Liturgy and Literature


Wresting a few moments from research to jot down a few thoughts sparked by reading G. K. Chesterton’s words, attached below.  (Fr. Hunwicke posted the Chesterton passage on his blog, here, and Fr. Hunwicke credits Professor William Tighe with bringing Chesterton’s words to his attention.)

The claim that English literature is an aspect of the Anglican patrimony is correct, I think.  But that statement is superficial and misleading if left as it is.  Chesterton’s observation about the poetic power and strength of the Prayer Book points to the underlying theological-liturgical basis for this aspect of the patrimony.

For the past several centuries—in the West, at any rate—observing that someone is a talented poet or a fine writer would naturally lead us to assume she or he has written novels, plays, collections of poems, and so on.  Few of us would assume that such a writer would have contributed to the writing of liturgical texts or even that his or her oeuvre is remarkable for the composition of hymn texts.

But poetic creativity in the early Church was—based on the evidence we have—integral to liturgy and vice versa.  The lyrical texts throughout the New Testament (such as the angelic hymn in Luke 2:14 and the Christological hymn in Colossian 1:15-20) seem “to confirm that the [first-century] followers of Jesus embraced the lyrical heritage of their Hellenized Jewish environment” (E. Foley, From Age to Age, 16).  The first-century Church leaves no significant body of Christian literary works apart from the liturgy.  (I consider hymn-like texts, even if never sung in communal worship, to nonetheless point to the liturgical act of praise and thus to be liturgical in intent.)  What does emerge from the earliest years of the Church are—to use Chesterton’s and Foley’s terms—“strong,” “powerful,” “lyrical” passages in the Church’s early liturgical texts and hymns.  (I have problems with Foley’s use of the term “lyrical,” including the fact that he doesn’t define his use of the word.  But that’s a topic for another time.)

Historians and theologians might perhaps correct me on this point, but I believe the Church Fathers’ literary style in their theological works—Sts. Augustine and Jerome are two examples who come readily to mind—was never, in their minds, removed and compartmentalized from their daily poetic experience of the liturgy they inherited from the apostolic and post-apostolic Church.  In other words, to be a Christian in the first several centuries was to experience a “great poetry upon the spirit and heart” in daily worship and day-to-day life.

Since we, in the twenty-first century, speak and hear many of these same liturgical texts, it seems we too should have an intuitive understanding of liturgy as poetry and poetry as liturgical.  For any number of reasons, though, I don’t think this is generally the case.  Among the reasons this is so in the Anglophone West is that which T. S. Eliot identifies as the “dissociation of sensibilities” that set in at some point between the activity of the metaphysical poets of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century and the poets (such as Milton and Dryden) from the seventeenth century on.  Eliot’s claim is that pre-dissociation poetry simultaneously amalgamated what to us would likely seem disparate experience.  The dissociation of sensibilities undid this amalgamation.  It resulted in a “difference between the intellectual and reflective poet.”

I suggest that such thinkers as Abelard and St. Thomas Aquinas had already pointed in this direction in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by shifting theological speculation from the generally reflective approach of the Church Fathers and the monastic medieval era to the disquisitional, highly rational approach of scholasticism.  (I paint here in broad strokes, of course.  St. Thomas’s Eucharistic poetry, for example, could be regarded as a continuation of the patristic/monastic liturgical-literary symbiosis.)  But Eliot’s observation is more relevant since the topic I consider here is liturgy and literature rather than liturgy and theology.

If this thesis of the dissociation of sensibilities—and all it means for English literature before, during, and after the seventeenth century—is correct, it is helpful to remember that the Prayer Book was written before this dissociation of sensibilities set in.  It is in this sense, as well as in other senses, that the Prayer Book can be called “the last Catholic book,” as Chesterton describes it.

On one level, any truly literate and capable English writer whose themes are even evocative of the Christian themes of redemption, praise of creation, compassion for the needy, and so on, could be claimed as part of the Anglican patrimony.  This is because such a writer is aware of, and in some way influenced by, the literary power and strength of the Prayer Book tradition.  But not all such writers have the same appreciation for this symbiotic relationships between liturgy and literature.  I suggest, then, that merely making a list of English writers who were/are Anglican or Catholic and claiming them tout court as part of the Anglican patrimony is not accurate.  Such a claim reflects anglophilia more than Anglican patrimony.

