Liturgy and Trinity: Towards an Anthropology of the Liturgy

Stratford Caldecott

The paper has been published in "Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger" (St Michael's Abbey Press). A full version of the paper is available here.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, gave particular prominence to the theme of "active participation" (participatio actuosa). To encourage this participation, the Constitution recommended simplification of the rites on the one hand, and careful attention to the people's responses (acclamations, gestures, etc.) on the other.

The true meaning of the actio in which the Council Fathers intended the faithful to participate has been explained by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. It is essentially an act of prayer. The Council was reacting against the view that prayer was something the faithful did on their own while the Mass was being celebrated by the priest. Nevertheless, the emphasis that the Council laid on the priest's responsibility to ensure this active participation on the part of the faithful in the liturgy as prayer did in practice give a great deal of weight to outward and vocal activity, which was observable, as distinct from the more important inner actio which this activity was supposed to promote. A leading anthropologist writing at the end of the 1960s, Mary Douglas, argued that the contempt for ritual forms leads to the privatization of religious experience and thereby to secular humanism. The reformers were blithely unaware of such contemporary reappraisals of liturgy. The emphasis swung towards didacticism, the moral lesson to be conveyed by the ritual, while the symbolic aspect was reduced to the status of a visual aid in support of this didactic mentality.

If the frustration of the Council's real intention was due in large measure to errors such as these, it can be understood and counteracted today only by attaining a deeper understanding of the true nature of the Catholic liturgy. The lesson of the reform is that the liturgy must be understood in its full metaphysical and meta-anthropological depth.

Christian Anthropology and Symbolic Realism

It was Pope John Paul II who set the Church on the road to an adequate anthropology of the liturgy, for example in his famous Wednesday catecheses on the book of Genesis, behind which lay earlier, more philosophical works such as The Acting Person and Love and Responsibility.

According to the Pope's 'nuptial anthropology', marriage partners are not merely turned towards one another in a dualistic relationship: they are also open towards a third, towards the child which expresses the unity of both in one flesh. Angelo Scola describes the structure of this relationship as one of 'asymmetrical reciprocity'. It is precisely in this respect that marriage mirrors the relations of the Holy Trinity. The mystery of the Mass has the same root as Christian marriage. The union between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church is a covenant in the Holy Spirit. The liturgy enacts the marriage of the Lamb, combining the wedding banquet of the Last Supper with the redemptive act of the Passion. Furthermore the trinitarian character of the Mass makes it 'asymmetrical' in the same way that marriage is asymmetrical (cf. Ephesians 5:31-2).

A trinitarian anthropology can also help to illuminate our understanding of the human person. Henri de Lubac has traced the rise and fall in Christian tradition of the idea that man is composed not simply of body and soul, but of body, soul and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23) . Of course, in much of the tradition the soul and spirit are treated as one, yet traces of the distinction remain, whether in St Teresa's reference to the 'spirit of the soul' or (arguably) in St Thomas's intellectus agens. It is certainly present in The Philokalia, where the Eastern Fathers contrast the nous dwelling in the depths of the soul with the dianoia or discursive reason. Jean Borella also writes of this topic of the 'human ternary', making clear its roots in the Old Testament. For the philosopher who became John Paul II, the 'third' in question seems to be that 'reflexive' consciousness by which we experience the drama of human existence as acting persons.

The spirit is the 'place' within us where we receive the kiss of life from our Creator (Gen. 2:7), and where God makes his throne in the saints. Thus when St Paul appeals to the Romans (Rom. 12:1-2) to present their bodies as a living sacrifice in 'spiritual worship' (logike latreia), he immediately continues: 'Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [nous], that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.' Paul implies that the 'logic' of Christian worship – a logic of self-sacrifice that conforms us to the will of God – corresponds to a new intelligence.

As a natural faculty, even before it is 'supernaturalized' by the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit at baptism, the spiritual intellect or apex mentis is the organ of metaphysics. It is recognized in all religious traditions, and the knowledge of universals which it gives (however distorted and confused after the Fall) is part of the common heritage of humanity. This is the faculty which perceives all things as symbolic in their very nature; that is, as expressing the attributes of God. Thus Hans Urs von Balthasar writes: "The whole world of images that surrounds us is a single field of significations. Every flower we see is an expression, every landscape has its significance, every human or animal face speaks its wordless language. It would be utterly futile to attempt a transposition of this language into concepts…. This expressive language is addressed primarily, not to conceptual thought, but to the kind of intelligence that perceptively reads the gestalt of things."

Whatever name we give it ('intellect', 'imagination' or 'heart'), what Balthasar has in mind here is a faculty that transcends yet at the same time unifies feeling and thought, body and soul, sensation and rationality. It is the kind of intelligence that sees the meaning in things, that reads them as symbols – symbols, not of something else, but of themselves as they stand in God. Thus in the spiritual intelligence of man, being is unveiled in its true nature as a gift bearing within it the love of the Giver. Ultimately things – just as truly as persons – can be truly known only through love. In other words, a thing can be known only when it draws us out of ourselves, when we grasp it in its otherness from ourselves, in the meaning which it possesses as beauty, uniting truth and goodness. This kind of knowledge is justly called sobria ebrietas ('drunken' sobriety) because it is ecstatic, rapturous, although at the same time measured, ordered, dignified. It is an encounter with the Other which takes the heart out of itself and places it in another centre, which is ultimately the very centre of being, where all things are received from God.

All of this is implicit in the liturgy, the school where we learn this drunken sobriety, this intelligence of the heart. Its ABC is the language of natural symbols, such as water, light, oil and the gestures of the body, which the liturgy employs to speak of the sacramental mysteries unfolding within it. But symbols are far from being mere 'visual aids', designed by experts to communicate an idea or moral lesson to people who lack the intellectual sophistication needed to appreciate a more conceptual expression.

