Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Composure and Action

Guardini continues his discussion of internal composure by looking at its effects on external bearing and action.  The composure that is the fruit of stillness and silence and the result of the purification of the heart that takes place through prayer and other forms of asceticism fills the soul with an attention, eagerness and love in the performance of all actions, most especially one's participation in the liturgy.  It is, Guardini states, having the mind and heart concentrated on the here and now; "it is being 'all here.'"  When celebrating the Mass one has come into the Presence of God in a unique fashion and the lack of composure will be immediately noticeable.  For  "only he who is composed can have God’s presence within him and appear before Him to respond to His outpouring grace with adoration and love. 
What we most often see today is laxity and therefore a complete lack of composure; anemic gestures of reverence if not a complete lack of presence to the mystery being celebrated altogether.  There is no gaze of love and wonder upon the altar but rather a countenance that is all too often morose and bored.  The sign of the Cross is made heedless of the suffering endured there or the salvation that has come through it.  The gathering to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass is approached not with the demeanor of those who linger at the foot of the Cross, of those who have lost all sense of time, but rather as those who have come to accomplish a task as quickly and effortlessly as possible.
JUST AS proper speech and hearing emerge from silence, proper bearing and good action emerge only from composure.
Action too is more than mere external happening. It has innumerable levels, as many as life itself. There are purely external functions, such as turning on a light; if the switch clicks properly, the light burns without further ado. But if I am performing some real task, particularly something important, I must concentrate on it or there will be mistakes. In the various relations between people service, friendship, love in everything that belongs to the sphere of man and his work, work is genuine only in the degree that the doer inwardly participates in it. Colloquial speech has several telling expressions for this: he is “completely absorbed” in his work, or: “His heart isn’t in it.” For I can do a thing, alone and unaided, and still put very little of myself into it. My body goes through motions and some mental activity is exerted; but on the whole my mind is elsewhere and the work proceeds accordingly. The nobler, the more difficult or important the task to be accomplished, the more completely I must give it my attention, earnestness, eagerness, love, participating in it from the heart and with all the creative elan of the mind. That is composure: heart and mind concentrated on the here and now, not off on daydreams; it is being “all here.”
This is true of all action, but particularly true of that which concerns us here, the service performed before God. The liturgy is based on the fact of God’s presence in the church, and begins with man’s response to that presence. This is how it differs from private prayer, which can take place anywhere, at home or in a street or field. Primarily, and this is decisive, liturgy means service in the holy place. It is a great mystery, God’s presence in a place, and demands as a response that we appear before that presence. There is a beautiful expression for this in Italian: “faro atto di presenza,” to perform the act of being present. It is the beginning of everything. But one must be really present; with body and mind and soul, with attention, reverence, love. That is composure. Only he who is composed can have God’s presence within him and appear before Him to respond to His outpouring grace with adoration and love.
Composure also makes possible the proper outward bearing. People’s behavior in church is often so lax that even at the risk of sounding exaggerated, or worse, of being misunderstood and evoking unnatural deportment, I must call attention to it.
Many churchgoers simply don’t seem to know where they are or what it is all about. A man’s presence in church does not mean merely that his body is there rather than elsewhere. His ‘body’ is the equivalent of himself, and being present is a vital act. There are people who can walk into a room, sit down, and little more seems to have happened than that a chair has been occupied. Someone else can come in, and though he neither says nor does anything further, his presence is like a power. There are works of art in which this quiet power of presence is very strong; we have only to think of those medieval paintings which portray numbers of saints seated next to each other. They do nothing; hardly a gesture or word is exchanged, yet everything is vitally alive with their presence. To be present, then, is more than to sit or kneel in place. It is an act of the spirit and expresses itself in one’s whole bearing.
Much the same is true of our various movements and gestures. Is there anything more embarrassing than the manner in which some people, upon entering a church, after an anemic genuflection immediately flop into their seats? Isn’t this precisely how they take their places on a park bench or at the movies? Apparently they have no idea where they are; for were they to call on someone important after church, they would behave quite differently. As for sitting itself, in church it signifies more than mere comfort; it is the position of attentive listening. Similarly, kneeling here is quite different from the position a hunter might assume while taking aim; it is the offering of our erect position to God And again, standing in church is a profounder act than that of a mere halt while walking, or the attitude of expectant waiting: it is the bearing of reverence before the heavenly Lord. We can do these things convincingly only when we are fully conscious of what is taking place around us, and that awareness is ours only when we are self-collected and composed.
Equally elementary and self-understood, yet equally in need of vigilance, are our acts of looking and seeing. Later we shall discuss in more detail the importance of the visual act in the divine service. It means more than the bird’s discovery of a kernel or the deer’s cautious survey of a landscape. It is the act by which a man grasps the essence of an object that he sees before him. To see something is the first step toward sharing in it. Sometimes in the theater we come upon a face intent on the performance. The sight of another completely disarmed and self-forgotten can be so strong as to embarrass, and quickly we turn away. A man’s eyes contain the whole man. To gaze full of faith at the altar means a great deal more than merely to look up in order to see how far the sacred ceremony has progressed. Once in the cathedral of Monreale in Sicily I had the wonderful experience of watching the believers participate in the blessing of the fire and of the Paschal Candle on Easter Saturday. The ceremonies lasted over five hours and were not yet finished when I had to leave. The people had no books and they did not recite the rosary; they only gazed but with all their souls. How much of this visual power has been lost! There are many reasons for this: the vast amount of reading we do, the countless impressions of city life, news services, movies. Ultimately, they are largely to blame for the widespread loss of that composure which the simple man brought up in the Christian tradition still possesses. The gaze directed to the altar is exactly as profound as the composure from which it comes.
Or suppose we consider the gestures of the liturgy; for instance, the simplest and holiest of all, the sign of the cross. Isn’t the way it is often made an out-and-out scandal? The careless, crippled greeting a man makes en passant to someone of indifferent interest? Certainly it is not the gesture with which we sign our bodies with the symbol of Christ’s death and flood our souls with the vision of salvation, with which we acknowledge ourselves His and place ourselves under His power![4] Or consider the way people sometimes go up to receive Holy Communion. What an impression a non-believer who happens to be present (see 1 Cor. 14:24) must receive at sight of certain believers on their way to the Lord’s table an impression either of a forced unnatural demeanor, or of a heedlessness that only too clearly betrays a lack of awareness of what they are about, as though they were simply moving from one part of the church to another!
We do not come to church to “attend the service,” which usually means as a spectator, but in order, along with the priest, to serve God. Everything we do: our entering, being present, our kneeling and sitting and standing, our reception of the sacred nourishment, should be divine service. This is so only when all we do “overflows” from the awareness of a collected heart and the mind’s attentiveness.
Such composure is all the more necessary since liturgical action is devoid of that which otherwise enforces attention: namely, utility. When I seat myself at my desk and pick up a manuscript, my attention naturally passes to it; when I do a job in my workshop, I unconsciously pull myself together, otherwise it will miscarry. Everywhere some utilitarian purpose to be accomplished binds my attention. In the Mass there are no such “purposes.” The believer simply steps into the presence of his God and remains there for Him. The liturgy is a thing of exalted “purposelessness,” but it is filled with the sense of sacred serving, and over it reigns the sublimity of God. Here composure means everything. Hence it must be willed and practiced. Otherwise our “service” grows dull, indolent, careless, an insult to divine Majesty.
Romano Guardini
Meditations Before Mass

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