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.)



  1. Even if you don't understand the language at mass you are still fulfilling your Sunday obligation if you go. This means active participation doesn't really matter. Therefore the old Latin mass was and is fine with or without active lay participation.

    1. Fulfilling an obligation will keep you from mortal sin. But participating actively --and there are various ways and degrees of doing this--will increase one's love for God and appreciation of what the mass is. Assuming basic literacy,silently following the mass with a Latin-English missal is greater (and I would argue, better) participation than just being physically present while the mind wandered everywhere (or prayed a rosary or what have you.) The Liturgical movement promoted the people saying the responses rather than a representative altar boy. That seems logical given the actual sense of the texts in the missal. My husband is a little older than I. He and his fellow students all learned to make the responses in the 1950s. My first exposure to the Tridentine mass (after I'd reached the age of reason and could pay attention to what was going on) was in 1973 at an independent, parent-run Catholic school. It was a dialogue mass--we kids learned to both read and/or sing the parts of the mass. I loved it. Years later I was disappointed that EF masses had reverted to the silent congregation. Maybe it's a matter of taste, but it always has made more sense to me that we pray with all our senses, with body and soul.

  2. And yet Dietrich von Hildebrand was fiercely opposed to the Novus Ordo. Thankfully, I also was raised in the pre-Vatican II Church and I think what most Catholics today mean by "participation" in the Mass is an entirely different thing than the Latin "dialogue" Mass. And, yes, of course, the primary purpose of all liturgy is the worship of God. It's a shame that that has to be pointed out.

    1. I agree, Marie, that the concept of "participation" has been stretched way out of what von Hildebrand had in mind. And I'm not surprised that he was disappointed in the Novus Ordo, especially as it was implemented in most places. But realize that he wrote Liturgy and Personality in 1933. He was speaking to the absence of real appreciation of the Mass (and Divine Office) on the part of both clergy and laity at that time, when the Tridentine liturgy was universally in force. In this new edition, his widow, Alice, remarks about his deep love for the Tridentine missal,but adds this: "Yet, because Liturgy and Personality considers the very essence of the liturgical act, its value is not limited to any particular liturgy. Rather it unveils truths about the Liturgy which are so timeless and so profound that they apply to any official liturgy which is properly conceived an reverently celebrated."

  3. I can't recall where I read it, but the Divine Office was called a sacrifice of praise. When that is my mindset, the Office is really prayed well! When getting hung up on something I may not understand... it all goes downhill if not careful.

    Viewing my favorite devotion, the Rosary, the same way has been a big help also. With its beginnings coming from laity wanting to pray the Hours/psalms with the monks, it seemed like a perfect fit! Recalling events in salvation history, thanking and praising God with and through Mary has been a huge grace! When not trying so hard to get something out of the meditation, that's when the mysteries will be opened up to me. "Let go and let God"... I finally get what that means.

  4. Thankfully, despite some sad occurrences of "the less you sing the holier you are" spirituality in TLM-world, there are pockets of celebrating the traditional Roman rite in a way that fully responds to the concerns of the Liturgical Movement - taking advantage of the Dialogue Mass option; reading the epistle and Gospel directly in the vernacular at Low Mass; engaging the congregation in the full-throated singing of the ordinary (even alternating in choir with the schola), etc.

    The Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem in Charles Town, WV, in particular, celebrate the vetus ordo in a way that truly seems like an active, living liturgy one can truly participate in, rather than a 1950s museum piece. Their prior, Dom Daniel, wrote an excellent piece for Crisis Magazine some years ago aptly titled "The Traditional Mass is Not a Spectator Sport." Well worth a read.

  5. I should also note I am immensely grateful for the Ordinariate for demonstrating that "reverent Latin Mass vs. badly done Novus Ordo" is a false dichotomy. Its Divine Worship Mass combines the best of the elevated vernacular, the reform demands of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the reverence and many of the rubrics and prayers of the traditional rite (e.g. the full Roman canon, traditional offertory prayers, Last Gospel), and the best of the Anglican Patrimony.