Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Monday, March 15, 2021

Hour and Eternity


Guardini raises our level of reflection to the height now by inviting us to consider the nature of Christ's acts in light of Eternity.  Our decisions and acts, no matter their quality, always have their beginning and end. In a striking passage, Guardini states: "With Jesus it was different. Not only was His will spiritual, it was permeated by the divine will of the eternal Son of God. Thus even His decisions had an underlying depth which reached from the gesture of His hand to the divine resolution. They were no longer temporal, but eternal. Jesus’ acts began, unfolded, and ended in time, but both the resolve from which they sprang and the power by which they were sustained were eternal. In brief, everything the Lord did took place in time but came from eternity; and since eternity is unchangeable, everything He did was immortal." Everything Christ does is permeated with eternity.  Given the transitory nature of our lives and actions this is admittedly hard to understand; in fact, it is an impenetrable mystery into which we can only be drawn by the grace and mercy of God. In and through our faith we begin to comprehend the mystery that Christ's "earthly life has been assimilated into eternity, henceforth to be linked irrevocably to every earthly hour redeemed by His destiny. The Lord’s earthly life is directly applicable to every one He loves, to every place, and in every situation. Wherever a man believes in Christ, he finds himself in direct contact with Him-and not only with the Son of God, but with the God-man in all the abundance of His redemptory existence on earth." And whatever happens in a general way whenever a person believes in the Lord, "takes place in a special, specific form in the commemoration which Jesus Himself established. The instant Christ’s representative speaks His words over the bread and wine, Christ steps from eternity into place and hour, to become vitally present with the fulness of His redemptory power in the form of the particular, created species of bread and wine."

ALL HUMAN events are transitory; consequently they are precious, for they cannot be repeated. What is past is gone forever. Something else can and will take place, but the past event itself can never return. Every moment comes but once, and that is why life is ever new. Something in us is continually welcoming what is about to come, and mourning what is about to go. The beauty of life is inseparable from affliction; life’s riches are frighteningly impermanent. And the transitory is always brief, no matter how long it lasts. It is the opposite of eternal.

Even so-called duration, time long enough to enable something to take root, grow and fulfill itself, is only a pause in the essential flow; it is not an escape from it. Natural science teaches us that nothing in the world can be lost. Though the forms of energy and matter may change, matter and energy themselves remain; the energy consumed in any task returns in its effects. The whole system, however, exists only for an instant. We call a great work or deed “imperishable,” but this is true only as long as there are men who cherish and perpetuate it. We all have the feeling that a genuine imperishableness must exist somewhere, but this is only a vague intuition, a “claim” on existence, a hope of some mysterious realm in which all that has achieved validity is preserved forever. The feeling becomes clearer and more tangible only when we relate that realm to God, who receives all that is valid into His eternity. But the uneasy question remains: Is what man considers valid really so, even before God?

How was it with the Son of Man? In one way the transient quality of Jesus’ life seems particularly and painfully evident, for not only did that life come to an end, as does all human life, but its unutterably divine costliness was prematurely demolished by a will so evil and so destructive that we never cease to wonder how this was possible.

But there was something more about Jesus; not only the fact that His life, with every step He took, penetrated ever more deeply into the already perfect, the already immortal. We act upon decisions of the spirit, which is immortal and hence already has something of eternity about it. The decision itself, however, begins and ends in time. With Jesus it was different. Not only was His will spiritual, it was permeated by the divine will of the eternal Son of God. Thus even His decisions had an underlying depth which reached from the gesture of His hand to the divine resolution. They were no longer temporal, but eternal. Jesus’ acts began, unfolded, and ended in time, but both the resolve from which they sprang and the power by which they were sustained were eternal. In brief, everything the Lord did took place in time but came from eternity; and since eternity is unchangeable, everything He did was immortal.

This is a great and impenetrable mystery. Earthly things are buried in transitoriness, and for us eternity is still only a hope. We are unable to bridge the two. God alone makes this possible through what Scripture calls “the new creation”: transfiguration. The temporal is not erased, but assumed into eternity, there to acquire a quality for which we now have no concept. One day, though, our whole thinking, now locked in earthly transitoriness, will receive that liberating quality, and we shall be given along with the “new heaven and the new earth” the new eye, which really sees, and “the mind of the Lord” (Cor 2:16).

This mode of being and seeing was Jesus’, with whom it came into existence. He brought it to us, and in such a way that we might share in it. He is “the new,” the “beginning.” As long as He lived on earth that beginning remained veiled, but it was already here. He had to bear earthly bondage and transitoriness through to the end, because He had become “like us in all things” in order to expiate our sins. It was not until the Resurrection that the new was able to break through.

After the mysterious forty days in which, disregarding the laws of nature, He appeared and disappeared at will, seeming to hesitate incomprehensibly between time and eternity, He returned to the Father and is now completely eternal. There was a heresy which attempted to free the Son of God from the “taint” of earthliness by teaching that He left His body and everything connected with it here below and returned to “pure” divinity. Unfortunately, this teaching destroys the essence of all that is Christian. The Son of the eternal Father became man in divine earnestness, which means irrevocably. Hence He remains man in all eternity. To be a man means to have a body, not an idealized, general sort of body, but one’s own specific body. This is what St. John means when he writes in his first epistle, “I write of what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled: of the Word of Life. And the Life was made known and we have seen, and now testify and announce to you, the Life Eternal which was with the Father, and has appeared to us . . . in order that you also may have fellowship with us, and that our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (John 1 :1-3). The “Life” or “body” “our hands have handled” is not only the impassive form, but also gesture, deed, sufferings, and destiny. Everything that happened to the Lord is evident in His resurrected “body.” Scripture bears staggering witness to this fact in John’s report of its wounds, so corporal and deep that the incredulous Thomas was able to obey Christ’s command and put his hand “into my side” (John 20:27). These wounds are the banners of Jesus’ life and fate, eternally received into His most vital being.

In that life nothing could be lost, for nothing took place that did not come from the everlastingness of that will with which the Son carried out the Father’s decree in an historical, temporary act. Christ’s entire life belongs to eternity. Two images express its imperishableness. The first appears in the deacon Stephen’s great testimonial speech before the Sanhedrin: “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ ” (Acts 7:55-56). It is also to be found in Mark (16: 19) in the form in which it was later incorporated into the Credo: “sits at the right hand of God.” The other image appears in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the powerful passage in which Jesus, the true High Priest, strides through the courtyards of time across the threshold of death into eternity’s holy of holies, bearing the sacrificial blood-offering of the New Testament before the majesty of the Father, in order to reconcile His justice.

In the light of these remarks on time and eternity what does the commemoration with which Jesus entrusted His followers signify?