Liturgy and Humanae Vitae: Related Crises?

The 'watermark' of the Trinity is found throughout all of creation at every level, wherever the distinct identities of two things are preserved (and deepened) by uniting them in a third. Human and divine natures are united in the Person of the Son (Chalcedon). God and humanity are united in the sacrament of the Church (Vatican II). Man and woman are united in the 'one flesh' of marriage. Reason and feeling are united in the intelligence of the heart.

One surprising conclusion from this might be that many seemingly unrelated problems in the Church have a common cause. The crisis over sexuality, brought into the open by the reaction to Humanae Vitae in 1968, stems from the mentality that fails to understand the true nature of the 'asymmetric' relationship between man and woman. This is the same mentality that fails to understand the relationship between priest and people in the liturgy. This failure may express itself either in a clerical domination of the laity, or in a reversal of that relationship that eliminates all sense of the transcendent. On the one side, we find a poisonous cocktail of clericalism, aestheticism and misogyny. On the other, we observe politically correct liturgies devoted to the themes of justice and peace: everyone sitting in a circle, passing the consecrated chalice from hand to hand, with the priest improvising parts of the eucharistic prayer in order to make it more relevant and friendly. The icy 'coldness' of clericalism is answered by the melting 'warmth' of the community-oriented Mass, and the sentimental empowerment of the laity. It is hard to say which is worse.

The post-conciliar period emphasized the horizontal dimension of the liturgy (social concern) over the vertical (the act of worship). Whole religious orders went into decline as the communitarian aspect of their mission took precedence over the liturgical, the love of neighbour over the love of God. But according to trinitarian anthropology, the human person is by its very nature other-centred. We love God, and this opens us to the life of the other; we love our neighbour, and this opens us to the love of God. The love of God sends us out to do good, because it reveals who we are, self and neighbour both. We are then not (only) imitating the love of God that we see demonstrated in the liturgy, but living the liturgy out in the world. The liturgy is not (merely) separate in a horizontal sense from what goes on outside, but separate in the sense of being 'interior', of revealing the inner meaning and purpose of what lies outside. Sacred space, sacred time and sacred art are distinctive, not (just) as belonging to a parallel world, but as defining the centre of this world: the world in which we live and work.

Understood in this way the liturgy reveals us to ourselves because it reveals "the mystery of the Father and his love" (in the famous words of Gaudium et Spes, 22). The Father's love is not a thing, not an object to be known and researched, but an act, a deed, an event, which may be known only through participation. In the Son – that is, in the reception of his Gift which is the Holy Spirit and Redemption – we are broken open and poured out for the world, mingling our lives with his in the communion of the Church. Such talk makes no sense if the heart is not able to see the whole in the parts, the symbols as sacrament. But if the eye of the heart is opened, the world's true centre and purpose are unveiled. Our own identity as children of God, our 'most high calling', is brought to light in the glory of God.


The Oxford Declaration, issued in 1998, still stands today as an expression of the need felt by many for an authentic liturgical movement, faithful to the tradition of the Church, and submissive to the Holy Spirit who fills her with divine life. To it may be added a new appreciation of the cultural and anthropological factors that need to be taken into account, and which seem to have been neglected by the reformers of the 1960s and 70s. The trinitarian or 'nuptial' anthropology expounded by Pope John Paul II provides a key to the correct understanding of the liturgy in its mystical dimensionality. Reflection on this point reveals the profound link between the crisis over the liturgical reforms (which led to the schism of Archbishop Lefebvre) and the crisis provoked by Humanae Vitae. The crisis on the 'left' mirrors the crisis on the 'right', and in this way modernity has inflicted a deep wound on the body of Christ.

It seems clear that the Byzantine tradition has maintained a greater sense of the sacred and of the cosmic dimensions of the liturgy than the Western tradition has been able to do. As a consequence, there is a growing interest in the Eastern rites on the part of Westerners since the time of the Council. The popularity of Byzantine icons in the West is partly a healthy reaction against the widespread use of sentimentalized devotional images, but as the true greatness of the iconographic tradition gradually reveals itself lessons may be learnt concerning the liturgy too: the iconic properties of a ritual which manifests the action of Christ, compared to the iconic properties of a picture manifesting his presence, or the reality of his human nature. The point would not necessarily be to copy the Byzantine rite, but to develop the Roman rite to a point where the East can recognize in it an authentic Christian liturgy.

What is also needed today is a continuing education in the language of symbolism, in the spiritual meaning of the liturgy and of Holy Scripture, in the lives of the saints, and in the possibility of authentic and orthodox religious experience the tradition of the spiritual senses, of lectio divina, of contemplative prayer, of ascesis and purity, of religious poetry and sacred art, and of the correct understanding and value of traditional devotions. The popular monastic practice of lectio divina should be increasingly integrated with a contemplative lectio of the Mass, especially after this becomes available in authentic vernacular translations in a few years' time.

One thing is clear from the spectacle of the 1970s. The infallibility of the Church does not extend as far as many had thought. It does not protect the Church from making the most disastrous mistakes as far as the liturgy is concerned, and thus wounding her unity and her power to give witness to the truth. It extends only to the preservation of the validity of the sacraments, which remains the same throughout the present diverse range of liturgical styles, whatever our personal taste in the matter. But perhaps this is the point. Throughout everything, the essential fact is that the liturgy is God's action as well as our own. Far from blocking our access to Christ, the liturgy is what brings him close to us, gives him to us and unites us with him. In comparison with this simple fact, our confusion over the liturgy fades into insignificance.