LITURGICAL SPIRITUAL RENEWAL

Ivan Merz

LITURGICAL SPIRITUAL RENEWAL
Lecture held at a Catholic school youth meeting in Požega, August 1924

(Catholic periodical Luč, Zagreb, November 4, 1924, vol. XX, no. 1, pp. 11-17)

If we look at the history of Christ’s Church, we will be amazed by the great multitude of orders, saints, institutions, and masterpieces of every kind. We cannot but observe the history of Catholics with pride and joy: the heroism of the first martyrs and crusaders, the apostolic zeal of Sts. Francis and Dominic and their brothers, the wise statecraft of Sts. Louis and Henry, the scholarship of Sts. Thomas and St. Teresa. We can rightly apply the words of the Holy Scripture to the Church and its history: Circumdata varietatibus (Ps 44:10)[1].

However, if we look more closely at all this diversity of the Church throughout different centuries and among different peoples, we will come to the conclusion that the basis for this diversity is the spiritual life of individuals – the relationship of their souls with God and the activity of the Grace of God in their souls. This is what is essential, substantial, whereas all the other manifestations of religious life, all these visible expressions of the activity of the Holy Spirit in human history are inessential, accidental.

We, who are gathered in the organizations of so-called Catholic Action, which is a contemporary manifestation of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church, are connected with past generations of Catholics by this important movement that holds a very special place in the life of the Church. This whole system of lay organizations with the aim of consolidating, applying, protecting, and defending Catholic principles in the lives of individuals, families, and human society – this whole system, I say, fully meets the needs of today’s dechristianized society. The methods of Catholic Action that we use today would certainly not be appropriate in past centuries, while the methods of previous centuries would in many ways be outdated today. Yet at the bottom of all these diverse methods of action lies the spiritual life of Catholics, which has been the same throughout all ages and which is the original principle of all these diverse activities.

If, therefore, we want to worthily fulfill our role as members of Catholic Action, it is absolutely necessary that we become acquainted with the foundations of our work in order to accept that universal spiritual life which remains the same among all peoples and throughout all centuries.

I think you understand where I am going with this: what all Catholics have in common is their religious life. The more perfect this religious life is, the more successful the work of individuals in the “re-establishment of all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10) will be. Since man is a social being that must rely on his neighbor, if he wants to improve in whatever respect – even religiously – each individual has to rely on the achievements of others: in a word, he must learn from others how to live spiritually.

And who is a better teacher of spiritual life than the Holy Church, which, apart from its two-thousand-year experience acts under the influence of the Holy Spirit Himself? Can there be better methods than the ones that the Church teaches? Let us, therefore, humbly knock on its door and ask it to be our guide in our spiritual life; let us ask that our limited, worthless lives may become partakers in the Church’s infinite inner life, that our meager souls may expand to the immensity of divine life.

The Church achieves this through its Holy Liturgy. Liturgy is the official prayer of the Church, the official prayer of the Bride of Christ, a conversation between the Bride and the divine Bridegroom. Oh, how gladly we listen to a conversation between two very wise men; it seems to us that our chests are expanding and that we ourselves are becoming wiser. How much more, then, should we harken to the conversation between Christ our God and the Church, which is like Him! Shall we ignore this whole world of ideas, shall we not allow it to lift our lives to the immeasurable heights of divine life? God forbid! And when you remember that every human soul is the bride of Christ and that your souls become mirrors of the infinite Word of God, then you wonder in astonishment: Lord, is it possible that You made such a limited being a bearer of eternity, that You work so many miracles with the human soul?

We arrive at all these insights through Holy Liturgy. It is therefore necessary to get to know it as thoroughly as possible and to benefit from it as much as possible. Here is the most important thing. The greatest thing in this world is the Holy Church; the greatest thing in the Church is the Mass; the greatest thing in the Mass is transubstantiation. Just as Christ had directed all His thoughts toward Golgotha during His earthly life, so the Bride of Christ, the Church, directs all her gazes toward the altar. Thus, what happens at the altar is the greatest thing that ever happens in the world. There, a special social act takes place – the prayer and sacrifice offered by Jesus on Calvary for the salvation of the whole world. This is the same prayer and the same sacrifice that the Catholic hierarchy, which bears Christ’s priestly order, publicly offers to God for and on behalf of all people.

