“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” says Jesus, “there am I among them.”
It is the mark of a narcissistic age that people have come to interpret these words as suggesting that we make Jesus present by means of our community, when exactly the reverse is the case. The only reason we are gathered is that Jesus has already united us. We gather not in our names but in His name. It is He who has called us out of the darkness of egoism into His wonderful light.
The law that we are ever really united only from above, and not by our power but by our surrendering to the power of something that transcends us, holds true, as Dietrich von Hildebrand shows, even for things in the natural order. “We must not forget,” says he, “that values possess a unifying power; and the higher the value in question, the greater this power. In beholding a value, in grasping it, the soul of the individual is not only ‘recollected,’ drawn out of ‘distraction,’ but the barrier isolating him from other men is lifted.” When two men of deep sensitivity listen to Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew, distinctions of class and party melt away. If business rivals or brothers in conflict suddenly encounter an act of great heroism, their hard thoughts are taken from their hearts, and all division seems petty; they enjoy together the warmth of the goodness, as people brought out of a dank cave behold the sun, and one another by its light.
It follows that beauty and solemnity are not aesthetic attachments but are of the essence of the community-forming power of values generally, and of the liturgy above all. If we attend a ballgame we may enjoy the good fellowship of other fans in the stands, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the fellowship is slight and transient. The liturgy, by contrast, “combines holy sobriety with the greatest ardor, eternal calm with the deepest emotion, holy fear with holy joy, and winged peace.” It can accomplish this because, though it employs our language and gestures and art, it is not in its essence ours, but Christ’s. Says Hildebrand: “The Liturgy is Christ praying.” In Christ we may all be one, since Christ is Himself wholly God and wholly man, the consummate human person. In God alone are our particularities founded, and in Christ are they brought together in a communion of polyphonic praise and love.
Hildebrand gives us powerful examples of how this is so. Consider the words of St. Paul, which used to be heard in the epistle on Holy Saturday: “Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God.” For you are dead: The words strike with the shock of a fearful and mysterious revelation. We hear the service, and expect to be dwelling upon the body of Christ in the grave, in that dead time between the Cross and the stone rolled away from the tomb. But we hear more; we hear that we too are dead. We have died with Christ in baptism. We are dying to ourselves and the world. We must no longer mind the things that are below. We must no longer haunt the tombs by the roadside. The world misses it, but our life is hid with Christ in God, just as the first Easter was yet hidden in the earth, or rather hidden in the providence of the Father.
In other words, in the liturgy, the words of one prophet or saint are brought into communication with other events, other human beings, and other works of God. It is not simply that the Old Testament foreshadows the New, and it is certainly not that the Old may be dispensed with. The liturgy transfigures individuality. We recall that on the glorious mountain Jesus was seen alongside Moses and Elijah, and they from the Old Testament were in conversation with Him; exactly as the reading from the Old Testament, the psalm, the epistle, and the gospel are placed in conversation with one another, in Christ’s prayer, the liturgy.
The spirit of the liturgy suggests that we do not become ourselves until we join the symphony. “An isolated man,” says Hildebrand, “one who has not become conscious of the ultimate objective link binding him to all other men before God, is an unawakened, immature, even a mutilated man.” Think of the loneliness of modern man, who is encouraged to fall in adoration before the abstraction of choice, when choice is the only thing that matters, but whether it is one choice or another matters not at all. Such a man may enjoy the company of others like him, but not the deep friendship founded upon a shared reverence for something of transcendent worth, something that we do not choose but rather receive, as a wondrous gift. But “the fathers of the desert and the hermits lived entirely in that spirit of true communion,” and the people sought them out, and they prayed for one another and commiserated and rejoiced with one another. St. Simon, that extravagant ascetic on the pillar, was more deeply immersed in communion with God and with his fellow man, and was more fully a person, than are our “pagan contemporaries inhabiting crowded cities, surrounded by other men and bound to them by peripheral ties.”
To affirm that we are united only from above, however, is not to affirm that the union occurs on the cheap. Consider the mystery of personal being. Hildebrand understands that even in the case of human friendship, there are stages which must be passed through, and this discretion is right and just. The man who knows only technological efficiency will not understand it, but will want “to fabricate things brutally, from the outside, without any sense of the dramatic character of the being’s unfolding itself in time.” Even in friendship, he makes shortcuts.
But there are no careless aisles to the Almighty, or shortcuts in the liturgy. We do not, we should not, approach the Lord with thoughtless familiarity. Hildebrand recalls the words of the priest preparing for Mass: “I shall go in unto the altar of God, of God, who gives joy to my youth.” That is but the first step by which we ascend to the mystery of the gospel, and then to the mystery, coming down to meet us, of Christ’s action, making Himself present in the blessed sacrament. We are the beholders and partakers of that world-penetrating event. If we are imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, then, falling to our knees as we confess that we are not worthy of so great a grace, we find ourselves in our self-forgetting, and find our neighbor too, kneeling beside us.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College.