety of names: the Good, the One, the Prime Mover, Self-thinking Thought, etc. While we must admit that all these ideas of God have come with some admixture of error, we must also admit the truth of the words of St. Paul: “For the invisible things of [God], from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; [H]is eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.”[3]

But with the coming of God's Revelation, especially the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we see that perfect happiness is unattainable in this life. It is not just that it is difficult. It is not just that we are likely to make errors, even those of us who are great philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. Even with the fullness of Divine Revelation, even with the Church and the Sacraments, it is impossible for us to attain perfect happiness in this life. We know this by the words of Revelation itself: “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face.”[4]

This is not to say that our activities as philosophers and theologians are useless. By the use of right reason applied to nature we can know true things about God as the first cause of all beings, as well as many of His attributes. By the use of right reason applied to Divine Revelation we can better understand many things that God has revealed about Himself throughout Salvation History. Both activities can be used to explain and defend the truth of our faith, and to help others accept the grace that God offers them. And both philosophy and theology, when done out of love for He Who is Truth, can be sources of grace, which can help us attain our final end.

Now let us take our understanding of human flourishing and apply it to the liturgy. While it is true that we are unable to achieve total and complete happiness in this life, we come the closest to this perfect happiness when we properly participate in the liturgy. The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, called the liturgy “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed”.[5] It states, “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle”.[6]

The Second Vatican Council also called for “the faithful [to] take part [in the liturgy] fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”[7] It states, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.”[8] Finally, it says, “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else”.[9]

The question that has caused much division in the intervening years since the council has been the definition of “full and active participation” in the liturgy. To answer this question we should turn to those philosophical and theological tools that we have in our possession. At the same time, we should turn towards the tradition of the Church and to the Second Vatican Council itself. I will now attempt to do so.

Happiness is the activity of our intellect contemplating the best and highest truth, God, the first cause of all creation. Insofar as a taste of happiness is attainable in this life, it is attainable through contemplating God, as far as we can know Him through reason and Divine Revelation. Through the liturgy, we attain the best taste of the Heaven, the best taste of happiness. It seems to me that the clearest answer to the question of what constitutes full and active participation in the sacred liturgy is one word: contemplation. In the liturgy we can contemplate Him not just as He is knowable through His creation. Not even just as He is knowable through what He has revealed to us through Sacred Scripture. In the liturgy we can contemplate Him as He stands before us, in His flesh and in His blood, though they are veiled under the appearance of simple bread and wine. And since love proceeds from knowledge, it follows that through the liturgy we can love Him more.

This also seems to be the understanding of active participation that has been handed down by tradition. For example, in his 1947 encyclical letter Mediator Dei Pope Pius XII stressed the fact that “the chief element of divine worship must be interior.”[10] He went on to state, “It is an error, consequently, and a mistake to think of the sacred liturgy as merely the outward or visible part of divine worship or as an ornamental ceremonial.”[11] Finally, he continues by saying “that God cannot be honored worthily unless the mind and heart turn to Him in quest of the perfect life”.[12]

This is not to say that outward participation has no place in the liturgy. Earlier in this same encyclical, Pope Pius XII states, “The worship rendered by the Church to God must be, in its entirety, interior as well as exterior. It is exterior because the nature of man as a composite of body and soul requires it to be so.”[13] But our internal participation in the liturgy is more important than our external participation, since the latter without the former is worthless and condemnable.[14]

Moreover, this interpretation seems to be born out by Sacrosanctum Concilium itself. To see this one need only read the opening paragraph of the document. There it states, “It is of the essence of the Church that she be… eager to act and yet intent on contemplation”.[15] Further on in this paragraph it continues by saying that “action [is directed and subordinated to] contemplation”.[16]

Again, my point is not that we should eliminate outward participation. But my point is that we must be careful not to make outward participation our dominant understanding of active participation. The most important thing is for each and every person at the Mass to be able to inwardly orient himself towards the contemplation and worship of God.

In his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, delivered on December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI said that the years since the Second Vatican Council have seen two competing theories of interpretation. The first views the council as a breach with the Church’s tradition and interprets it as such, substituting what they think the council should have said for what its documents do say. The second interprets the council documents in light of the Church’s tradition, seeing the council as a continuation of the Church’s unfolding of the Deposit of Faith. Pope Benedict said that the first view was unacceptable, for it leaves us with two churches, one before the council and another after, rather than the single Church of Christ. Endorsing the second view, he called for the Church to understand the council within the continuity of its 2000-year history.[17]

This paper has been my attempt to follow the Pope’s call. As such, I have brought my knowledge and intelligence, however feeble they may be, to bear on an issue that is dear to my heart and important to the Church, the issue of the Divine Liturgy, of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In this, as in all things, I submit myself to the Holy Catholic Church, Mother and Teacher, and to the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

[1] Nicomachean Ethics, I, 4.

[2] Ibid., X, 7.

[3] Romans I, 20. (All Scripture quotations are from the Douay-Rheims.)

[4] I Corinthians XIII, 12.

[5] Vatican II, Sacrocsanctum Concilium, 10.

[6] Ibid., 8. The footnote to this passage references Apocalypse XXI, 2; Colossians III, 1; and Hebrews VIII, 2.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 24.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Ibid.,26.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Cf. Ibid. 24; Mark VII, 6; Isaias XXIX, 13.

[15] Vatican II, Sacrocsanctum Concilium, 1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Benedict XVI, Christmas greetings to the Members of the Roman Curia and Prelature.


Raindear said...

What a lovely reflection! The Aristotilian/Thomistic understanding of human flourishing gives such a rich perspective on the liturgy. It helped me articulate and understand the experience of a beautiful Mass, when one feels as though the soul sighs, resting in the End. Are you a fan of Josef Pieper?

brendon said...

Yes, I am a fan of Josef Pieper. It was his Happiness and Contemplation that helped me first truly understand happiness. I would have liked to work his writing into this paper, but time and length constraints prevented it. Still, the very idea behind what I have written was first formed thanks to his writing.