But in order that we may understand the full grandeur of this act and benefit from it, the Holy Mass is clothed in a special garment. The prayers that are sung and prayed during Mass are true masterpieces of literature and music; the vestments and gestures that embellish this divine service enrich our knowledge. Various liturgical cycles throughout the year acquaint us with the central mysteries of our holy faith. Thus, throughout the year, we become acquainted with the entire life of Jesus. In the Advent, we contemplate how the Word of God resided in the infinite bosom of the heavenly Father, and at Christmas we watch Him break through the darkness of the world like an eagle and descend into the stable of Bethlehem. We then follow Him in His ministry, weep with Mary under the cross, cry out with joy after the Resurrection, receive His gifts at Pentecost and wait for the post-Pentecost season to return and for Him to appear in the clouds, clothed in heavenly splendor, surrounded by angels and saints. We experience all these phases of Jesus’ life through liturgy. We try to dive into the Savior’s soul at certain moments and we wonder what He meant on this or that occasion:

“What were Your thoughts, our Savior, when You lay on rough straw in the stable of Bethlehem? Surely we must imitate You, be content with a little and love poverty. Maybe You felt sadness in Your soul because You foresaw the destruction of Bethlehem since it gave You no shelter? Your thoughts sailed on as You mourned over those nations which refused to receive You and Your holy Church, whom also awaits the sad destiny of Bethlehem.” As we contemplate the Gospel read from the Missal at Christmas, the Holy Spirit awakens in us feelings of great love for the Christ Child and we answer Him: “It is true: how many times I have sinned, how many times I have scorned Your teaching, I too deserve no happier destiny than the inhabitants of Bethlehem. And what about our people? When we look at how they, oh Jesus, have strayed from Your teaching, how swearing and unfaith reign among them, then I begin to fear for their future. I am inclined to believe that they deserve the destiny of Bethlehem. But still, Jesus, my dear Jesus, remember that You did not come into the world to destroy it, but to save it, and that is why I personally promise You that I will satisfy for my sins and the sins of my nation by imitating You and by loving holy poverty. Specifically, I will make the following sacrifices today and I will be kind to everyone, or I will not eat a single cake after lunch, or I will humble myself in front of this and that and tell him my mistakes…”

By doing so, we will be reflecting on the immeasurable life of Christ all year long; our souls will thus become a reflection of immeasurableness itself. Liturgy further unveils for us the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the life of angels, and, finally, the whole history of the Holy Church, as reflected in its representatives – saints. When we think about all these mysteries, we become partakers of the divine nature already on earth, we become gods in a way.

Especially beautiful are the Masses dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let us, for example, look at the reading from the Feast of the Holy Rosary: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived…” These words from the Proverbs (8:22–24; 32–35) are applied in the Holy Mass to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here are some thoughts to consider. Before the Lord God created His greatest masterpiece – which by its beauty and by its charm surpasses the whole universe with all its wonders, even the angelic choirs – before the Eternal Wisdom created the Blessed Virgin Mary, He conceived her in His mind. Oh, the endless joy of the Great Artist who has enjoyed His art since the beginning of the world! And as if the Primal Artist was impatiently waiting for the right hour to create this masterpiece of all masterpieces, He sketched the main features of His future piece of art during the pre-Mary centuries: Are we not reminded of Mary when we look at Eve, who adorned the earthly paradise, or Sarah? Or take the pure and beautiful Rebekah, the bereaved Rachel, the victorious Moses’ sister Miriam, the servant Ruth, the powerful Judith, the humble Esther, the heroic Mother of Maccabees… In all these Old Testament women you will recognize a sketch of the one who would become the Mother of God. And when we plunge into the inner life of God by means of liturgy, we draw from it our method of action: If we want to produce a great masterpiece, e.g., establish an organization, nurture one single soul, convert one single opponent, we must thoroughly plan our course of action in order to accomplish our intention. And this fundamental idea will occupy our attention from within in such a way that our final intention will be unconsciously reflected in the rest of our deeds as well. Just as Ruth, Esther, and Deborah bear some features of Mary, so our final work will cast its light on all our other works. Furthermore, just as the Lord Himself performed great contemplation before the creation of the world, so every individual Catholic must perform at least one brief act of contemplation before beginning his daily work.

It is clear from the above that contemplation is best done on the basis of Holy Liturgy. Seeing as there is no complete Croatian edition of the Missal, nor is the solemn sung Mass as required by the Holy See yet known in our nation, the following instructions will only apply to what is feasible in the current circumstances. All these instructions can be reduced to three pieces of advice:

1) Read spiritual literature daily
2) Contemplate using the Missal daily
3) Do not attend Mass without receiving Communion.

1

If we want to have a correct and deep understanding of the meaning of the Missal, of its prayers, sequences, psalms, and readings, we need solid religious knowledge. Let not a single day pass without us enriching our religious knowledge. We should not consider it a matter of our good will but be convinced that it is our duty. Today’s educational system has no place for this teaching, so let us make up for these shortcomings ourselves. You can get information about books suitable for this purpose from your spiritual directors. Make sure you become well acquainted with the Savior’s life and the lives of the most prominent saints.

2

Once you have become acquainted with the Savior’s life, the Missal itself will be clearer to you. The Croatian translation of the Missal contains Masses for all Sundays of the year as well as the most important feast days. Every evening you should read either the next day’s Mass or the full chapter from the Gospel or from an epistle to be read next Sunday. From this, single out one or more sentences that you feel suit your spiritual or emotional needs and fall asleep with these thoughts.

