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The Personhood of LiturgyThe Personhood of Liturgy

The Personhood of Liturgy

Reading the new edition of Dietrich von Hildebrand's classic Liturgy and Personality, reviewer Rebekah Ann Lamb writes, reminds us why the language of Christian love is also the language of objective truth.

Rebekah Ann Lamb
5 minute read

Catholic convert, eminent German philosopher and among the earliest and most vocal public critics of Hitler, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889- 1977) is best known for his contributions to ethics, aesthetics and the philosophy of Personalism – a phenomenological school of thought focusing on the understanding of the human person also used by Pope John Paul II and Edith Stein.

Hildebrand defended the dignity of the human person in a century known for its attempts to dehumanize people for the sake of various ideological ends. He also sought to share what unique resources for social, ethical and cultural renewal are given to society by a Christian anthropology. Fleeing from Germany to Austria and then eventually to the United States, Hildebrand became a professor at Fordham University. As a result of his writings on the dignity of marriage and the family, the role of the heart and affectivity in the moral life, the evils of anti-Semitism, the spirit of the Liturgy and the value of Christian philosophy, he is now seen as a key "forerunner" to the pastoral teachings of Vatican II. Pope Pius XII called him a "20th Century Doctor of the Church." Josef Ratzinger said that "when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time."

Despite his major contributions to philosophy of religion and Christian culture, Hildebrand has, until more recently, remained a niche figure, well-known to only a particular segment of Catholic academia. However, his work is becoming better known due, in large part, to Alice von Hildebrand, his widow and a philosopher in her own right, and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Project, founded in February 2004 by John Henry Crosby.

In July 2016, the Hildebrand Project released a new edition of Liturgy and Personality, one of Hildebrand's more popular works, first published in Germany in 1933 and in English in 1943. The book, inspired by Hildebrand's devotion to the beauty of the Liturgy, is a landmark of the Liturgical Movement, a series of initiatives that began in the 19th century and continued throughout the first half of the 20th, calling for a liturgical renewal in the Catholic Church and a deeper participation in the Mass by the lay faithful.

There exist certain conceptual "sympathies" between Liturgy and Personality and Romano Guardini's seminal 1918 Spirit of the Liturgy, which had a significant influence on Vatican II's constitution on the sacred Liturgy and on Ratzinger's own Spirit of the Liturgy (2000). Guardini described the liturgy as a "sacred game," meaning that it is guided by a suprarational, one might even say poetic, logic. Both Guardini and Hildebrand wished to impart that the Liturgy, as the heart of Catholic life, feeds culture.

One of the most significant and unique aspects of Hildebrand's study is his sustained meditation on how an individual's personality is only fully realized in prayer. Prayer, Hildebrand notes, is most perfect when aimed at glorifying and praising God. The thesis of Liturgy and Personality is that, given that the Liturgy is the highest form of prayer, participation in the Liturgy results in an individual realizing more fully the potential of his or her personality. However, participation must be understood as something more internal than external. As he puts it: "…the more a man becomes 'another Christ,' the more he realizes the original unduplicable thought of God which He embodies… The mysterious truth is that the unique inimitable design of God is fully and ultimately realized in a man only when he is transformed into Christ." Hildebrand appeals to the dynamic and strikingly different characters of Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Augustine and Paul, among others, to illustrate his point that becoming more Christ-like results not in a loss of personality but in an enhancement of it. This argument is one of the key insights of Hildebrand's work.

Liturgy and Personality implicitly counters the belief held by many Catholics and non-Catholics that the Liturgy, because of its set form and norms, is restrictive, cutting individuals off from authentic selfexpression in their life of prayer and worship. Following Vatican II, a series of misinterpretations of its documents led many to see the Liturgy as being in need of allowing room for any and all forms of self-expression in worship. Liturgy and Personality shows why Hildebrand himself became very concerned about these widespread misreadings of the Council. His post-conciliar books – Trojan Horse in the City of God and The Devastated Vineyard – explicitly explore the implications of "progressive" readings of conciliar documents.

By explaining that the Liturgy schools the human person in the virtues, most especially in caritas, Liturgy and Personality emphasizes that the Mass leads to the growth of an individual's personality. Hildebrand stresses, however, that the purpose of the Liturgy is praise of God, not self-improvement. However, a derivative consequence of living a liturgical life is a self-transformation that happens as a result of seeking the highest good, which exists in the Creator and not the creature.

Liturgy and Personality also explores how participating in the life of the Liturgy leads to a healthy sense of the objective moral life, which in turn encourages the authentic flourishing of human personality through the formation of the individual's conscience.

In making the claim that subjectivity thrives through assent to objective truth, Hildebrand makes a refreshing defence of the oft-contested relationship between the moral law and the value of personal emotional response in the spiritual life. He shows that the Liturgy, above all else, is both a language of love and of objectivity. "It is a grave mistake," he writes, "to suppose that 'affective' means or implies 'unobjective.' The Liturgy is indeed objective, but that is because it is pervaded by objective truth and divine love... But it is [also] affective in the extreme; it is the prayer of the heart, the classical prayer par excellence of every person, whatever his individuality, because it reflects the life of our Divine Saviour."

There is, at times, a certain conceptual vagueness throughout Liturgy and Personality. Phrases such as the "response to value" or "true awakedness" can generate more questions than answers. However, this more poetic, as opposed to systematic, theological language reflects Hildebrand's desire to take into account all those aspects of human existence that cannot be fully captured by a strictly analytical language: the transcendent nature of the human person, the phenomenon of prayer and the mystery of Christ's interactions with us.

For those who share in Hildebrand's belief in the Liturgy as the summit and source of Christian living, the work serves as a profound reflection on how we can arrive at a greater "spiritual awakedness" by learning the language of love that is the heart of the spirit of the Liturgy.

This new edition of Liturgy and Personality should help to fill the need within the Catholic Church for a renewed understanding of the spirit of the Liturgy. The foreword by Bishop Robert Barron emphasizes Hildebrand's status as a prophet for our times who teaches us that the "radical theocentrism of the Liturgy teases us sinners out of our native egocentrism and thereby prepares us to see...with fresh eyes."

Rebekah Ann Lamb

Born and raised in Toronto, Rebekah is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Theology and the Arts at the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (ITIA) in St. Mary's School of Divinity within the University of St. Andrews (Scotland).

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