June 1995By Elaine Hallett
Elaine Hallett is the co-author, with her husband, of Analyzing Shakespeare's Action.
Meditations Before Mass. By Romano Guardini. Sophia Institute Press. 204 pages. $14.95.
The Eucharist: Our Sanctification. By Raniero Cantalamessa. The Liturgical Press. 89 pages. $9.95.
Anyone wishing to delve deeply into the meaning of Holy Mass will want to own these two books. To read either one is to move to the most profound levels of the liturgy. To read both together is an experience akin to what the two disciples must have felt when the meaning of Christ's sacrifice was explained to them as they journeyed toward Emmaus: They found their hearts "burning within them."
Of the two priests, Romano Guardini is by far the better known, his The Lord (still available from Regnery) being perhaps the best "life of Christ" one can find outside of the Gospels, and a perennial favorite. But most of Guardini's books have long been out of print -- e.g., Faith and the Modern Man; Freedom, Grace and Destiny; The World and the Person; The Living God. So it gives me pleasure to note that Sophia Institute Press has reissued Guardini's Prayer in Practice (now entitled The Art of Praying) and The Rosary of Our Lady.
The other priest, Raniero Cantalamessa, is a Capuchin who presently serves as Spiritual Director to the papal household. Only within the past couple of years have his books begun to appear in English. There are now, I happily report, many Cantalamessa titles in the catalogs: Jesus Christ, The Holy One of God; Mary, Mirror of the Church; Obedience; Life in the Lordship of Christ (superb!).
In the recently reissued Meditations Before Mass, Guardini addresses his subject under two headings, first considering what we bring to the Mass and second what the Mass brings to us. In Part I, entitled "Sacred Bearing," Guardini reflects on certain factors of attitude and demeanor that permit us to be more fully receptive to the Mass, the individual's personal preparation being viewed as a means of establishing within him "that total concentration of mind and heart" which will "transform a collection of individuals into a congregation, and a restless crowd into a holy people in the sight of God." For Guardini, this crucial transformation from individual to community is a matter of "doing." "Do this in memory of Me," said Jesus. What we at Mass and the actual doing of it can deepen our understanding in a way that mere study and observation cannot.
Guardini's method is first to show what is desirable and why, then to indicate how it can be achieved. One of the prerequisites for a deeply experienced Mass, for example, is "that stillness proper to the most beautiful things in existence," "a quiet area of attentiveness in which the beautiful and only truly important reign." A superficial silence is not enough: "our thoughts, our feelings, our hearts must find repose. Then genuine stillness permeates us...." A congregation that can unite in attentive, prayerful stillness constructs a spiritual cathedral. "Be still, and know that I am God." "I am with you always." In such a space, these divine promises can be fulfilled. Further, silence becomes the setting for speech; from it arises and into it enters the spoken word, "in which alone truth stands free," the word that Our Lord declared we must "have ears to hear." Only when we are inwardly still can we "listen from the vital core of our being; unfolding ourselves to that which comes from beyond, the sacred word." Composure (being "really present -- with body, mind, and soul, with attention, reverence and love") must be willed and practiced. It is "the attitude necessary to allow for and preserve full participation" in Holy Mass.
If Part I prepares us for the liturgy, Part II takes us through it, Guardini's aim here being to guide the reader to "correct doing" of "the Holy Act" itself.
Among Guardini's many talents is a remarkable ability to formulate succinct and illuminating definitions. What is the liturgical action of the Mass? It is a "formal rendering of Jesus' act of making His Father visible.... In His presence His followers should not merely reflect on God, they should behold God with the vital gaze of the new man.... As Jesus Himself said, He who sees me sees also the Father.'" Or again, what is revealed truth? It is "neither a continuation nor a new dimension of earthly truth; it's something that completely overthrows earthly truth." A man who accepts divine truth is "forced to re-think human truth."
But Guardini not only defines words; he clarifies essences. What, for example, is the quintessential element of the Mass? The fact that the Mass was instituted not by private experience or religious creativeness but directly by Jesus! The Mass "descends from God to the believer," says Guardini, "demanding that he acknowledge it, entrust himself to it," and perform it "according to the will of its Institutor." That the form of the Mass derives from revelation "is what gives it its permanence, its relevance for all times and all places."
