The Purpose of Liturgy


FATHER ABBOT LOOKED AT ME. Mr Novice, Day Two. I had said something like, “yes, I can make the Daily Hours and Mass, and I see the Lectio Divina on the daily schedule, but when do I pray?” He asked what I meant. And I replied, “Usually I wake up and say these morning prayers, then I say these intercessions. I say a Rosary and a Jesus Psalter. I say certain prayers for my family…” Father held up one volume of our breviary. “That stuff doesn’t matter. You can do it whenever you want. This is your prayer.” I’m still digesting what he meant. I was taken aback: prayer doesn’t matter? Only Liturgy? (You see my failings… but ok.) Six years later, holding another breviary in an entirely different context, Deacon Totah said, “As you do this, your personal prayer becomes enfolded in the Church’s prayer.” He was responding to pretty much the same question asked, this time, by a member of my Deacon class. When a member of the Church is obligated to so much liturgy prayer might seem far away.

Still digesting…

Almost all pious devotions such as the Rosary and the Jesus Psalter are, exactly, liturgical prayer. We forget this. The Rosary, especially, was once called the layman’s Psalter. Its 150 beads replaced the 150 Psalms that the clergy sang in Church. A member of the laity, especially the illiterate, could thus pray these prayers without a book. The older, Dominican form of the Rosary is, very much, a lay office, recited antiphonally in a group – just like the Friars singing their Psalter. Even today, kneeling with a group of people in Church, fingering their beads, one can feel the full voice of the Church engaged in a fully liturgical act. It is really the Church’s prayer – not a pious devotion. This is even more true now, with the Rosary so widespread, that various members of the clergy and laity are as obligated to say the Rosary as they are to the Daily Office. For example, all of the thousands of members of the Dominican Family, Friars, Nuns, Sisters, and Laity, as well as the Rosary Confraternity, say the Rosary every day. This is literally a chain of Common Prayer. But – and here you can see my Protestant roots are showing – how is it prayer?

For an answer, we will start with the Catechism.

“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.

CCC ¶2558

Read it from the bottom up if any of the following is confusing.

Faith is a great mystery. The Church describes this mystery in her creeds, she celebrates this mystery in her sacraments to the end that all of us may be conformed to Christ. The Mystery of faith requires that the people of God both believe in something – that is, give their assent – and then do something with that belief. We are called to be living in a real, active, personal relationship with God. This relationship – in which we assent and respond to God in his Church – is prayer. Without it, we are not really Catholics. At all.

Prayer is not the words we recite (they are part of it) nor is prayer the things we do (they are part of it) but rather the entire relationship is prayer. Haec relatio est oratio. The Catechism then goes on to note parts and functions within prayer, but it all begins with the claim that Prayer is the relationship in which we live out the great Mystery of Faith. In this context, the idea that one’s personal prayers and petitions should be encompassed by liturgical prayer makes perfect sense: if one’s needs and wants cannot be expressed in the action of the Church then they needn’t be expressed (perhaps shouldn’t be expressed) at all.

In my Protestant background, something called prayer arises in the extemporaneous composition of the moment. One does not prepare something to say to God any more than one would prepare something to say to one’s spouse. Prepared texts are “praying out of a book” and don’t count or, at best, come a distant second. Yet anyone who has improvised a prayer out loud with others knows it’s really easy to fall into “The Prayer of the Just”. “Father, we just want to thank you for just everything that you have done in our lives. And Father, God, we just need to ask you…:

The Catholic idea of prayer is exactly the reverse, as the Catechism teaches: prayer (this relationship) is initiated by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God (that is, Jesus, the Bible) experienced in the liturgy of the Church and responded to in the human heart. The Spirit gives this relationship to us mediated by the Church’s teaching and only then do we humans get to do something. And if you read further, our doings, our response, our entire side of the conversation is also the Holy Spirit acting in us and through us, mediated by our lives.

Our personal relationship with God can only be in Christ and, as such, can only be carried out through his Body, the Church. All real prayer is, therefore, liturgical: mediated through the Church. Like a wedding, it is the Sacramental Action that creates the root from which the relationship grows. It is to this liturgical action that our hearts must conform. Not the other way around.

And so, in time, as our hearts become more conformed to the Liturgy, we can express our desires and intentions freely – because our intentions are conformed to Christ already. We, as Sons and Daughters in the Son, can act as boldly as he does, reaching out to his Father and our Father. Liturgical prayer becomes the way that our personal needs are expressed to the Father, as we open our hearts more fully to the prompting of the Spirit, we will find liturgical actions holding, containing, our deepest thoughts, the cries of our hearts, “for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26) This interweaving of our personal voice with liturgical prayer can happen in the Rosary, in the Daily Office, and in the Mass. It becomes our continual Lectio Divina.

But it begins in humble submission to the words the Church put in our mouths. The liturgy is our only prayer until all our prayer becomes liturgy.

We are all beginners here.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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