Four Levels of Liturgy


This week, the monks of St. John’s are having our week-long retreat, which is led by Abbot Matthew Leavy, former abbot of St. Anselm’s in Rhode Island. I share an interesting observation he made concerning liturgy.  He sees liturgy as having four levels.

The first level is the heavenly liturgy: all the angels and saints praise God eternally. (Abbot Matthew said he mentioned this to a Jesuit who replied that the notion of heaven being an eternal liturgy is the Jesuit’s idea of hell.)

The second level is the liturgy we have at our altars. All such liturgies are, of course, imperfect—some more than others, depending on who the “monster of ceremonies” is.

The third liturgical level is the liturgy of the heart. This, in my opinion, is where the circa-twelfth-century shift from patristic/monastic spirituality to mendicant spirituality (at least as the dominant perspective in the West) begins to come into play.  (And note that the attached image doesn’t try to account for anything beyond the first two liturgical levels.)  The patristic/monastic perspective regards liturgy and lectio divina as all of a piece and tends to want liturgy to have enough time and silence to allow one to dwell in the presence of the Word ever more profoundly.  Processions, extra- and para-liturgical devotions, liturgical music, and so on, all have their place.  But the patristic/monastic perspective is that the very words of the liturgy itself are an infinite treasury for meditation/contemplation.  If the energy and focus of a worshiping community seems to be on matters other than the liturgical texts—a procession, for example, or the virtuosic grandeur of the music—a profound, authentic celebration of the liturgy of the heart can be hindered rather than helped.

As a musicologist, I tend to focus on settings and performances of the ordinary of the Mass as an indication of whether the liturgy of the heart is encouraged. Settings and performances of the Gloria are particularly telling since the exuberance of the text makes it easy for a composer or performers to take the text as a mere point of departure rather than composing and performing music in such a manner that it constantly reflects on the text.

The final liturgical level is the liturgy of life—or day-to-day life, as I would put it, thus pointing to the importance of liturgy in such quotidian acts as weeding the garden, working on an assembly line, or grading papers. Here again, the shift from patristic/monastic to mendicant comes into play and does so even more emphatically.  I realize this distinction can become a caricature.  But it remains the case that the monastic ethos regards liturgy as having infinite value in its own right and regards it as being integrated in all aspects of life.  Other religious and the laity who are influenced by non-monastic charisms (which is probably most of the laity) tend to regard liturgy as a discreet act and place a heavy emphasis on its role in strengthening for service.

As a former (and still latent) Cistercian, I would agree that the monastic liturgy of Cluny was absurdly exaggerated—Baroque avant l’époque—and needed to be drastically pruned.  But the idea behind the liturgical uses of non-monastic orders that arose in the late Middle Ages was often the more radical shift of pruning the liturgy so that one could get out and preach, minister to the poor, teach, etc.

It is a blessing of being Catholic that all of this diversity co-exists in the Church. But since the patristic/monastic view demands sensitivity to time and silence, this spiritual perspective is difficult to appreciate in today’s busy, noisy world.  For this reason, keeping in mind the idea of the liturgical levels of the heart and of the day-to-day can be a helpful reminder that, to paraphrase the Rule, even pencil sharpeners, dishes, laundry, jack hammers, etc. can be regarded as sacred vessels integrated with the liturgy.  (I admit that my mind would probably have difficulty sanctifying a jack hammer—were I ever to use one.)

As I repeat monomaniacally—though perhaps not without some justification, given the difficulties of defining the Anglican patrimony—what is unique to Anglicanism among the ecclesial traditions in Western Christianity is its reliance on patristic/monastic spirituality. It is this important influence that has informed our cultural memory in ways of which neither we nor perhaps even the English reformers are/were aware.  I believe, though, that this cultural memory has meant a strong current in Anglicanism of cherishing the liturgy of the heart and of day-to-day life.  This current helps explain why a cardinal who has observed Ordinariate Catholic liturgy commented that Ordinariate Catholics like to “linger” over our liturgy.  My hope is that this aspect of the Anglican patrimony will continue to inspire us to celebrate liturgies worthy of being lingered over.  And the best way to do this, I’m convinced, is to make the first word of the Rule, “Listen,” the standard of each liturgical moment.  If one can listen—profoundly—with the ear of the heart, as St. Benedict puts it, then liturgy is that much closer to the perfect heavenly liturgy (Jesuits included).

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