We are not going to try to understand now the relation between God’s eternal life and events in time. The attempt would only result in a confusion of both concepts. One day we shall be able to understand-when we have been endowed with “the new,” with that comprehension of the resurrected life which is the gift of grace. Now we can but sense the mystery of redeemed existence, feeling our way toward it with lowered eyes. In this world, God’s decree is fulfilled in the succession of temporal events; but God Himself is eternal-He always was and always will be. God realizes Himself both in universal space and in specific space or locality; He exists, however, in the pure here-and-now. He manifests Himself in the differentiation of forms, relationships, characteristics; yet He Himself is of an undivided Oneness. Hence every hour with its content brushes God’s eternity; every place with its content touches divine omnipresence; every form and every characteristic finds itself again in His all-inclusive simplicity. And what is true of God is true also of Him who sits on the Father’s right, Christ. His earthly life has been assimilated into eternity, henceforth to be linked irrevocably to every earthly hour redeemed by His destiny. The Lord’s earthly life is directly applicable to every one He loves, to every place, and in every situation. Wherever a man believes in Christ, he finds himself in direct contact with Him-and not only with the Son of God, but with the God-man in all the abundance of His redemptory existence on earth. St. Paul says that in every believer an unfathomable mystery unfolds: Christ “above” who “sitteth at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1) is simultaneously “below,” “within” that believer. In all the richness of its salutary destiny, Jesus’ life -His childhood, maturity, suffering, dying and resurrection-unwinds anew in every Christian, thus forming his real and everlasting existence (Eph. 4:13). “It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

What happens in a general manner whenever a person believes in the Lord, whenever Christ’s redemptive life becomes that person’s existence, takes place in a special, specific form in the commemoration which Jesus Himself established. The instant Christ’s representative speaks His words over the bread and wine, Christ steps from eternity into place and hour, to become vitally present with the fulness of His redemptory power in the form of the particular, created species of bread and wine. There is no approach to this sacred procedure from our earthly experience. We can say neither that it is possible nor that it is impossible. We can only accept it as God’s “mystery of faith,” this truth that is the beginning of all beginning. It is the truth by which a man is summoned, which he obeys, to which he entrusts himself, and from which his thinking takes its new point of departure. Once given and accepted, this beginning becomes the key to infinite realms.

When the intellect attempts to pin down this truth in concepts or to express it in words, it becomes very difficult. But is it in itself so difficult? Words do not seem to hit the mark. Actually it is not difficult but mysterious, though it can become difficult-in the sense of the listeners at Capharnaum, who rejected Jesus’ revelation: “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Such difficulty is a question of the heart’s revolt against the new beginning, of the self-confinement of the world, shutting itself off from the true light (John 1:5-11). Once a person honestly desires understanding, he senses the truth without being able to express it. And again we turn to the example of Capharnaum: “This is why I have said to you, ‘No one can come to me unless he is enabled to do so by my Father.’ From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Jesus therefore said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter therefore answered, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.’ ” This is the rescuing act: we do not understand, but we believe. The words “mystery of faith” have a double significance. They warn: Beware of trying to judge with human values as your intellectual criteria! But they also invite: Believe your redeemed hearts, which feel the superabundance of the truth that saves!


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Reality: "This IS My Body. This IS My Blood"


In the following reflection, Guardini turns his attention to the Reality that is made present in the Eucharist; the importance of the Christian's understanding of the urgency and power of the words - "This IS My Body" and "This IS My Blood".  Guardini warns: "
It is not only wrong but sacrilegious to tamper with these words. What they express is simplest truth, and what takes place pure reality. He who speaks them is neither a “great” nor “the greatest” religious personality of millenia, but the Son of God." The priest speaks them in obedience and must do so with a certain amount of fear and trembling for the One who commands them has all power over heaven and earth. We who hear these words receive them and are reminded that they express the "mysterium fidei" - the mystery of faith.  Thus, we are to receive them not critically or testing the command but in the obedience of faith. Where others may doubt the Lord, our response must be that of Peter's: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God”


AT THE Last Supper we saw how the Lord established institution upon institution: the memorial of His saving love and its covenant between God and the new holy people upon the memorial of the liberation from Egypt under the old covenant, now completed. For He “to whom all power” and authority has been given declares it terminated, since all that it promised and prepared for has been fulfilled. Now the new, valid, commemorative feast is there, to remain “until the Lord returns” at the end of time. Those who believe in Him are to come together and “do this,” to do exactly what He did on that last evening. The command involves Him too; for when His followers obey and do, what happened then will happen again, just as when He Himself acted. They are to take bread, give thanks, bless it and speak over it the words He spoke. They are to take the chalice and again thank, bless, speak as He did. Not anyone is entitled to do this, but those whom Jesus addressed at that time, His table-companions at the last Passover, the apostles, to whom He had already committed His authority (see Matt. 10); after them, those to whom they in turn would pass on their powers, the bishops and their assistants in the divine office, the priests. What these bearers of office do will be no private act. The whole concept of office suggests something that lies not in the sphere of the personally creative or the spontaneous, but in the law and in the delegation of authority. An office exists not for its bearer, but for all, for the whole. When the priest performs what the Lord commanded, all act with him, so that after the Lord’s death one can truly say that “they,” the believers, “continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread and in the prayers” (Acts 2:42). “And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread in their houses, they took their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and being in favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46-47).

From this we see that at the time the Christians were still living in the old order, observing the prescribed services of the temple as the others did. They had not yet realized that the temple with its services, together with the entire order of the Old Testament, was ended and that a new life-pattern was slowly taking shape. Already the little community has something entirely of its own, the ceremonial breaking of bread “in their houses.” In all probability, groups of early Christians met in homes large enough for the purpose. At first there was simply an ordinary meal, an expression of fraternal unity and a means of helping the poorer among them. Sometimes however, probably on Sundays, the meal took on a special, festive note (see Acts 20:7). It was always a real meal, though judging from St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians, it was not always an entirely spiritual affair! The Epistle is concerned chiefly with current abuses, but it also suggests how those gatherings were supposed to be, and how-at least in the beginning-they usually were. The believers shared together the Agape or meal of love and community in the sight of God, to which each contributed something. On Sundays and special days the celebration, longer and more impressive, was deeply imbued with the memory of the Lord. On those days the one who presided over the meal, the apostle or his representative, related the story of Jesus’ life and teaching and salutary death. In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, for instance, we see St. Paul urging the believers not to forget that they “proclaim the death of the Lord” whenever they partake, the proclamation referring to the solemn pronouncement and praise of the sacred mysteries to follow. Here again the old Passover tradition of the host’s reverent account of the exodus from Egyptian slavery is terminated and supplanted by the new message of our liberation through Jesus Christ.

