Immanence Dominance

We need regularly to puncture our secular, flattened time to let God in

In the wake of Vatican II, all sorts of Catholic practices and popular devotions were deconstructed. The process often occurred for simplistic and callow reasons, with no thought to why those practices and devotions had become so established or what would be lost — including in terms of follow-on effects — by their destruction.

In a recent essay, I argued that one result of those losses has been a “flattening of time” [link here]. Deconstruction of feasts and devotions has led to a banalized sense of time, an overweening dominance of the present devoid of the Transcendent that Jacques Maritain once called the “minotaur of the immanent.”

I used the example of the Angelus. Its three-fold recitation broke into the secular flow of the day at regular intervals, elevating it to — or by the Angelus bell, at least reminding the hearer of — the Transcendent.

Yes, when people still recited the Angelus (think Millet’s painting, here) the regular interruption of the day by religion served to check the all-consuming expansion of secularism. For a minute or ninety seconds, God broke into everyday life. Even when people didn’t recite the Angelus, the ringing of the Angelus bell was an aural sacramental that reminded the passive hearer of God’s presence. Millet’s painting does not include a church steeple on the horizon by accident; the Angelus prayer and the Angelus bell go together.

The loss of the prayer and the silencing of the bell were not just simply devotional changes, a “modernizing” of piety. They were cultural changes. They shifted the culture in which people live by eliminating the regular presence of the Sacred and Transcendent. That society became more pervasively secular, more culturally closed to anything beyond the present and immanent.

I lived in Shanghai for three years. It is a city that regularly builds skyscrapers. Its skyline is constantly being filled by new glass towers. But there is also a palpable, suffocating immanence to a skyline that is deliberately curated so that churches are practically invisible. Few exist — and it’s made sure that the few that do really do not stand out on the horizon. And, at least for someone who grew up with them, the absence of church bells is deafening amid the noise of 22 million people.

Even in the West, the loss of regular, systematic, and periodic interruptions of the secular flow of time by the religious has created an anti-human culture in which the undistinguished passage of time dominates. I noted this in terms of the week. When recitation of the Rosary was more commonplace, the shift of the mysteries depending on the day (and their amplification when St. John Paul II suggested the Luminous Mysteries) was another way in which the sacred was regularly and variably inserted into daily human life. Pace those who downplayed Marian devotion, the Rosary systematically made present the key moments of the life of Christ in the daily lives of the faithful. That was not just a “pious practice.” It also kept the culture in which such people lived and prayed open to something beyond itself, beyond the all-consuming Present.

I recently paged through an old “prayer book” that was popular in the late 1950s/early 60s called Blessed Be God. It contained specific devotions for specific weekdays. Some remain, albeit tenuously, e.g., the association of Friday with the Lord’s Passion and Saturday with Our Lady. (The regular recurrence of Friday abstinence — not just during Lent — also regularly alluded to the Paschal Mystery, serving to maintain the memory of the sixth day as something more than the bridge to the ”weekend”). Other days regularly alluded to other mysteries of the faith, e.g., the Trinity, the Angels, St. Joseph, the holy souls. The loss of these regularly recurrent popular devotions did not just result in amnesia about parts of our faith; it led to the secular closure of our flow of time.

In the case of the week, their absence has left us with Sunday. And while the Lord’s Day should be the high point of the Christian week, the truth is that the culture has obscured the religious character of Sunday, investing it — when compared with the rest of the week — with the slightly-slower-but-still-secularized character of “the weekend.”

The Mass is, of course, the central act of transcendent Christian cult, in whose renewed liturgy the faithful are called actively to participate. But 55 minutes once a week is still set against everything else for the rest of a week that seems closed to the transcendent opening that the Eucharist provides. Yet this is most Catholics’ primary connection to the liturgical year. The Liturgy of the Hours also preserves the liturgical year aspect, but it has not “caught on” with the faithful.

My argument is that a regular and recurrent making-present of the mysteries of our faith is essential to overcoming the dominance of immanence. Popular devotions are slowly making a comeback, but restoring what was uprooted takes time. Until we do, how do we counteract an immanentized time whose constant focus on the “now” makes one ask, “Is that all there is?”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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