A ‘Lex Orandi’ Appetizer

This Ad Rem is an ‘appetizer’ for a longer piece on our site. This past weekend, I was a presenter at the third annual “Crusader Knights Congress” put on by Mike Church and sponsored by the Crusade Channel and LifeSite. What follows is the beginning of that talk. The rest may be found here.

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The topic Mike Church assigned me this year is “Lex Orandi: Why What Happens in Church Matters outside of Church.” As a preliminary step in discharging my assigned task, I’ll try to situate my topic into the larger theme of the Congress: “For Altar, Culture, and Trade.” It seems that Mike has asked me to consider the fixed point at which the Altar intersects with Culture and with Trade. That is to say, my topic deals with how what happens at and around the altar touches upon culture and the the way we Christians earn our livelihoods. Therefore, we are considering the Mass specifically, but also all liturgy (including the divine office and sacramental rites), and, by extension, all prayer and the interior life in general.

At the risk of going off on a tangent this early in my talk, I would like to speak briefly of what constitutes “culture.” (Others will speak of trade, which pertains to economic questions and how heads of families make their livelihoods.) Culture is both “an environment that sustains life” and, in turn, an expression of that life. Using the word as a verb, you can culture microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds in a Petri dish. That little invention of a German bacteriologist has in its “culture medium” what is necessary to sustain the microbial life you are trying to cultivate — that is, to make live and flourish. Among rational animals, we speak of culture in matters that rise above mere biology; it is most especially what pertains to man’s highest faculties, that is, of what makes him a man and not a beast — namely, the intellect and will, and how these powers function through our bodies and our whole person. But individual persons do not make a culture; it only when societies of persons interact with one another that we have a culture, because culture is inherently social. When speaking of culture, we are therefore considering the arts and sciences, language, virtues and vices, manners, morals, and customs — as well as the passing on of all that by way of education. Andrew Brietbart made the expression “politics is downwind of culture” into a mantra in certain circles — meaning if you want to change politics you must first change the culture. I assert that culture itself is downwind of religion. If you want a culture that is truly conducive to authentic human flourishing, you need the true religion. The cultural achievements of Christendom stand as lasting monuments to this truth.

That said, I do think it is imperative that we avoid the error of certain individuals who make of religion a mere expedient to produce culture. It is not that; it is much more. Religion pertains to God and the things of God, whose rights come first. If Saint Benedict and his monks built Christian Europe it is not because they set out to; they did so only per accidens. Substantially and primarily they set out to establish monasteries as “schools for the Lord’s service,” to quote Saint Benedict’s Rule. The culture that arose in Saint Benedict’s massive wake was an impressive byproduct of the monastic ora et labora — prayer and work.

Now, onto the question implicit in our title: Why indeed does what happens in Church matter outside?

First, what happens in Church concerns our obligations to God. If we are not discharging our duties to God — adoration, love, thanksgiving, reparation, petition, etc. — nothing we do in our daily life avails us unto eternity. “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). What happens in Church includes the sacrament of penance, without which most of us would die in our sins. We thank God for his mercy in giving us such a gift.

Again, God’s rights come first; for this reason, the first and greatest commandment of the Gospel is that we love Him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. This must be our top priority. “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you,” says our Lord (Matt. 6:33). Saint Augustine tells us that the love of God orders all our other loves, and that virtue itself is ordered love. If we have the wisdom to put first things first, the other things will be achievable to us.

Next, in order to rebuild a Christian Culture — which is primarily the task of the layman — the faithful need that spiritual energy which comes from the altar. That is, we need grace. We learn this from Jesus when He tells us, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Code of Canon Law says that it is the especial duty of the Catholic layman “to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel” (Can. 225 §2). But that cannot be done by men and women who are not themselves permeated with the Gospel by first fulfilling their duties of religion to the Holy Trinity and living the life of grace.

In addition to this, because so much of the success of the Church and of Christian society — in every way both spiritual and temporal — depends upon grace, it is of great importance that there be some who are set aside especially for the service of the altar both as clergy and as consecrated religious. And when I say “religious,” I mean both active and contemplative religious — people set apart especially for the worship of God. We Americans are, I believe, still tinged with our namesake heresy that tended to downplay religious life, especially it its contemplative forms. Apropos of this, a passage from Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s The Light Invisible recently came to my attention. In this work of fiction, an old priest speaks of various extraordinary experiences he had and the lessons he learned from them, like this episode he experienced while visiting a contemplative monastery of nuns:

“I said a prayer or two, and then I noticed for the first time a dark outline rising in the centre of the space before the altar. For a moment I was perplexed, and then I saw that it was the nun whose hour it was for intercession…. As I knelt there I thought deeply, wondering as to the nun’s age, how long she had been professed, when she would die, whether she was happy…. Then a kind of anger seized me, as I compared in my mind the life of a happy good woman in the world with that of this poor creature… [living] the sour life of the cloister—as loveless and desolate as the cold walls themselves. And even, I thought, even if there is a strange peculiar joy in the Religious Life—even if there is an absence of sorrows and anxieties that spoil the happiness of many lives in the world—yet, after all, surely the Contemplative life is useless and barren…. How can a soul serve God by forsaking the world which He made and loves?

“And so…I went on—poor ignorant fool!—thinking that the woman who knelt in front of me was less useful than myself, and that my words and actions and sermons and life did more to advance God’s kingdom than her prayers! And then—then—at the moment when I reached that climax of folly and pride, God was good to me and gave me a little light….

“First I became aware suddenly that there ran a vital connection from the Tabernacle to the woman. You may think of it as one of those bands you see in the machinery connecting two wheels, so that when either wheel moves the other moves too…. Now in the Tabernacle I became aware that there was a mighty stirring and movement. Something within it beat like a vast Heart, and the vibrations of each pulse seemed to quiver through all the ground….”

The priest’s face was working, and his hands moved nervously. “How hopeless it is,” he said, “to express all this! Remember that all these pictures are not in the least what I perceived. They are only grotesque paraphrases of a spiritual fact that was shown me. Now I was aware that there was something of the same activity in the heart of the woman, but I did not know which was the controlling power. I did not know whether the initiative sprang from the Tabernacle and communicated itself to the nun’s will; or whether she, by bending herself upon the Tabernacle, set in motion a huge dormant power. It appeared to me possible that the solution lay in the fact that two wills co-operated, each reacting upon the other. This, in a kind of way, appears to me now true as regards the whole mystery of free-will and prayer and grace.

“At any rate the union of these two represented itself to me…forming a kind of engine that radiated an immense light or sound or movement. And then I perceived something else, too…. I perceived that this black figure knelt at the centre of reality and force, and with the movements of her will and lips controlled spiritual destinies for eternity. There ran out from this peaceful chapel lines of spiritual power that lost themselves in the distance, bewildering in their profusion and terrible in the intensity of their hidden fire. Souls leaped up and renewed the conflict as this tense will strove for them. Souls even at that moment leaving the body struggled from death into spiritual life, and fell panting and saved at the feet of the Redeemer on the other side of death. Others, acquiescent and swooning in sin, woke and snarled at the merciful stab of this poor nun’s prayers.”

The priest was trembling now with excitement. “Yes, he said; “yes, and I in my stupid arrogance had thought that my life was more active in God’s world than hers….” (Robert Hugh Benson, The Light Invisible, excerpts from 117-124)

And now, believe it or not, I come to my last point. Yes, this early in my talk! But I will develop it at some length, so you’re not getting any break. The last reason I will give why what happens in Church matters outside is this: What happens in Church keeps us steeped in reality. I’m going to develop this in some depth because I believe it to be much more important that we might think at first blush.

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