Then, at a certain moment in the meal, the Lord’s representative took bread and the cup, acting as the Lord had commanded him to do. Before this it has been commemoration in the spirit, a speaking and hearing, weighing and accepting: now it is still commemoration, but of a totally different kind. For that which was commemorated during the first part of the Mass was not actually present, save in the imagination of the believers, in the continually efficacious love and grace which stirred in their hearts and souls. Now the significance of the event changes. The moment the priest as the Lord’s representative, speaks the words, “This is my body” What is “commemorated” is also actually present in truth and in reality.

“This is my body,” “this is my blood”; under no circumstance may the “is” in these holiest of sentences be interpreted as “means” or “is a symbol of” my body and blood. If ever the Lord’s admonition, “Let your speech be, ‘Yes, yes’; ‘No, no’; and whatever is beyond these comes from the evil one” was deeply urgent, it is here. It is not only wrong but sacrilegious to tamper with these words. What they express is simplest truth, and what takes place pure reality. He who speaks them is neither a “great” nor “the greatest” religious personality of millenia, but the Son of God. His words are no expression of mystical profundity, but a command of Him who has all earthly and heavenly power. They have no equivalent in human speech, for they are words of Omnipotence. We can compare them only with other words of the Lord, when “he arose and rebuked the wind and the sea, and there came a great calm” (Matt. 8:26); or, to the leper, “I will, be thou made clean” (Matt. 8:3); or to Jairus’ dead child, “Girl, arise!” (Luke 8:54). Their real equivalent is the Father’s “Be” (light made) from which creation itself emerged. (See the first chapter of Genesis.) Christ gave these sacred words to those He delegated to guard and execute His memorial. Their origin does not lie in the priest or bishop who speaks them but in Christ, Who gave them to priest and bishop. Yet because they are God-given (given entirely) through grace, they become the priest’s own words when he speaks them in obedience to Christ. Hence the Mass is a commemoration, but a commemoration of a very special kind. By the words of the Transubstantiation, what took place on Maundy Thursday, Christ’s gift of self as nourishment for eternal life, takes place again-in a form which also outwardly resembles the Savior’s act on that holy night.

The commemoration of the Mass is unique. Since it does not exist at all on the human level, it is impossible to judge it from here, or to “compare” it with other apparently similar religio-symbolic acts. Who are we to define the limits of its possibilities? All we can do is to “hear,” for what is taking place is revelation. And it could not be revealed more simply or directly; there can be no question of symbolism here. The apostles were no modern psychologists or symbolists, but men of antiquity, whose thinking was characteristically objective and realistic. They had not forgotten the great speech at Capharnaum in which Jesus had insisted (for many to the point of intolerability) on the fact that He was to offer Himself as real food and real drink, thus forcing His followers to an uncompromising either-or of faith. There is not a trace of symbolism in the Acts of the Apostles or in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, or in any of the earliest Christian writing on this sacred mystery. Without exception it is taken as revelation, which we cannot call into question, asking whether it be possible. It is a communication and a command of God, for whom all things are possible. Our attitude can be neither that of testing nor of criticizing; it can only be that of belief, and belief implies obedience. As it is a question of mystery, we must acknowledge it solely because of God’s word. As soon as we lose sight of this fact, everything is lost. That is why there is the call of warning and reminding just prior to the heart of the Mass, the Consecration: the call “mysterium fidei.” Don’t forget: we have here a mystery of the faith!

This cry, this call reminds us of the speech at Carpharnaum, where the same possibility of rejecting salvation had been displayed:

Many of his disciples therefore, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were murmuring at this, said to them, “Does this scandalize you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was who should betray him. And he said, “This is why I have said to you, ‘No one can come to me unless he is enabled to do so by my Father.’ ” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Jesus therefore said to the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter therefore answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:60-69).


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Memorial of the New Covenant



In this meditation, Guardini looks to lay out for us how Christ passed on the memorial of His Person and redemptory fate.  He begins with the Gospel account itself and connects it for us to the Exodus passover meal.  God institutes the Passover meal in order that the redemption of the Hebrews from slavery might be celebrated liturgically - "to burn the memory of their liberation deep into their consciousness."  Jesus alters this meal of the covenant and we can see the exact place where he does so.  He seals a New Covenant with his death on the Cross.  He is the Lamb of sacrifice and it is His body and blood that is shed for our redemption and offered on the Altar.  Christ - His Person, Life, and fate - are the contents of the New Covenant and the completion of the Old Covenant and will remain "until He comes."

How DID Jesus establish the act by which He passed on to His followers the memorial of His Person and redemptory fate? According to St. Luke He did so as follows:

Now the day of the Unleavened Bread came, on which the passover had to be sacrificed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare for us the passover that we may eat it.” But they said, “Where dost thou want us to prepare it?” And he said to them, “Behold, on your entering the city, there will meet you a man carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house into which he goes. And you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Master says to thee, “Where is the guest chamber, that I may eat the passover there with my disciples?”‘ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready.” And they went, and found just as he had told them; and they prepared the passover.

And when the hour had come, he reclined at table, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have greatly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you that I will eat of it no more, until it has been fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And having taken a cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and share it among you; for I say to you I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God comes.”

And having taken bread, he gave thanks and broke, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is being given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In like manner he took also the cup after the supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which shall be shed for you” (Luke 22:7-20).

It is the feast of the Passover, which in accordance with the law is celebrated annually before the great Easter Sabbath as a fulfillment of the divine command recorded in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Exodus. For centuries the Hebrews had been living in slavery in Egypt. Then God ordered Moses to command Pharaoh to liberate them. Pharaoh had refused, and the mysterious plagues sent by God to overcome his resistance had affected him only briefly. Now the last and most dreadful of the plagues, designed to break his stubbornness, was at hand: the death of all the firstborn in the land, of men and of beasts. But to prove to His people that He was the Lord and to burn the memory of the liberation deep into their consciousness, God gave the event a form that could not fail to impress itself on the mind and the emotions alike. He commanded every Hebrew family to slaughter a lamb and to paint the doorposts with its blood, so that the angel of death on his way through the land would see the sign and pass over. (See Exodus 12:11-14.) Not only was the memory of this event to be kept alive by record and recollection, it was to be celebrated each year in liturgical ceremony. Thus God instituted the feast of the Passover, or Pasch.

At first the celebration had the form of a grave memorial; but gradually it assumed the character of a joyous festival. The meal grew increasingly rich. Those at table no longer stood, girt for the journey and staff in hand, but reclined comfortably; no longer did they eat in the originally prescribed haste, they dined in untroubled leisure.

