The liturgy: foremost and indispensable

Liturgy the lifeBlaming the Jesuits
Father Blake of Brighton, with his customary candour, writes in a recent post:

I blame the Jesuits and the Spirit of the Council of Trent for the cerebralization of prayer and the Spiritual Life.  The Pre-Tridentine life of Christians was rich in actions, signs and symbol; prayer was more than just silent contemplation, it involved bodies too, corporal penance, fasting, prostrations or genuflections, pilgrimage, processions, almsgiving, caring for the needy; these things formed the environment of prayer.

Father Blake’s contention is not new. It was, in fact, at the beginning of the last century, the crux of an impassioned exchange between learned Benedictines and Jesuits. On the Benedictine side, the protagonists were Dom Lambert Beauduin, the founder of Amay, and Dom Maurice Festugière. On the Jesuit side, stood R.P. Jean–Jacques Navatel and, later, R.P. Louis Peeters.

Individualism or Submission
Dom Beauduin argued that the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, insofar as they tend to focus on the individual man and his personal psychological response the subjects proposed to his meditation, these being quite independent of the liturgical calendar of the Church, foster individualism rather than a spirit of humble submission to the grand ecclesial program deployed in the sacred liturgy. The soul jesuitically trained is quite comfortable doing things in her own way; the Benedictine soul, in contrast, is brought up to live in reference and in deference to Tradition, finding Tradition’s purest expression and principal organ in the sacred liturgy.

Jesuits, as practical individuals, are wont to pray privately in whatever posture a man finds congenial; there is a certain distrust of ritual, corporate ceremony, and rubrics. Nec cantat, nec rubricat. This approach to private prayer even affects the way certain Jesuit priests celebrate Holy Mass. Benedictines, on the whole, are wont to submit to whatever rites, ceremonies, and rubrics have been passed on to them. Schooled by long hours in choir, day after day, they habitually engage their bodies in a kind of sacred choreography that affects their most intimate yearnings Godward. Just as the Jesuit’s approach to personal prayer colours his approach to the liturgy, so too do a Benedictine’s liturgical instincts colour his personal prayer.

 A Retreat Long Ago
Reflecting on my own experience, I am obliged to concur with Dom Beauduin. I once attempted an Ignatian retreat under the direction of an experienced and acclaimed Jesuit Father. It was all very foreign to me . . . almost like another religion. I found it impossible to relate to an ascetical method that makes abstraction of the Divine Office and of the round of liturgical seasons, fasts, and feasts that express what Dom Beauduin called la piété de l’Église, the piety of the Church. The good Father’s indifference to the Divine Office — an option, so he said, for those who like that sort of thing — cast a chill over the whole experience. I persevered until the end of the retreat and did my best to make the prescribed times of meditation. I recently came across my notes of that retreat. It was not altogether fruitless. I just found it odd to search for one’s own subjective way while ignoring the objective riches of the sacred liturgy, all gloriously available, and flowing with living water in an infinity of rivulets.

 Dom Beauduin’s Indictment
For Dom Lambert Beauduin, the Jesuit approach carried with it the risk of making holiness depend on one’s personal effort rather than on one’s submission, in faith, to the objective and salutary impact of the Church’s liturgy. Dom Beauduin went so far as to say, and I quote here his conversation with Père de Montrichard, that “the complete method of Saint Ignatius, taken as the principal base of Christian piety, is destructive of the Catholic spirit, that is, of what is universal.”

 The Controversy
The Benedictine—Jesuit controversy over the place of the liturgy in the Christian life was ignited when, in 1913, Dom Festugière, a monk of Maredsous, published a lengthy article in La revue de Philosophie, in which he developed the teaching of Pope Saint Pius X in Tra le sollecitudini (22 November 1903): the liturgy is the primary and indispensable source of the authentic Christian spirit. Certain Jesuits, alerted to Dom Festugière’s article, took offense at its premise, and set out to counter it with their own arguments in favour of the Spiritual Exercises. Zealous sons of Saint Ignatius, among them the learned Father Navatel, director of the Jesuit review Études, argued, even in the face of Pope Pius X’s clear affirmation, that the liturgy need not be considered the primary and indispensable source of Christian piety, and that one could grow in holiness without engaging in the liturgical life of the Church save, of course, in the sacraments. Many Jesuits, as well as a multitude of religious congregations and pious sodalities under Jesuit direction, felt shaken by the new wave of emphasis on liturgy, fearing that it would gain popularity and, in the end, diminish the appeal of the Spiritual Exercises and of the various currents of piety derived from them.

