Saturday, November 19, 2016

Liturgy and Personality by Dietrich von Hildebrand

I am delighted and honored  to be part of the virtual blog tour for a new edition of a  classic work on liturgical spirituality.

You might be aware of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) as the Catholic scholar who was one of the first to challenge the philosophy of Nazism, necessitating his flight to the United Sates to escape the wrath of Adolf Hitler.  You might know that his contributions to the philosophy  and the theology of marriage influenced the thought of Pope Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II. 

I must admit, that my earlier attempts to read von Hildebrand years ago didn't go well. As a busy mother, I only had the time and mental energy for short books written in a popular style, whether fiction or non-fiction. Philosophy defeated me, especially von Hildebrand's, which I found dense and even impenetrable.  The closest I came to appreciating the ideas of this man came when I heard them filtered through his beloved wife and widow, Alice, whose articles in Catholic publications and talks at conferences helped make his ideas a bit more accessible to us non-philosophers.

So when I received a review copy of Liturgy and Personality, I hesitated and considered adding it to the large pile of books in my office which may or may not get read--someday. Two things made me crack it open. First, the topic. Maybe, I thought, something in here will help me to further plumb the depths of the Liturgy of the Hours. Second, I saw that that book's foreword was written by Bishop Robert Barron. Now there is someone who has made  dense theological and philosophical concepts comprehensible to millions!

Sure enough, Bishop Barron's foreword was reassuring. He explained a couple of von Hildebrand's terms, such as "value" and "personality", which have very different meanings from the way they are used in everyday English.* As I read Barron's words, the lightbulbs starting popping in my mind, and I was encouraged to start reading the actual text. (read Bishop Barron's Foreword here.)

This modern foreword was followed by the author's original introduction (1933) and his preface to a second edition (1960). I was delighted to learn that von Hildebrand was a proponent of the Liturgical Movement of the 1930s thru 50s. This movement promoted greater lay understanding of, and participation in the liturgy. (As such, von Hildebrand favored the "dialogue mass" where the congregation--rather than just the altar servers--made the responses. I'll never understand why this is is virtually  unseen/unheard at Extraordinary form masses these days.)

The author made clear in the introduction that by "liturgy" he meant Holy Mass and the Divine Office (a.k.a. Liturgy of the Hours). And for the rest of the introduction, as he set forth his basic premises, he drew examples equally from these two types of liturgy. With that, I knew that reading Liturgy and Personality was going to be a huge help to my daily prayer life.

Now, here is the main point this book delivers, in great detail, with great beauty and profundity: Liturgy will transform you and the way you look at EVERYTHING.

(And this is a very important and startling BUT.)

If you attend mass and pray the Liturgy of the Hours with transformation (or consolation, or personal growth, or answers to your problems in life) as your primary aim you will not receive it! In other words, if you are earnestly reading those psalms mainly because you "want to get something out of it", then you are going about it all wrong. You are even a little short of the mark if your main purpose is to pray for the needs of the Church Universal.

The aim and purpose of liturgical prayer, the thing that makes it better than any other kind of prayer is this:

The Divine Office is recited primarily because all praise and glorification is due to God, the fullness of all holiness and majesty, and not because it will bring about a transformation of ourselves. The Liturgy is not primarily intended as a means of sanctification or an ascetic exercise. Its primary intention is to praise and glorify God, to respond fittingly to Him. (Liturgy and Personality, p.2)

The praise and glorifying of God is the greatest thing we can do. It is the "truly right and just" response of the human soul to its Creator and Redeemer. Now, once we divest ourselves of these motives, we open a door for the actual transformation to occur. The author makes a great analogy between this and the process of  falling in love. True love is a response to the goodness and beauty of the other, a response where the self is pretty much forgotten.  This kind of love will, in fact, transform the lover into a better person, helping him or her to be less selfish, more thoughtful, patients, self-sacrificing, etc.   But this won't happen were a man to say to himself, "I've heard that falling in love and marrying will make me a better person. I'm all for self-improvement, so I'll give it a shot and see if I get those results."

The book goes on to explain how and why liturgy, even though its prayers are objective (pre-composed, set forth in a specific way for specific days, allowing for little or no outward "spontanaeity" on the part of the pray-er, and communal in character) is yet the most intensely affective and heart-opening of all prayer. It's perfectly personal because it is the prayer of the Perfect Person, Jesus Christ.

But the summaries I give here are weak. Just get the book and read it. As I said earlier, it's not an easy read. What I'm doing is reading one chapter, or even half a chapter each Sunday afternoon (when I've made it a goal to cut down on internet and unnecessary housekeeping). Then I try to keep a point or two of what I've read in mind whenever I open my breviary that following week.

Okay. Enough from me. Buy the book. Think: spiritual reading for Advent.

 *The term "personality" here is philosophical. It has nothing to do with our use of the term  (as in a winning, or nice, or assertive personality.) In von Hildebrand's usage, personality  is a quality  acquired (in greater and lesser degrees) in accordance with how well you learn to respond to all that is good, true and beautiful. (Von Hildebrand's umbrella term for good, true and beautiful is "value" so watch out for that one, too.)