The ritual of the feast was roughly as follows. To begin with, the host mixed and blessed wine in a beaker, which was then passed around. Then the first course was eaten and the second beaker was blessed and circulated. After that the host broke the unleavened bread lying on the table and handed each guest a piece. For each he dipped a small bunch of bitter herbs into a bowl and proffered it. Now a number of psalms were recited and the lamb was consumed, followed by a third beaker and a fourth. More psalms concluded the celebration. During the meal the host described the great event that was being commemorated in such a manner that those present could imagine themselves back in the days of Moses.

Jesus broke this pattern. He who knew Himself Lord of the law and the covenant put an end to the thought hitherto commemorated and established instead a new memorial. Similarly He put an end to the covenant that had been established by the event commemorated, and He sealed the new covenant of redemption with His death.

We can see the exact place where Jesus intervened. The cup mentioned by St. Luke in the foregoing passage is the third beaker of the Pasch. One interpreter beautifully complements the Lord’s words, “Take this and share it among you” with “for the last time according to ancient rite.” Then Jesus takes bread, offers thanks, breaks it and gives it to them; again the act which the host had always performed, only now it receives a new significance in Jesus’ accompanying words: “This is my body, which is being given for you.” Whereupon He takes the cup, “after the supper,” as the host had always taken it, blesses it, thanks God, and offers it-again with the new significance of His words: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which shall be shed for you.”

The old covenant, sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals, is at an end. Now a new covenant has been sealed, again with blood, that of Christ. He Himself is offered up, like the lamb they have just slaughtered and consumed: His body, “which is being given for you”; His blood, “which shall be shed for you.”

Here too it is a commemoration: “do this in remembrance of me.” St. Paul continues the thought in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, in which he writes: “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes” (11:26).

That is the event upon which the institution of the Mass rests. Christ Himself, His love and His redeeming fate are its contents, which He poured into the mold of the ancient covenant, now brought to completion. Only the form remains, the ceremonial supper. Henceforth the new covenant is there to contain those contents to the end of history, “until He comes.”


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mass as Memorial


Romano Guardini, in this reflection, is addressing something of utmost importance.  He tells us: "what is at stake is so important and so rarely understood fully, that we should spare no pains to bring out the thought completely and clearly." In the Mass we are concerned with One single Person and His destiny - because His life and work is decisive for men’s salvation; because He is the Savior.  Jesus, Guardini tells us, is not a mythical figure; he "is not just another personification of the spiritual power of redemption, not a savior-godhead comparable to Osiris and Dionysius. He really lived. He was the living Son of God become man."  It is an historical person and reality that is made present to us - a Person and Life that has the "abundance of spiritual, all-redeeming strength." The Mass is instituted and ordained by the Lord Himself and passes on His entire destiny to us all.  In this act our Lord continues the history of the Kingdom of God present among men. "It is not to participate in a time-honored symbolical act that gives religious expression to our own existence . . .  ."  Through the Eucharistic celebration the Holy Spirit makes us participants in the divine life that is able to transfigure our whole mortal being. In his passage from death to life, from time to eternity, the Lord Jesus also draws us with him to experience the Passover. In the Mass we celebrate Passover. We, during Mass, are with Jesus, who died and is Risen, and he draws us forth to eternal life. Passover is made present and active each time we celebrate the Mass, which is the meaning of memorial. Taking part in the Eucharist enables us to enter the Paschal Mystery of Christ, giving ourselves to pass over with him from death to life, meaning there, on Calvary. The Mass is experiencing Calvary; it is not a spectacle.

PRECEDING chapter stressed the timeless, institutional nature of the Mass so essential for our understanding of it. We saw that it is no immediate (hence necessarily varying) expression of religious sentiments or needs, but something permanent, arranged once and for all; that it was authorized by Him who has “all power in heaven and on earth”; that it demands to be performed according to the will of its Institutor.

Now we proceed a step further, a small step, for what is at stake is so important and so rarely understood fully, that we should spare no pains to bring out the thought completely and clearly.

The institution of the Mass has one further element; it is a memorial.

“Institutions” appear everywhere in the religious life of mankind. They give freely streaming experience its permanent and binding form. The contents of that form vary greatly. They may evolve around an important turning-point in the calendar of the year, spring, for instance. Then the celebration welcomes and honors the new beginning of growth with festivities that invoke the blessing of the godhead. Or the theme may be an important turning-point in the seasons of human life: the celebration of adolescence, in which the maturing youth is consecrated for the life that awaits him, his powers of fertility are sanctified, and the new adult is received into the tribal community. Whatever the motive behind the celebration, some essential life-process always receives its religious consecration. Some personality of talent and authority introduced the chief symbols, adapting and developing them to suit his particular tribe or race, and making the whole obligatory for posterity.

Quite aside from the Person who instituted Holy Mass, what takes place there is of an entirely different nature. In the tribal celebrations universal values, teachings, and regulations of a nature half religious, half natural find expression: seasonal or life-rhythms, guilt and expiation, the beginning and end of war, the major visitations of drought, hunger, pestilence and the like which threaten the coming year. In the Mass we are concerned with a single Person and His destiny. What is repeatedly executed and invoked is no natural or intellectual or mysterious power-relationship common to all human existence, but the memory of One who lived once, and of His destiny. Why? Not because He was a great ruler or lawgiver or warrior from the worldly point of view, an innovator of important arts or sciences, but because His life and work is decisive for men’s salvation; because He is the Savior.

