The Fire of the Liturgy

01-22-2017This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

A few months ago I was concelebrating a Mass in which the song, "Set a Fire," by Will Reagan was played during the Communion Procession. This song is a very popular praise and worship piece of religious music currently played all over various Christian music stations.

As I was listening to it during the Mass I was struck by a particular line of the song repeated continuously and with overpowering emotion: "Set a fire down in my soul that I can't contain, that I can't control." As I reflected on this line and the uncontrollable emotion with which it was sung, I couldn't help but feel slightly disturbed. I asked myself, "Is this the kind of fire the Lord desires to light in our souls through the celebration of the Eucharist? One of uncontainable and uncontrollable emotion?"

As I was reflecting on this line I couldn't help but think about a book I read a few years back by the famous theologian, Romano Guardini, titled, "The Spirit of the Liturgy." In this book, Guardini discusses the nature of the Liturgy and the role of both human reason and emotion in liturgical wor- ship. In particular, Guardini highlights how the liturgy is intentionally designed in such a way that human emotions are experienced within it, but in a strictly controlled manner. Guardini writes:

"Liturgical emotion is…exceedingly instructive. It has moments of supreme climax…But as a rule it is controlled and subdued. The heart speaks power- fully, but thought at once takes the lead; the forms of prayer are elaborately constructed, the constituent parts carefully counterbalanced; and as a rule they deliberately keep emotion under strict control."

The reason for the tempering of emotion in the Liturgy has to do with the nature of the liturgy itself. Guardini notes:

"The primary and exclusive aim of the liturgy is not the expression of the individual's reverence or worship of God. It is not even concerned with the awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such…It does not even rest with the collective groups, composed of numerous individuals, who periodically achieve a limited and intermittent unity in their capacity as the congregation. The liturgy is the Church's public and lawful act of worship…In the liturgy God is to be honored by the body of the faithful, and the latter is in its turn to derive sanctification from this act of worship."

What Guardini is articulating here is an understanding of worship that is not predominantly individualistic. This is in line with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, "It is the whole community, the Body of Christ united with its Head, that celebrates. Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the Church which is the sacrament of unity…Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church" (par. 1140).  

The liturgy is not an act of worship performed by any one individual or even a group of individuals. It is an act of worship performed by the entire Body of Christ and for the sanctification of the entire Body of Christ. Thus, it must be celebrated in such a way that it reflects the action of the entire Body of Christ.

Guardini argues that uncontrolled and unbalanced emotion in the liturgy produces a double danger that potentially threatens the corporate body. On the one hand, for those who are not naturally experiencing a particular emotion, the uncontrolled display of it within the liturgy runs the risk of forcing some people into acquiescence with it. As a result, a forced experience of a particular emotion could bring about a false religious experience, potentially perverting and degrading one's religious experience. On the other hand, it could potentially cause the opposite response, a kind of negative or indifferent response to a particular prayer or moment within the liturgy which deserves significant reverence, potentially causing a depreciation or devaluation of it. In order to avoid such dangers, liturgical emotion must involve some level of restraint, so that all the members of the corporate body are invited to enter into the significance of each liturgical moment no matter what emotion they may be personally experiencing in that particular moment.

Guardini uses the image of fire in his discussion of emotional restraint within the liturgy, but a different kind of fire than the one suggested by Reagan's popular religious song. Guardini writes: offering in union with the intentional and controlled self-offering of Jesus Christ

"Emotion glows in its depths, but it smolders merely, like the fiery heart of the volcano, whose summit stands out clear and serene against the quiet sky."

In other words, the fire within the liturgy is meant to burn like a hot ember - one that is never snuffed out, nor blazes out of control. In addition, since the Mass is the representation of the sacrifice of Christ, and since the Lord's offering of Himself on the Cross was a controlled offering (John 10:17-18: "This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again."), the offering of ourselves as the Body of Christ within the liturgy, must be a reflection of the offering of Christ. Therefore, it also ought to be a controlled offering. In other words, within the liturgy, God does not desire to set a fire in our souls that we can't contain or that we can't control. On the contrary, within the liturgy, God desires from us an intentional and controlled self-offering in union with the intentional and controlled self-offering of Jesus Christ.

That being said, Reagan's song, "Set a Fire," is a beautiful song. As a religious piece of music, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It is on my Spotify Christian playlist and I often find myself singing it throughout the day. However, the song is problematic within the context of the liturgy because it communicates a message contrary to the nature of the liturgy. We must remember, it was not a song written for Catholic liturgical worship. It was written for personal devotion and popular piety. This is one of the reasons why praise and worship music is distinct from liturgical music, and belongs in a different prayerful context.