In this chapter, Father Louth highlights the importance of liturgy in giving us access to that which the tradition conveys, which is much more than something simply conceptual. Indeed liturgy leads us to the inarticulateness that is at the heart of tradition. Thus liturgy is “not something we ‘make up’, nor is it something that can be simply ‘understood’: it is something we participate in, not just as minds, but with all that we are – body and soul.” (89) Liturgy conveys “the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery.” (89) Louth points to the dangers of much liturgical reform: 

The danger of attempting to reduce the liturgy to what can be understood in simple conceptual terms is one that has beset the West since at least the time of the Reformation, and it is a marked feature of much modern liturgical reform. It is a danger it has been one of the purposes of this chapter to warn against. What can be articulated, what can be understood, is only a part, if an important part. The life in which we share as we commit ourselves to the tradition of the Church goes much deeper. (90)

I highlight Father Louth’s comments, first published in 1983, because they seem to be directly relevant to the liturgical situation of much of the Western Church today. Indeed, the former Cardinal Ratzinger has argued that “the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part on the collapse of the liturgy.” It seems to me that gaining a good understanding of the factors at work in our current liturgical crisis is, at least for Western Christians, of profound importance.

While the liturgical movement of the twentieth century produced work of extraordinary depth which was integrally related to a broader theological renewal, its concrete results have been disappointing. This is partly because the reforms following the Council occurred within the context of the assumptions of modernity. This was a context which privileged cerebral understanding, distrusted that which was not available for empirical observation, and tended towards pragmatism, having lost an appreciation of the symbolic and bodily nature of language.

However, liturgical questions can all-too-easily become a matter of simplistic polemics, and I am by no means suggesting that the answer to our current woes is simply to return to a Tridentine liturgy, even if we should be open to learning why it is that some people desire this. Archimandrite Robert Taft recently argued (in an article highlighted by Joseph of Byzantine Texas – here) that the principles of the liturgical reform were rooted in the liturgical theology of the Eastern Church. While not disagreeing with what Taft says – and while certainly agreeing with the fundamental principles of the reform, although in some aspects I wonder if they went far enough – I found his article rather disappointing because it did not sufficiently address the liturgy’s role of guarding and bringing us into contact with the inarticulateness that is at the heart of the liturgy. It is this inarticulateness that I would have hoped that we could learn something about from the East, an inarticulateness that Catherine Pickstock also highlights in her work on the medieval Western liturgy and which she refers to as a “liturgical stammer”.

Such issues could do with much more in-depth reflection and it would be good to see Father Louth’s analysis being taken up by those involved with liturgy today!

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