Of course we do find other religious celebrations in which the sacred action invokes a specific religious figure of the past and represents important aspects of his destiny. In the Greek mysteries, for example: Dionysius’ death at the hands of the Maenads and the resurrection of his torn body to new life; the Demeter cult, which recalls the lament of the Earth-Mother for her lost daughter and the joy of finding her again. These festivals too dramatize a specific event. But the beings represented in the Dionysian mysteries and in those of the Demeter or Hippolytus were never historical. Their importance lay in their relation to the senses and in the powers they personified. Mythological figures personify elements of the world itself. Dionysius never really lived in a specific country, never met a his torical fate. What reality he did possess was the mystery of life he represented in all its glory and danger, a mystery that prevails wherever there are living realities and which is particularly apparent at the junctures of life spring, harvest time, and the like. Dionysius was a creation of mythical poetry. Jesus was no myth, no poetry, no symbol, but reality. The distinction is fundamental, because once religious research had discovered the myths, there was a strong effort to make Christianity “another myth religion.” Actually its sharp distinction from the world of myth is indisputable. Even the fact that its Founder and His apostles come to us from the land and tradition of the Old Testament precludes any blurring of the borders of reality, for the Old Testament is anything but mythical. Myths are figures and events employed by the visionary and symbol-creating genius to interpret the meaning of existence religiously. Such creative personalities lived so close to existence, were so deeply imbued with the total religious experience of a race or an age, and expressed the essence of that race or age so perfectly, that their vision was authoritative for a very long time. But always it was a question of myths, not of reality, or to be more exact, not of historical reality. What is real in the myth is the implication it gives to existence, the mysterious power it expresses through the symbol of the god and his fate. Myths of this kind do not exist in the Old Testament, which is based not on a religious world-mystery as glimpsed by sacrosanct visionaries from hallowed shrines, but on the simple reality of holy God, who exists independently of the world. God is not the Urgrund, or mysterious foundation of the world, but its Creator and Lord. When it so pleases Him, He summons specific people, draws them into a particular relationship with Himself, and imposes upon them the obligation to carry out His will. Atmosphere, attributes, spiritual attitude, decisive values and life-forms here everything is different. Even those texts which at first glance seem to be of a mythical nature, for example, the stories of Creation and of the Flood, on closer scrutiny reveal that they have nothing to do with mythology. It is blind and profoundly dishonest to speak of the “Creation and Flood Myths” of the Old Testament. Anyone who sincerely wants to see the essential difference between the stories of Scripture and the sagas of Babylonia and other Oriental countries, can. Jesus comes to us not from the shadowy realm of mythology, but from the clear sunlight of the Old Testament.

Jesus is not just another personification of the spiritual power of redemption, not a savior-godhead comparable to Osiris and Dionysius. He really lived. He was the living Son of God become man. A human being. He took His place in the history of a particular country, worked in definite ascertainable areas during certain years which can, with slight variations, be historically determined. The known life of Jesus the Nazarene is undeniably unique. In all essentials His destiny and death were known and reliably reported in world history. Not even His enemies tried to dismiss Him as a myth. Jesus’ spot in history is not in the dim language of a Dionysius, seemingly part of a past that may be reached by turning back, but actually unattainable because it lies not in time, but in the timelessness of sense and symbol. Jesus’ life and Person have all the abundance of spiritual, all-redeeming strength, yet at the same time they give clear, historical answers to the questions “How?” and “When?” and “Where?” Such, then, is the Jesus commemorated in the Mass.

The establishment of His memorial did not issue from the Christ-experience of some prophet or apostle, but was ordained by the Lord Himself. It rose with the same historical clarity as that which it commemorates; it is even more: a part of the life of its Institutor. On the evening before His death Jesus gathered up and placed into it His entire destiny, that it might be passed on to all men.

The Old Testament is neither a nature religion nor the religion of a certain race; it springs from a specific act of God that is the cornerstone of further action. The beginning of the religion of the Old Testament is the beginning of a history, the history of the covenant between God and certain men of His choosing, first with Abraham, then on Sinai with the descendants of Abraham. The event that concerns us here is similar, but it exists on an incomparably loftier and more significant plane. It enfolds Jesus’ whole historical existence in one holy commemorating act which simultaneously expresses God’s new relationship to men: the new covenant, founded on the act and Person of Jesus Christ. Henceforth history continues as the history of the kingdom of God among men.

Therefore, when we go to Mass, it is not to participate in a time-honored symbolical act that gives religious expression to our own existence, but in order to commemorate a specific Personality, Jesus, and His destiny. This Personality is no prophetic-poetic creation; He really lived. He was born in the reign of Augustus in the year that the Roman emperor ordered a census-taking of his whole empire. He died while Pontius Pilate was the Roman procurator in Palestine. He was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He lived, taught and worked outwardly much like other teachers of His day. Were archeology to succeed in excavating the synagogue which existed at that time in Nazareth, we could say: Here on this spot Jesus sat when He interpreted Isaiah, and the storm of fury reported in St. John broke loose against Him (John 4).

The Mass is the commemoration of a historic reality. It is a memorial in the strictest sense of the term.


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Essence of the Mass - The Institution



Guardini takes up the second portion of his book focusing on the essence of the Mass itself, beginning with its Institution by Christ. He offers a brief review of the nature of religious life itself. It can focus on the actions of man in fulfilling certain works in relation to God and others which Guardian describes as "walking in the sight of God."  This is certainly a genuine and sincere expression of the religious life.  It can also focus on detaching from the world around us and directly worshipping God individually or communally. The focus on the actions of man typically thrusts him toward worship for the strength and grace needed and without which this religious life cannot be sustained. The Holy Mass is the heart of the direct relationship between God and the believer. Guardini quickly emphasizes, however, that this worship is not the product of human industrious and creativity or something that arises out of religious imagination.  He succinctly and firmly describes it as follows: "The Mass is not the immediate expression of an existence capable of understanding and redeeming itself spiritually. It is not a creation of that power which shaped the word of praise and the revelatory act from the emotion of the hour, but something long since independently arranged and ordered and declared valid once and forever. It does not arise each time from the individual’s or the congregation’s relation to God, but descends from God to the believer, demanding that he acknowledge it, entrust himself to it, and do it. It owes its existence not to Christian creativeness, but to Christ’s institution." Thus it comes directly from the mind of God who authorizes how it is to be done and who can celebrated it legitimately: "Do this in memory of Me."  It is a sovereign act by the Lord of the Sabbath.  We know exactly when Christ instituted it and how it was ratified by the Father.  Guardini starkly clarifies: "Man has here no call to create or determine; his task is to obey and act. . .  He did not entrust His institution to the freely streaming spirit or to the religious inspiration of the moment, but to an office which He Himself established."  It is in this manner that Christ protects the unity and communion of the body throughout the course of history.  Moreover, in the Mass the people enter into an order established by God Himself and not something dependent on creativity or directed by whim.

RELIGIOUS LIFE is the life which ties man to God. It is not mere knowledge or experience of God, but actual union with Him. God exists. Man also exists, but his existence is only through God and in His sight. From God to man and from man to God runs a bond more real and more vital than any bond uniting one being with another on earth. This bond between God and man, its effects on man’s experience, thought, and action is our religious life.

Religious life can take a double direction. It can enter into our daily living and doing and struggling, into our relations with people and things, into our work and “works.” One man tries to fulfill God’s will by accepting and performing his given job with a strict sense of duty; another, reluctant to break a divine commandment, refuses to inflict an injustice; a third practices heroic patience and helpfulness toward someone in the love of Christ. All this is genuine religious life. All three attitudes are proofs of religious sincerity. In them religion has become the soul of daily existence: what Scripture calls “walking in the sight of God.”