Strive, if possible, to attend Holy Mass every day. Now, whether you will contemplate outside of Mass or during it depends on how much time you have at your disposal. And I would certainly advise you to refrain from praying anything else during Holy Mass except the Mass itself. Since time is limited, you might contemplate those sentences you chose before bedtime until the elevation. In this way you will contemplate the idea put forward in the Holy Mass and combine liturgical prayer with ordinary meditation. Let me briefly remind you of the principal elements of all contemplation. First, prepare the subject matter for contemplation. This you have done in the evening. Then comes repentance for sins – you have to be very specific here – and prayer for forgiveness. Be aware of God’s presence: You should feel that He is with you and that you are kneeling in His presence and that He is keeping a watchful eye on how you will perform your contemplation. You may also imagine Jesus looking at you from the tabernacle. Once you have become aware of God’s presence, build in your imagination an environment in which, for example, a gospel scene takes place. So, at Christmas, picture a stable, and in it Mary, Joseph, an ox, a donkey, with all the details that come to mind. This is a much-needed means of preventing your thoughts from escaping and dispersing. Now ask God that He may bless this contemplation of yours and grant you all the graces you wish to receive according to this contemplation.

All this was just preparation. Real contemplation is just beginning and it proceeds as we have already shown in the Bethlehem scene or in the reflection on Mary’s creation. This contemplation is not so much about igniting great and ardent feelings in yourselves as about making very concrete decisions about how you will offer up some sacrifices that very day by suppressing a certain sin or by doing a good deed. One should beware of making general decisions, e.g., I will be humble, good, etc. Finally, give thanks for the graces obtained and briefly repeat the whole contemplation.

Try to be finished before the elevation. During the elevation, offer up your decisions, your little sacrifices in communion with Christ’s sacrifice to God the Father and ask that it may please Him to accept it and one day make you a partaker of the second divine Person, so that Jesus might bring you into the very heart of the Holy Trinity.

Let the picture from your contemplation remain in your imagination. You should be aware that the very same Jesus you have been thinking about a little while ago is lying there in the manger and that He longs in His heart to be united with your heart and with the hearts of all other believers in the church.

3

It is certain that the Holy Mass is somewhat fragmentary without Holy Communion. The Savior could well have become incarnate under the kinds of gold or stone, yet He did not do so, but chose the kinds of bread and wine and thus clearly invited us to partake of Him at every Holy Mass. As the Mystical Body of Christ, the fullness of the Body of Christ, we sacrifice ourselves mentally in the Holy Mass. The sacrifice is complete only when we unite with Jesus in the Mass with the closest bonds of love, so that one essence is melted into another. This is done by Holy Communion. That is why the early Christians received Communion at every Mass. Moreover, the Council of Trent encouraged Christians to receive Communion whenever they attended Holy Mass as early as 350 years ago. Let us do the same, let us be contemporary Catholics, let us become partakers of the infinite life of the Word of God by Holy Communion. This act, in which your body and soul unite with the very Godhead, has to be the culmination of your life; this act is also the culmination of the whole liturgy. All the magnificent prayers and songs, all your acts of contemplation, all your daily acts have to be Christocentric; they have to be directed toward that supreme hour of your daily life. In this way, your ultimate purpose is fulfilled even in this world and you become partakers of the very essence of God.

Indeed, we Catholics neglect this wonderful treasure, and yet we are still surprised to see that our work often yields no blessing.

By means of liturgical contemplation, every Catholic becomes great and universal. He puts aside his personal interests and begins to feel what the Church, that magnificent reflection of the immeasurable Christ, itself feels. On the basis of liturgy, each individual soul is nurtured. Liturgy is pedagogy in the true sense of the word, because through it a believer experiences in his soul all phases of Christ’s eternal life. United by Catholic liturgy, people across the globe contemplate the same things on the same day, which strengthens the consciousness of the Catholic unity of all peoples. Finally, through liturgy, man gives God due glory in the most perfect way. A believer who prays liturgically blends his voice with the angelic choirs, who praise the Creator without cease, and thus in fact begins to practice even on this earth the service which he will, full of joy and delight, perform in eternity. “If anyone denies that the world was created for the glory of God: let him be anathema,” says the First Vatican Council[2]. Let us, rational beings, also sing God’s praise, let us unite our prayers and songs with the nostalgic prayers and songs of the Bride longing for her divine Bridegroom in this valley of tears and exile. May our prayer henceforth be social, united with the Holy Church – let it be liturgical!

Translated from Croatian by Robert Matečić

[1] „Surrounded with variety“. Merz quotes from the Vulgate. The verse is Ps 45:10 in modern translations of the Bible.

[2] Dogmatic constitution “Dei Filius”, Canon 1