In the ongoing dispute between Catholics who want to follow all of the documented liturgical norms to the letter and those who think that the best liturgical tradition is the one they fabricated out of their own preferences, it is often difficult to find the love. It often seems to be a battle between those who want to stodgily remain faithful to the liturgical traditions of their forebears and those who want to stodgily remain faithful to the liturgical traditions of their contemporaries.
Their love often appears to be a love of rules, an adherence to those structures they genuinely believe are best at providing a healthy spirituality, whatever they believe healthy spirituality to be. Instead of being an expression of divine love, liturgy is reduced to a mechanism which manufactures a spiritual experience of the kind seen by its purveyors as ideal. Sadly, it is generally not seen as ideal because it is in fact ideal (though it may be), but because it suits the pathologies of the persons proposing it as a mechanism for the effective delivery of spirituality.
This is of course precisely what liturgy is to help remove us from; it is intended to pull us out of our daily exercise of our pathologies and into real intimacy with the divine. It should help us overcome those very pathologies which we often seek to impose on it by tweaking the liturgical forms to fit our juvenile anthropology or returning to an ancient practice which we idealize out of an amnesiac sort of nostalgia.
That said, I do not propose that we dispense with rules in the liturgy; liturgy could not serve its purpose without the rules and the formality that tend to be associated heavily with traditional liturgical practice in Christianity. Some propose that, "It's about relationship, not about rules." Or they object to the formality of liturgy as a blockade to a feeling of family or intimacy; they would prefer the casual atmosphere of their family gatherings which reflects contemporary culture's preference for casualness.
Despite our cultural intuitions to the contrary, formality of expression is actually a great way to help people build relationships.
It reminds us that the other person is not our possession or a product
to be modified to our liking. A diligent practice of formality keeps us in the mindset that they are
special and require us to take care in how we approach them and
communicate with them. It provides a set of shared expectations that reduce the stress of communication and companionship.
Formality is a way of structuring the language of love in our relationships so that it is ordered toward our mutual benefit. Ancient cultures often understood this better
than we do today in the West, and they would probably be appalled at how our lack of formality produces more selfish and less respectful relationships. Just as adherence to formality forces us to consider something beyond our own immediate preferences, a lack of formality allows our whims to come to the fore and dominate our expressions, gently pulling us into a narcissistic way of approaching our relationships.
It may initially seem strange that rules would be so valuable to relationships, but we all know it to be true on a quite visceral level. All of us have been upset with the way another person has treated us at some point and desired to set rules that would prevent that treatment in the future. Maybe their behavior left us feeling unloved. Maybe we felt devalued as a person. Maybe we felt disrespected by their behavior. Whatever the behavior, we have an intuition that we need to have boundaries in our relationships so that we feel loved, valued, and respected by others.
Whether the rule is that we greet those we love with a kiss, a hug, or a handshake, the fundamental truth remains the same; the rules of our relationships are what help us to effectively communicate to one another our deep love and respect for each person. A lack of rules does precisely the opposite; it communicates to others that our personal predilections of the moment are more valuable to us than the relationship we share with others, that our needs come before theirs rather than being in balance with them. When we choose to follow the rules of love, we choose in each instance, over and over, to move gradually beyond valuing our mere passing desires toward valuing the relationship which fulfills our deep and lasting desires of the heart.
The rules and formalities of the liturgy are important precisely because they pull us out of our narcissism by helping us to choose to do what demonstrates how strongly we value the relationship we have with the divine. The rules of the liturgy are the rules of love which help us to transcend a relationship that seeks our benefit by providing us with a path to seeking the benefit of a loving relationship with the Lord in which all of us benefit from His grace and mercy.
When we follow the rules of love, we love to death our egotistical desires which would deprive us of a life worth living by making hollow and empty those substantial relationships which fill our lives with lasting joy and peace, the relationships which help us to let go of our pathologies that keep us from growing in true intimacy with one another and especially with the God who loved us unto death.
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