But religious life can also detach itself from daily existence and seek God directly. The individual believer may turn away from external doings and happenings to meditate on divine revelation; he may take his concerns to God; he may appear “before” God to examine his own acts from God’s perspective and renew himself in virtue. Or a whole congregation may assemble in a room that even externally expresses its detachment from ordinary life in order to receive the sacred word, to worship God in common, and to place their intentions at His feet.

Both forms are good; indeed they support each other. In the immediate religious act man collects himself; enlightened and strengthened he returns I to daily existence with a higher degree of readiness. What he experiences there in the way of work, struggle, and destiny causes the new need which sends him gravely back to the sanctuary, there to receive fresh light and aid. The demands of daily existence on their part constantly test the genuineness of a man’s religion, enabling him to recognize mere pious sentiment and irrelevant fantasy for what they are.

Holy Mass belongs in the second category of religious life. It is not only “one of the ways” of turning directly to God, but is the heart of the direct relationship between God and believer. When the Christian goes to church, he leaves the world of ordinary human existence behind and steps into the hallowed spot set apart for God. There he remains with the others of the congregation, a living offerer of the sacred service celebrated before God’s countenance.

Once more it is essential for us to make distinctions. What we do in this area reserved for God does not spring directly from our religious experience or desire; neither do we all gather in church to express to God our pressing wants as though in response to a great general need. This too is possible and natural, and it belongs to the most powerful religious experiences that a man can have: the united appearance before Him from whom everything comes and to whom everything returns. What happens in Holy Mass, however, is different. The Mass is not the immediate expression of an existence capable of understanding and redeeming itself spiritually. It is not a creation of that power which shaped the word of praise and the revelatory act from the emotion of the hour, but something long since independently arranged and ordered and declared valid once and forever. It does not arise each time from the individual’s or the congregation’s relation to God, but descends from God to the believer, demanding that he acknowledge it, entrust himself to it, and do it. It owes its existence not to Christian creativeness, but to Christ’s institution.

Consequently, the Mass cannot be celebrated by anyone, but only by one who is authorized. When the father is still the recognized head of the family (also its spiritual head), he can institute a custom or a celebration that becomes binding for the family. Likewise the bearer of a religious office, the priest, or (if he has spiritual authority) the king can institute a religious celebration for a certain diocese or kingdom. Religious history has countless illustrations of this. But the institution that concerns us here is valid not only for a family or a race or an empire, but claims to be the absolute norm of religious celebration, the heart of spiritual life for all peoples and for all ages. No human being has the power to set up such a statute. No earthly authority having such absolute power could exist, not even with the reservation that all genuine power comes from God. God never empowered any human being to institute an act obligatory for all peoples and ages. This does not mean that He could not have done so, but simply that He did not. He who did establish the unique universal institution of the Mass was no mere messenger of God, no prophet, high priest or king, but the Son of the eternal Father, God incarnate in history, who could say of Himself: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). It is He who proclaims the saving truth to all men and to all ages: not as the prophets proclaimed it, “Thus speaketh the Lord,” but, “I say to you” (see Matt. 5:21-28, where the difference is accentuated again and again). He does not even say: “My Father speaks to you through me,” but: I myself say…. And He adds: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). “Go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). At the close of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares that obedience to His words is the sole basis on which life capable of existing in eternity can be founded; all life founded on anything else will disintegrate under God’s gaze. (See the parable of the house built upon the sand in Matt. 7: 24-27.)

The miracles are worked without excitement or display; Jesus’ calm, self-understood attitude toward them is that of one accustomed to doing whatever he wills. Everywhere in the Old Testament God’s self-revelation is sustained by His awareness that He is the Lord not only over things, but independently of things, in His own right because He is who He is. Sovereignty is elemental to Him, and this same sovereignty is in Christ. Not for nothing was the name reserved solely for God immediately applied to the Son: “Kyrios Christos.” It appeared with the ease of a foregone conclusion, of necessity, since He actually was the Lord, whose sovereignty covers not only material reality but also that which is immeasurably greater: the law and the covenant. When the Pharisees protest that Jesus’ disciples are breaking the law by plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath, He replies: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12: 8), and with the Sabbath, the entire law. At the Last Supper He formally declares the old covenant fulfilled and He proceeds to establish the new heart and mainspring of religious life, the Eucharist. (See Luke 22:20.)

We know exactly when and how He went about it. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe how Jesus, before His death, celebrated the Passover for the last time with His disciples. During that feast, whose celebration differed sharply from the traditional form, He instituted the new feast in His memory and the new covenant in His blood. St. John reports the speech Jesus made at Capharnaum, where He promised men His Eucharistic flesh and blood. (See John 6.) Finally, St. Paul speaks of it in the eleventh chapter of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, where he stresses the fact that the Lord Himself revealed it to him.

What Jesus instituted, then, was ratified by God. Man has here no call to create or determine; his task is to obey and act. Moreover, the institution itself is entrusted to a special authority for protection and guidance.

It is conceivable that the Lord could have instituted the mystery and then left it to the pious inspiration of the believers. Had He done so, it would have passed through history, formed and colored by the peculiarities of various governments, races, epochs. The development of its central theme would have been handed over to the experience and creative powers of the believers. But this is not what Christ did. He did not entrust His institution to the freely streaming spirit or to the religious inspiration of the moment, but to an office which He Himself established. He wanted His followers to live not as a loose collection of individuals with their sundry convictions and experiences, but as a constitutional unit, as a Church. When He chose the apostles He was already conferring office and authority upon the Church: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.” “He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me; and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me” (Matt. 18:18; Luke 10:16). That office was to continue through history: “all days, even unto the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20). Consequently the apostles were to have successors to whom that office could be passed. To this office, to the Church, Christ’s institution was entrusted. Her authority determines the form and details of the sacred service. Though it has adapted itself to the characteristics of peoples and periods during the course of centuries, its core has remained the same, and it is the Church that has kept it intact. The adaptations themselves sprang only partly from the differences of historical settings; the predominant cause for all modifications was the ecclesiastical office itself which, constantly active, adapted and rearranged details, yet preserved the efficacy and unity of the whole.

From this we begin to see the attitude that is required of us: faith, piety, and vital participation. These are not to be shaped and guided solely by private experience and religious creativeness, nor are they to be given free rein; they are to be practiced in the spirit of acceptance and obedience. When believers attend Holy Mass they go not to express their own religious emotion nor to receive direction and inspiration from the spiritual talents of a man who enjoys their special trust. They enter into an order established by God; they go to participate in a prescribed service.

