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Liturgy and the Living Tradition of the Heart
August 16, 2021
Did you know that approximately every seven years, every cell in your body is replaced by entirely new cells? When this happens, it is no exaggeration to say that you have an entirely new body. And yet, you are the same person both to yourself and to others.
Similarly, an adult human being looks quite different in his external appearance from his infant self, yet no one would question that they are one and the same person.
How can this be? How can we grow and develop so dramatically, and yet retain our identity?
This gets to the heart of what philosophers describe as essence, or the underlying metaphysical or non-material reality that makes a thing what it is. A living thing can grow, change, and evolve while retaining its fundamental being through the principle of continuity of essence.
For this to be possible, a thing must contain in itself all the principles that make it what it is. Like a seed that contains the full potential of a tree, growth is thus an unfolding in time and space of the essential being that was always there. Put another way, the thing becomes more fully what it is, manifests itself more perfectly, as it evolves in time.
Continuity and Tradition
Applying this truth liturgically, tradition means continuity of being or essence. Thus, there is an underlying unity of essence that holds together the traditional forms of liturgical expression. This essence is the eternal sacrifice of Calvary, which is manifested through the liturgy.
While there is no question that the liturgy of the catacombs looked externally different than, say, the missal of St. Pius V, there is an underlying unity, a principle of unfolding essence, that binds the slowly developing external forms together.
An example of this unity is that the Mass in the earliest centuries of the church was celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs. Likewise, in later centuries, traditional rubrics required that the altars of Roman Rite parishes were intentionally designed to look like tombs, and the altar stones were required to contain the relics of the saints.
While an altar in Vienna of the 14th century may have been made of marble or wood, it always contained an altar stone with relics—a development in essential continuity with the earliest expressions of the Mass.
This is the case with all the rites and forms of the traditional liturgy. While there was slow, organic development through the centuries, all the gestures and words of the rite were present in seed form in the Mass of the catacombs out of which the Roman Rite developed.
The Tradition of the Heart
Seen in this way, there is an external unfolding of liturgical development through the principle of continuity. There is an integral tradition of rituals and rites and symbols that finds its roots in the earliest centuries of the Church.
But perhaps more significantly, there is also an inner tradition of the heart, consisting of movements of the soul like reverence, contrition, praise, and adoration.
For example, I today can experience the same grief-filled repentance as St. John of the Cross during the sacrament of penance, or the same awe-filled reverence as St. Francis of Assisi during communion.
This continuity of movements of the heart reveals a hidden stream of continuity beneath the surface of the external rites of the liturgy. This tradition of the heart is to the external rites of Catholicism as the soul is to the body.
The Sacredness of the Liturgy
The reason the Church has always treated the liturgy with the greatest reverence is that it knows that tampering with liturgical rites can easily disrupt this tradition of the heart.
Abolishing kneeling, for example—a gesture that has always connoted reverence in the Western tradition of Christianity—and replacing it with standing, can too easily change the attitude of the heart from one of deep reverence and humility to presumptuous, self-centered, and careless entitlement.
The sudden amputation of a limb is traumatic. The over-eager diversion of a stream can be disastrous to the landscape. Similarly, the faster and more violently a liturgical change is implemented, the more likely the inner meaning, the inner tradition of the heart, behind the external form is to be lost.
The Lord is in His Holy Temple
What, then, should we conclude from these reflections? The tradition of external forms can never be severed from the inner tradition of movements of the soul. Tampering too hastily with one inevitably means wounding the other.
Let us, then, seek liturgical forms that inspire us to participate in that hidden but mighty stream, the living tradition of the heart.
Let seek those vital springs, oases in the desert, where we can worship in spirit and in truth.
Let us seek to find worshipful liturgy that allows us to join with the apostles, martyrs, and saints of all time, and all the powers of heaven, in silent love and adoration before God our Father. For such worship is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation.
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