Dom Festugière held firmly to his defense of the teaching of Pope Pius X, repeating it in season and out of season:

We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. (Tra le sollecitudini, 22 November 1903)

Dom Lambert Beauduin developed the same seminal intution in his epoch–making essay, La piété de l’Eglise (1914). He unveiled the basic framework of the Christian asceticism and mysticism already contained in the liturgical books of the Church —the Missal, Breviary, Pontifical, and Ritual — and proposed these as the “foremost and indispensable” sources of the Christian life.

Blessed Columba Marmion
The saintly Irish Abbot of Maredsous, Blessed Columba Marmion entered the fray in defense of Dom Festugière and Dom Beauduin. Writing in 1914 to the above–mentioned Father Louis Peeters, Provincial of the Jesuits in Belgium, Blessed Marmion admits to having made the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius twice before entering Maredsous; the experience was not without benefit to him. As a young diocesan priest,  Marmion would have embraced the Ignatian method such as it was presented to most seminarians and priests at the time. “The exercises of Saint Ignatius,” writes Abbot Marmion, “done under the direction of an enlightened guide are a incomparably effective means for breaking with a worldly or vicious life and for entering into the way that leads to God” (Letter to R.P. Peeters, S.J.). Dom Marmion went on to say:

As an habitual method of prayer, I have found in practice that a very large number, the vast majority of priests especially, who followed it in the seminary, and who promised themselves that they would continue it as priests, overcome by the difficulty and dryness of this method, abandoned all meditation shortly after leaving the seminary, to the great detriment of their souls and their ministry.

Blessed Marmion’s indictment is compelling, given his vast experience as a director of souls. Like Dom Festugière and Dom Beauduin, Blessed Abbot Marmion criticised the Ignatian approach for being, in effect, severed from the wellspring of all prayer in the liturgy of the Church. He found it subjective and individualistic, giving rise to unfortunate complications and to an exaggerated voluntarism. Responding to a religious who sought his direction, Blessed Marmion wrote:

I am the mortal enemy of what is called “direction.” The Holy Ghost alone can form souls; and the director has only to point out to his spiritual child the road by which God is leading her; give her some general rules for her conduct, and control her progress; answer her difficulties, if any, at distant intervals. Thus, if I see you during the Retreat, two, or at most three, letters a year would suffice. This is specially true of Religious whose interior life is based on the liturgy; for the source in which they find the food of their souls is so pure, that their souls are much less liable to error and hallucination, than those who elaborate their whole spiritual life out of their own inner consciousness. (1 May 1906)

 The Question of the Choral Office
The nexus of the controversy lay, I think, deeply buried in the suppression of the choral celebration of the Hours in the Society of Jesus in 1550. Although dictated by a pressing need for increased apostolic mobility and freedom, the Jesuit refusal to submit to the tradition of the choral Office symbolized the crisis that, for a long time already, had threatened the unity of three elements: liturgy, theology and piety. Liturgy fled to the cloisters for refuge; theology set up shop in the universities; and piety found a new home among the proponents of the Spiritual Exercices and their disciples.

Let it be said that Saint Ignatius himself was not without a certain devotion to liturgical prayer. In the Spiritual Exercises he recommends that the retreatant so arrange things “that it be in his power to go each day to Mass and to Vespers, without fear that his acquaintances will put obstacles in his way.” While not wanting his men bound to the choral Office in their own houses, Saint Ignatius was not, in any way, opposed to their attending the Hours, whenever it was convenient for them to do so, in monasteries and collegiate churches.

Father Willie Doyle, S.J., one of Saint Ignatius’s Irish sons and a model of priestly holiness presents the private recitation of the Divine Office as integral to the life of the priest. Father Doyle writes: “Holy, too, are the lips of the priest, formed to utter words no other man may speak. Seven times a day with the Psalmist, in the Divine Office, they sing the praises of God.”

 Poetry, Science, and the Practical
The advent of the Great War in 1914 quieted the Benedictine—Jesuit controversy for a time. It resurfaces, nonetheless, again and again, remaining a litigious point even among men of virtue and learning, faithful sons of the Church. In his famous essay on the mission of Saint Benedict, Blessed John Henry Newman recognizes a certain necessary diversity of charisms in the Church. Among many, he singles out three: that of the Benedictines, that of the Dominicans, and that of the Jesuits. To the sons of Saint Benedict, he ascribes the gift of Poetry; to the sons of Saint Dominic, the gift of Science; and to the sons of Saint Ignatius, the gift of the Practical.

To St. Benedict, then, who may fairly be taken to represent the various families of monks before his time and those which sprang from him (for they are all pretty much of one school), to this great Saint let me assign, for his discriminating badge, the element of Poetry; to St. Dominic, the Scientific element; and to St. Ignatius, the Practical. (John Henry Newman)

What would the Church be without the poem of the sacred liturgy? What is science without poetry? And where can the practical man (the Jesuit) go, if he has not the poet (the monk) to show him the way?