Criticism of liturgical details may be acceptable, but no matter how well qualified we might be for fundamental criticism or for religious self-expression, in all essentials we must renounce both our private desires and our personal disapproval. This does not mean that the believer is placed under tutelage; it is simply a clarification of domains. Criticism is good where it makes sense; criticism of the Mass makes none. One can very well criticize the lighting system of a city, but not the course of the sun; one can find fault with the arrangement of a particular garden, but not with the natural order of growth, bloom, and fruition. Here it is a question of something similar, only incomparably greater. The Lord’s institution belongs to revelation and with revelation to creation itself. To see this is to possess the key to understanding creation; to accept it is the first step toward the sanctuary.  

Romano Guardini 

Meditations Before Mass




Monday, February 10, 2020

Hindrances to Full Participation at Mass Part III - Human Nature

Guardini concludes this subsection on hindrances to full participation in Mass with Human Nature.  There is a stark simplicity with which Christ institutes the Eucharist - entrusting to His disciples the divine dignity of the mystery into human hands.  The sacred act is placed within the context of the Passover but other than that Our Lord simply plants the seed that will give growth over time.  He establishes, thus, something vital in history understanding all of its vicissitudes yet does not foster mere mimicry. He understands that this greatest of mysteries will be celebrated by human beings.  Guardini writes: "Holy Mass is celebrated by people, by a priest and servers and the congregation. All are human. One is deeply appreciative of the special nature and form of the liturgy; another is not. One responds easily to symbols; another only to ideas or moral precepts. Even within a single individual the degrees of readiness and spiritual participation fluctuate."  Our Lord entrusts Himself to those who each approach Him uniquely and at times with dramatically different dispositions, understandings and shortcomings. All of this challenges the individual as to whether he will be a spectator with expectations that will either be met with pleasure or disappointment or one who fully participates and understands that his experience of Holy Mass depends also on himself and his faith.  Each must act within an established order to the best of his ability but never allow real or perceived limitations to excuse himself from the Sacred Act.     
How EXACTLY, did the Lord institute the mystery of the Eucharist? Considering what was happening, Who was placing the essence of His being and work into an act which henceforth, constantly renewed, was to form the center of religious existence, one would suppose that He minutely determined everything the structure of the whole as well as the details of words and action; that He protected this holy of holies from the disturbing and distorting effects of history by placing it in a spiritual “preserve” guarded by strict laws. The more so since the Old Testament tradition from which He came had developed an elaborate cult life, so that on the one hand He would find such specification only natural, on the other He would consider it necessary in order to keep the line between the old and the new clear and definite. Yet actually it was quite different. The Gospel reports show that Christ was completely filled with the significance of the moment. It is unthinkable that He could have been careless of anything. He does precisely what He set out to do. But what is that? In connection with the Passover feast, He takes bread, pronounces over it the words we know, and offers it to His followers to eat. He does the same with the chalice. He says: “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of Me.” It is plain whom He means: the apostles and their successors. What they must do is also evident: “these things” that He Himself has just done, without warping or “spiritualizing” them. That is all. Nothing more is said: no instructions on how the act is to be worked out in detail, its position in a greater whole or frame, when and where it is to be performed, and all the other questions which naturally arise. Thus the terse command of infinite possibilities and divine dignity is laid with startling simplicity in human hands.
Jesus drew upon the situation of the Passover for the sacred act and commanded that in future it continue to be celebrated in this new form. In brief, He arranged no proceedings; He planted a seed, which promptly took root in the young congregation and unfolded there. The Church has always known that what took place on Maundy Thursday was to be renewed in the celebration of the Eucharist: not in the form of mimicry, but as a vital realization. The seed has always been directly affected by its “soil” by all the forces, motives, circumstances that affected its growth, again by the size of the congregation, by its urban or rural location, by the kind of people in it and the historical and cultural situation in which they found themselves.
Thus the cornerstone of the sacred act was laid in history and what long and diversified history! There could not fail to appear along with its vital, indestructible aspects, others bound to prove transitory, soon to become extinct. The whole structure had to “settle” sometime in the process, shifting certain concepts out of-line. Sometimes less valuable additions managed to creep into language or ritual, and there were other dangers, quite aside from the hazards of the “dead language” employed.
Another thing: Holy Mass is celebrated by people, by a priest and servers and the congregation. All are human. One is deeply appreciative of the special nature and form of the liturgy; another is not. One responds easily to symbols; another only to ideas or moral precepts. Even within a single individual the degrees of readiness and spiritual participation fluctuate. There are alert and joyous periods, but also periods of indifference and despondency, carelessness and dullness. God’s sacred act is planted in human imperfection. Celebrated by a priest for whom the liturgy is really alive, its words and gestures are convincing; by one who is not immersed in the spirit of the liturgy they are apt to appear forced and unnatural. Then there are all the private, little shortcomings of speech and bearing and movement which can be so distracting. The same is true of the congregation. It too can be understanding or indifferent, can actively participate or merely allow events to take their course. It can be educated to the celebration of the Mass and really understand; but it can also passively watch the ceremony unwind, an accepted tradition, day after day, Sunday after Sunday. It can enter into the sacred action or remain outside, carrying on its private devotion with all the varying shades of mood that ever variable human life contains.
For the individual believer this can present serious difficulties. When he goes to Holy Mass he finds it as it is with all its inadequacies. Everything depends on whether he remains a spectator who expects to be “offered something decent” and is accordingly pleased or disappointed or whether he understands that it is a question of service performed together, hence depending not only on the priest and the rest of the congregation, but also on himself.
Everyone is responsible for the celebration of the Mass, each according to his qualifications. As far as he is able to act within the established order, the individual should do everything in his power to perfect a practice or remove an abuse. Beyond that, he must accept the Mass he attends as it happens to be. He must not be unduly upset by its limitations; certainly he must not use them as an excuse to withhold his share of participation. He should remind himself that the essential remains untouched, should enter into it and help to accomplish the sacred act.