This isn’t to say that excellent English writers are disqualified from being part of the patrimony because they did not write hymns or liturgical texts or even refer now and then to the liturgy.  The Chesterton quote below makes clear how powerful the Prayer Book tradition was—or at least, how powerful Chesterton considered it to be—in his oeuvre.  So though I strain to think of anything of his I’ve read that even feels somehow liturgically-related, he could be claimed as a contributor to the Anglican patrimony (by me, at any rate).  I would claim C. S. Lewis has a place as an Anglican-patrimonial writer because the constant theme in his works of discovering grace in the ordinariness of life is the same poetic impulse of the Rule of St. Benedict, which knows no distinction between ora et labora.  Garden spades and kitchen stirring-spoons are, as the Rule would have it, nearly on a par, for the sake of prayer, with the sacred vessels of the liturgy.  Lamp posts on snowy evenings and Turkish delights can be revelatory of divine grace and the need for redemption if only one is attuned to the possibility.

Two further observations.  The first is that since I am an Anglophone, I focus on the English literary heritage.  But I would claim that this Prayer-Book appreciation of a literary-liturgical symbiosis should be regarded as first-millennium Christian rather than English.  For a number of reasons, this liturgical-literary symbiosis happened to thrive in England.  But to focus attention on English literature itself is to fixate on the results of this creative point of view rather than being open to the possibility that it can also thrive elsewhere if given the opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with being an Anglophile.  But I think there’s a problem with loading onto this cultural appreciation a theological/spiritual freight it shouldn’t have to bear.

(That this liturgico-literary perspective appears not to have had the same impact in other cultures we could identify as Catholic is because of various factors, including the kind of dissociation of sensibilities in spirituality that took place in Europe from roughly the thirteenth century on.  As I’ve written elsewhere, the “baroque” systems of spirituality of such writers as Sts. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola—which made very little headway in England—are much less tied to liturgy than the perspectives of most spiritual writers of earlier centuries.  St. John of the Cross’s poetry (which I’ve been told by a Spanish scholar is considered to have literary merit in its own right) suggests almost no sense that the liturgy is a constant point of reference.  Scholars such as Andrew Louth have also pointed out that the spiritual extremes of kenosis, such as dark nights of the soul, are generally alien to the more balanced perspectives of the liturgically-grounded spiritual writers of earlier centuries.)

The second observation that flows from what I’ve briefly explored here is that running alongside these shifts and developments has been the “poetry” of the monastic charism.  I’ll mention no more on this point than to refer, as I have elsewhere ( ), to Newman’s identification of St. Benedict as poetic in contrast to St. Dominic as scientific and to St. Ignatius Loyola as practical.

The conclusion I draw from this final point is that even though the Rule of St. Benedict is as strongly and powerfully poetic as early-Christian liturgical texts and the Prayer Book, being a monk or an oblate does not guarantee that we share the same “sensibility” of our monastic forbears of the pre-dissociation-of-sensibilities West.  As Chesterton and Eliot suggest, though, a re-amalgamation of sensibilities, a Catholic both/and, is thinkable if one avails oneself of the power and strength of the Prayer Book’s poetry—which Anglophone Catholics can now do, thanks to Anglicanorum coetibus—and doing so on a daily basis and with heart and mind attuned to the fact that liturgy is not just a duty but poetry as well.

[From G. K. Chesterton]

” … why has the old Prayer-Book a power like that of great poetry upon the spirit and heart? The reason is much deeper than the mere avoidance of journalese. It might be put in a sentence; it has style, it has tradition; it has religion; it was written by apostate Catholics. It is strong, not in so far as it is the first Protestant book, but in so far as it was the last Catholic book.

“As it happens, this can be proved in the most practical manner from the actual details of the prose. The most moving passages in the old Anglican Prayer Book are exactly those that are least like the atmosphere of the Anglicans. They are moving, or indeed thrilling, precisely because they say the things which Protestants have long left off saying; and which Catholics still say. Anybody who knows anything of literature knows when a style lifts itself to its loftiest efforts; and in these cases it is always to say strongly what we [Catholics] still endeavour to say, however weakly; but which nobody else ever endeavours to say at all. Let anyone recall for himself the very finest passages in the Book of Common Prayer, and he will soon see that they are concerned specially with spiritual thoughts and themes that now seem strange and terrible; but anyhow, the reverse of common.”

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