Hidden Under the Whole of Life: Synodality and Liturgy by Michael Centore

At a Synod press briefing in Rome last October, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn stated unequivocally: “The liturgy is at the heart, the celebrated faith. There is no synodality without liturgy.” Though the concept of synodality and its theological, spiritual, and ecclesiological associations is still coalescing in the minds and hearts of the faithful, and likely will be for quite some time, the liturgy stands as one place where the experience of “journeying together” can be said to be concretized. When we enter into liturgical space—even with its well-attested shortfalls, the at times uninspired music or homilies or the inaccessible nature of some of its language—we are stepping into what the Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff envisioned as “a sacred play involving the whole of man [sic].” We are not simply invited to “set our differences aside” in some rote rehearsal of conciliation, but to go deeper together into the Divine Mystery where the boundary between church (ekklesia) and kingdom (basileia) of God begins to dissolve in the advent of Christ in the Eucharist. Here is how the Synod’s interim Synthesis Report describes this moment:

From the Eucharist we learn to articulate unity and diversity: unity of the Church and multiplicity of Christian communities; unity of the sacramental mystery and variety of liturgical traditions; unity of celebration and diversity of vocations, charisms and ministries. Nothing shows more than the Eucharist that the harmony created by the Spirit is not uniformity and that every ecclesial gift is intended for common edification. (3.F)

A vespers antiphon for the Feast of Corpus Christi gets at this succinctly, conjuring the inherent irenicism of the Mass as it is rooted in physical matter: “The Lord, who makes peace on the borders of the Church, fills us with the finest wheat.” In his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, the 14th-century lay theologian Nicholas Cabasilas draws together the matter and meaning, the sign and the sacrament, of the communion offering with limpid simplicity: “The need of baking bread and making wine to drink is peculiar to man. That is why we offer bread and wine.” Indeed, what could be more primordially synodal than the act of eating together? It is a theme that runs through Louis Bouyer’s study of the “anthropological antecedents of Christianity,” Rite and Man. “[A] common meal makes men appreciate their relation with the cosmos which provides the natural resources for their life,” he writes, setting the Eucharist in its proper perspective: “Eating in common is the human act par excellence, where society is built up as from within; while each man perfects himself by integrating himself with the universe.”

As the boundary between church and kingdom can be said to dissolve during the climax of the Mass, so the boundary between self and Christ—if there ever was one—can be felt to fall away in the moment of assimilation of the Eucharistic host. The salivary enzymes break down the edges of the consecrated bread, which exists as the Body of Christ and yet retains, on a very literal level, its core components of wheat and water. We thus ingest Christ in nature, as nature: the wheat of the fields, the water of the rivers and rains are guided by human hands to shape the host, which is spiritualized in the course of the liturgy and fed, as communion, to the assembled congregation. We all partake of the one Christ who has gathered these elements of created matter into the food of himself, transfused into his very body—the cosmic Christ enveloping earthly particulars, guiding them, gifting them in a way not unrelated to how the hands of the Father shape creation in the opening chapters of Genesis.

When the church calls for liturgical renewal—or, at the very least, a renewed focus on the liturgy, as it does several times in the Synthesis Report—what it seems to be seeking is a reexperience of the livingness, of the “life-itselfness” of the Eucharist, through which we come to perceive what Bouyer names as “the ritual figurations of the sacred.” These “figurations,” he writes, “originally evoked the creative virtue hidden under the whole of life, and they evoked it precisely under the present shape exhibited to us by the cosmic powers, in its rhythm of eternal births and deaths, in the relentless pursuit of a union, a reunion which inevitably vanishes again.” In a world that has become so desacralized, where everything, including human life, is instrumentalized for the project of economic growth, the need for real ritual figuration that aligns us to eternal rhythms is felt all the more acutely.

It is the task of a synodal liturgy to reveal this need to us, to inspire how we might recapture some of those ancient salutary impulses to sanctify the world and remodel them for each other in our own moment of history. A common starting point is to see the liturgy as a kind of school of spiritual formation; this is the image given in the Synthesis Report (3.K), and it is the same one that Thomas Merton imparted to young monks when he was novice master at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the late 1950s:

The liturgy is the expression of the Church’s love for God. Hence it is a school of love. It forms our hearts, minds, wills, sensibilities and taste. But this formation is not merely psychological. We are formed by the objective reality of God’s love for us, acting upon us in and through the liturgy.

Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, who characterized the liturgy as the theologia prima, or “primordial theology,” of the church, suggests a different approach. In his 1982 book The Elements of the Rite, he writes, “The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.” This movement from education to seduction feels at first counterintuitive. The two terms have vastly differing connotations, reflected in their respective etymologies: the root of the former comes from the Latin educere, to draw out or lead forth, while the latter derives from seducere, to lead away; education expresses a direction, a building up or strengthening of the self in knowledge, while seduction implies a deviation, a going astray, often toward some licentious end. How, then, are we to conceive of Kavanagh’s curious framing?

One answer might come from his brother Benedictine David Steindl-Rast, who says that “God’s inexhaustible poetry comes to me in five languages: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting.” The liturgy is a living poem, and we must enter into it as we would a poem on a page, as much by surrender as by cognition. As with the poem, each aspect of the liturgy inheres into an interdependent whole; to be seduced is to be disarmed by the beauty of its economy, the way symbol is perfectly coterminous with reality. This is what makes it more than a poem, where language conjures correspondences between one thing and another but never achieves their total wordless oneness. The poem can say the bread is like Christ’s body, the Mass can make it so. We are at the heart of a metaphor that can only be apprehended through the senses—Steindl-Rast’s examples of God’s poetic devices—and assimilated, literally, through ingestion and imbibement, in silence.

Where this has implications for synodality is in the way we interpret this living poem to one another—not in the sense of explication or catechesis, necessarily, but as we are present to each other throughout the Mass, even and especially in the quiet of the moment following reception of the Eucharist. Like a biodynamic forest where plants and trees exchange nutrients beneath the soil, our connection is invisible to the eye and yet bonded in the bread of the One Body of which we all partake. To carry this connection through to life outside the liturgy—or, perhaps better put, to find ways of liturgizing our daily life—is a point of departure for the synodal church as described by Richard McBrien: “In celebrating the Eucharist we take on the mind and heart of Jesus himself, opening ourselves, as he did, to everyone without exception and committing ourselves to the creation of a world where no one is excluded from the table.” ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic.

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