Romano Guardini
Meditations before Mass

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Hindrance to Full Participation in Mass Part Two: Sentimentality

We turn now to the second hinderance to full participation in the Mass which Guardini identifies as Sentimentality.  He describes it as follows: "the desire to be
moved: by loneliness or delight, sorrow or dread; by greatness and exaltedness or weakness and helplessness somehow to be moved."  Surprisingly, it is not the what we would consider emotionalism.  Most often, Guardini tells us, it is found in those who are rather self disciplined in approach to things, both in regard to their intellects and wills.  It is quite simply "a spiritual softness tinged with sensuality."  This softness tinges the perception of the saints and spiritual devotion, robbing it in a sense of its depth; a kind of Christian piety gone wrong.  To the sentimental, the Mass seems overly austere and uncomfortable and so it and other devotions become tinged with an artificial and unnatural fussiness and saccharine quality.  Where there should be silence and depth of reflection, one often finds a stylized mimicry that conceals rather than reveals.  The austerity and dignity of genuine mystery is lost to a false kind of mysticism steeped in personal leanings and tastes.  These personal inclinations must be brought to heel, Guardini tells us, under "the powers that govern the inner life of the Church."
TO PUT it bluntly, sentimentality is essentially the desire to be moved: by loneliness or delight, sorrow or dread; by greatness and exaltedness or weakness and helplessness somehow to be moved. The need is greater with one person than with another, but we all have it to some extent. Strangely enough, it is particularly dominant in people who do not appear at all emotional: self-disciplined men of intellect and will; practical, prosaic natures. From this we see that sentimentality is not the same as real sentiment, which is powerful, unclouded and chaste. Sentimentality is a half sentiment, a spiritual softness tinged with sensuality. Hence it is strong not only in people without a clear-cut genuine sense of values, but also in those who seem to stand completely on “character,” with emphasis leaning so heavily on will and discipline that their neglected feelings easily slide off into the questionable and inferior.
All this has its parallel in the religious life. The sentimental believer’s attitude to the great figures of sanctity, the truths he prefers, the passages he frequently quotes, his whole bearing, everything disposes him to emotionalism.
Up to a certain point there is little that can be said against this; it is simply a predisposition, like a fuzzy mind or weak muscles. But when a believer allows such a tendency to dominate him, it becomes disastrous, robbing revelation of its greatness, distorting the saints, and generally rendering his religious life soft, weak, unnatural, and embarrassing. Examples of sentimentality meet us everywhere; we’ve only to glance at the popular spiritual-exercise leaflets, the average samples of “religious art,” or to read some of the meditations on Christ’s passion or on the poor souls in purgatory. One theme in particular has fallen under this deplorable influence: the Sacred Heart. By rights this devotion belongs to the profoundest level of Christian piety. Its expression should be huge with the magnitude of revealed truth and vibrant with the power of Christ’s conviction. It should be noble and pure. Instead, it is only too often characterized by an intolerable effeminacy and unnaturalness.
Much more could be said on the subject. At any rate, sentimentality is a force that must be reckoned with. For the sentimental believer participation in the Mass is extremely difficult. He finds the sacred act neither comforting nor edifying, but austere, coldly impersonal, almost forbidding. And for people like himself he is right. The Mass is austere. Its tremendous concepts are expressed tersely. Its action is simple. Its words are clear and concise; its emotion controlled. Its spiritual attitude is that of profoundest surrender, but still and chaste. Sentimentality tries to gild the lily by transferring its own trimmings to the Mass. The altar, never meant to depart far from the pure form of the sacred table, becomes a pompous welter of cherubs and little lamps and much glitter; the action is garlanded with gestures contrived above all to touch the emotions; the servers’ apparel is fussy and doll-like. Texts and music are of an ingratiating sweetness. In place of the missal’s powerful language, we find Mass “devotions” abounding in artificial conceptions and soft, unnatural sentiments. Thus the central truth of the Mass is lost. The Lord’s memorial becomes an “edifying” exhibition, and earnest participation in the sacred ceremony is supplanted by a touching “experience.”
The event which took place at the Last Supper in Jerusalem and the death which the Lord died on the cross both mysteriously interwoven, as His own words reveal are renewed again and again. Christ commanded: “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of Me.” The Church accepted the command, obeying it through the centuries to the end of time. How does she “do them”? In the strict form of the liturgy.
How would such doing look had it been left to the religious sentiments if not downright sentimentalities of the pious? To have an idea, we really should examine some of the devotional leaflets. Everything would be extremely wordy and moving, the fearful and gruesome aspects of suffering would be stressed wherever possible, Jesus’ love would be the constantly reiterated theme. A pious importunity would accost Him, praise and pity Him, place all sorts of touching phrases in His mouth. The texts of the missal speak quite differently. They are clear and concise. Their tone is that of profound emotion, dignified and controlled. Jesus Himself is hardly addressed. Not at all during the Canon; briefly after the completion of the act of commemoration in the Agnus Dei and in the prayers before Communion always with great reserve. As a rule, the words of the Mass are addressed to the Father. There is no mention at all of the Lord’s feelings during His passion and dying. Veiled in deepest reverence, they stand mute behind the whole mystery.
As for the sacred action, we see from the Passion Plays how the sentiments of the believers would have developed it: in the direction of an elaborate mimicry of what took place in the room of the Last Supper and on Golgotha. When we consider the alternatives, we begin to realize what divine powers were necessary to create something as truly God inspired as the Mass is.
Here is neither mimicry nor sentimental, vicarious experience. What took place on Golgotha does not come to the fore at all, but remains eloquently silent behind the whole. The action is taken from the event in the Supper chamber, again not imitated but translated into a strict, stylized form that conceals as much as it reveals. The early Christians believed that it was proper to clothe the sacred in mystery. One reason for their attitude was the danger of persecution, which profaned it at every opportunity; but they also knew that mystery is the natural element of holiness. This element has been lost to us, or allowed to sink into the twilight of emotionalism and false mysticism. Possibly one of the most pressing tasks of the religious renewal is to rediscover genuine mystery and the attitude it requires, an attitude that has nothing sentimental about it and that flatly refuses to “facilitate” the demands of faith, preferring to guard its full austerity and dignity. In the liturgy alone may the only genuine arcane discipline still in existence be found and acquired.
The strict form of the Mass, then, aims at the exact opposite of what sentimentality desires. Sentimentality, desirous of being moved, employs to this end stirring gestures evocative of terror and helplessness, words dripping with feeling, exciting imagery, moving dialogue and the like. Nothing of all this is to be found in the Mass; thus the sentimental believer has three choices: he can relinquish all hope of establishing vital contact with the Mass and retire into his own sphere of private devotions; he can falsify its character, turning it into a kind of moving Passion Play; or he can courageously face his inclinations and bring them to heel. Sentimentality must be overcome; otherwise genuine contact with the Mass is impossible. The individual must discard once and forever the habit of judging it from his personal leanings and tastes, for its form is that which obedience to the Lord’s command has received from His Church. Of course, here too exaggeration must be avoided. Neither her ceremonies nor their wording should assume the absoluteness of dogmas; but this much is certain: the manner in which the Lord’s memorial is executed in the Church is the lex orandi, the norm of divine service. He who really wishes to believe in other words, to obey revelation must obey also in this, schooling his private sentiments on that norm. Then it will be clear to him that here a spiritual life of quite different dimensions from that of his personal piety is at work. He will come to know feeling that emerges from the profundity of God. He will enter the inner realm of Christ. He will experience in himself the powers that govern the inner life of the Church.

Romano Guardini
Meditations before Mass