Guardini's discussion of the Mass becomes an illuminating penetration into the realm of mystery -- in particular the mystery of the relationship between time and eternity. Again we find ourselves peering into essences: "Jesus' acts began, unfolded, and ended in time, but both the resolve from which they spring and the power by which they were sustained were eternal. In brief, everything the Lord did took place in time but came from eternity; and since eternity is unchangeable, everything He did was immortal," Guardini writes. "The temporal is not erased but assumed into eternity, there to acquire a quality for which we now have no concept." And he reminds us that "the Son of the eternal Father became man in divine earnestness, which means He became man irrevocably. Hence He remains man in all eternity." Guardini asks us to comprehend the full meaning of this fact: "To be a man means to have a body, not an idealized, general sort of body, but one's own specific body." The wounds Jesus received during the crucifixion were "wounds eternally received into His most vital being." The feeling for this interpenetration between time and eternity that Guardini communicates to us plunges us into deeper absorption with the eternal One who steps into the "passing act" of the Mass when summoned by the words of the consecration.
Guardini has taken us all the way to Emmaus. Cantalamessa in The Eucharist coaxes us toward that revelatory breakthrough effected by the breaking of the bread. Each of the book's seven chapters explores a different aspect of our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist. After presenting the Eucharist first as a historical event and then as a Sacrament, Cantalamessa considers in turn the act of consecration of the Eucharist, the experience of communion inherent in receiving it, the opportunities afforded by the Eucharist for contemplation, the spirit of service encouraged by the Eucharist through the imitation of Christ's example, the mystery of the real presence in the Eucharist, and the sense of waiting and commitment that the Eucharist fosters. Though Cantalamessa's years of experience in offering retreats have made him adept at detecting misconceptions and at providing illuminating correctives, The Eucharist addresses itself more particularly to the person whose faith is firm, whose soul is thirsting, whose heart is longing for the living God. It is a refreshing well of profound insights.
Here, as in Guardini, penetrating insights into the meaning and significance of the Eucharist lead to practical suggestions for a deepening of the encounter that takes place when the soul approaches Jesus at the altar. Read, for example, Cantalamessa's meditation on the words of the consecration, "Take this, all of you, and eat it": "Up to a certain time I used to live the moment of consecration at Mass by closing my eyes, bowing my head and trying to estrange myself from everything around me, and to identify myself with Jesus who, before his death, uttered these words in the cenacle.... Then, one day, it struck me that this attitude didn't express the whole meaning of my participation in the consecration." As Jesus is both priest and sacrifice before the Father for us, so the priest, as part of the body of Christ, the Church, must offer up his own body, as the risen Jesus does at each Mass. "From the day I realized this, I no longer close my eyes at the moment of consecration but [instead] I look at the brethren, or if there is no one present I think of those I am going to meet throughout the day and to whom I must dedicate my time or I think of the whole Church and addressing these I say, like Jesus, Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body I will give up for you.'"
Such personal discoveries are set in the context of traditional doctrine. Cantalamessa then relates that particular insight to the life of the communicant. It is not, he says, only the priest who must offer his body in union with the offering being made by Jesus. When Jesus said, "Do this in memory of Me," He meant that we too should do the essence of what He had done, offer our bodies as a living sacrifice acceptable to God. In the sense that we, the members of His Church, are His body as well, this means that He asks us to allow Him to continue offering the Father His body: "I cannot offer myself completely to the Father while there is still one member of my body who refuses to offer himself with me! Therefore, complete what is still missing in my offer, make my joy perfect." The Eucharist is "the breaking of the bread," the breaking and sharing of the body of Jesus. At the Last Supper Jesus broke the bread -- His body. On the cross He "breaks" Himself before God, "obeys unto death," to reaffirm God's rights that have been violated by sin. To "do this" in memory of Him, then, is to completely and lovingly give one's human will to the Father, to "lay before God all hardness, all rebellion towards him or towards others, crush my pride, submit and say yes,' fully, to all that God asks of me." It is not enough for Christians to celebrate the Eucharist; they must be Eucharist with Jesus.
Guardini observes that "at the close of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares that obedience to His words is the sole basis on which life capable of existing in eternity can be founded; all life founded on anything else will disintegrate under God's gaze." Both Guardini and Cantalamessa show us how better to obey Jesus' command to "Do this in memory of Me."
DOSSIER: Liturgy & Liturgical Devotions