Why Benedictines are liturgical; and why Jesuits should be too

The title above is crude, but it is designed to remind all those in the Benedictine familia of one of our foundational and essential charisms; and to alert the Church universal to the fact that this Benedictine charism is in fact a catholic one, a charism that is shared by the whole Church. The debates on the liturgy—often illuminating and uplifting, often frustrating and disheartening—will never bear fruit without a sound understanding of the foundation and essential character of liturgy.

There will be few references or quotes. What is to come should need no citations, and should serve really as a reminder or a clarification of what we already know, even if in an unarticulated state in our hearts.

The founder of that most un-liturgical of Orders, the Jesuits, knew the priority of things when founding his Order, even if the Jesuits have subsequently often lost sight of its essential implication. St Ignatius spells out in his Spiritual Exercises what he calls the First Principle and Foundation:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

These three duties, presented in a deliberate order, are in fact a handy definition of the Christian life, which is essentially a life of divine worship, both in liturgy (praise and reverence) and in living (service). It is a very holistic view, but it has lent itself to a common misinterpretation of Christian holiness and liturgy.

St Ignatius, by Rubens

The danger is that effectively we see holiness and liturgy—praise, reverence and service—as largely, if not purely, human activities, duties even, that must be performed, even if perfunctorily or minimally. In doing this we objectify them, and reduce them to parts of our life in general, interruptions to it perhaps. They become things we do at such-and-such a time and in such-and-such a place, compartmentalised within the larger whole of life, as we see it.

Yet this is not what St Ignatius envisaged. Nor St Benedict. In fact, hidden in St Benedict’s Rule is the key to interpreting St Ignatius, and indeed the key to understanding the life of the baptised Christian.

In chapter 4 of the Rule, St Benedict commands:

Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

In chapter 43 of the Rule, St Benedict seems to contradict himself in another command:

Prefer nothing to the Work of God.

So which is the value above all values, St Benedict: loving Christ or performing the liturgy?

St Benedict with his psalter

But of course, there is no contradiction. The love of Christ and the work of God are essentially the same thing. The trap is in seeing both these as duties that we do for God: we love him in our deeds and we praise him in the liturgy. From the human point of view these are experienced as two distinct activities, though we might allow that our praise is a manifestation of our love.

In reality, these are divine not human activities, and in God there is no such compartmentalisation. The “love of Christ” is more truly his love for us; the “work of God” is more truly Christ’s praise of the Father in and through us who form his Body, the Church. From the divine point of view, they are one and the same activity.

This might lead one to think of God as some sort of egoist: I will praise myself especially by praising myself in and through my frail creature, man. This would be to interpret God by the standards of fallen man. This is a divine activity, an activity not focused in, on himself but outward, to his redeemed creation. For by loving us and including us in the Son’s praise of the Father, God the Holy Spirit is inserting us ever more deeply into the intimate life of God the Trinity.

This is why we were created, and why we were redeemed. This is what it is to praise, reverence and serve God and so save our souls. This is why we are to prefer nothing to Christ’s love for us and his work in us. By all these divine activities God extends his intimate life of perfect love outward to his creatures, drawing them into himself to share what “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, [which] God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).

So now we can see what is the human work, the human activity, our way to holiness: inviting and allowing Christ to work in us, to love in us, to praise in us; in short, it is to allow God to live his Triune life in us. This we do by living by the commandments of Christ and his Body the Church, living the life of the Church as the Church intends it to be lived. And when we fail, as we will, it is also to return to Christ in his Church to be reconciled and to start afresh.


So what the billyo does this have to do with the liturgical debates? Well, hopefully that might be becoming clear by now. To put it bluntly: so long as we conceive, practically even if not theoretically, of liturgy primarily as something we do, we construct; as something that is centred on us and is an expression of us; as something we change and adapt to suit our mood, or worse, the mood and temper of the secular mind and fashion—then we will never truly understand liturgy, and our efforts to reform or change the liturgy will end in  deformations that endanger our access to the saving work of Christ in us through his Body, the Church.

Liturgy is something that is first received, not made. It has been received from even before the earthly life of Christ, but most emphatically since then, given in and received by the Church over the centuries. In place to place it varies in some outward forms, according to what time and place have emphasised over the years. But in essence, the liturgies of those churches which can trace their life directly and unbroken in earthly terms to Christ and his apostles—these liturgies are always characterised by a pre-eminent focus on God, and the worship of Him accepted and experienced as something received, something into which we insert ourselves not least by trying to leave our egos with the doorkeeper. Our proper activity and participation lie our doing what the Church bids us to do, and so of opening our hearts to the love of Christ in the work of God, to which nothing is to be preferred—by Benedictines, Jesuits, and Christians in general.

When we get liturgy right, holiness will flourish.

I’ve probably had too much coffee this morning.



5 thoughts on “Why Benedictines are liturgical; and why Jesuits should be too

  1. Father Hugh,
    Please . . . enjoy your coffee if it leads to such a thought-provoking blog ! Although I notice you tag “Opus Dei” which surely has a different connotation than its literal translation in a piece which has so much Jesuit reference in it . . . but I suspect you realize that !
    For me (and I suspect many of us), Liturgy provides the framework, the prayerful atmosphere, which transports us for the period of that service into an even closer relationship with Our Lord. Please don’t let them mess with it too much !
    I mean, changing a few words here and there is inconvenient (I still get them wrong, admittedly deliberately at times, I still pray for the ‘remission of sins’ which seems to be so much more meaningful to me than forgiveness, although I sense the difference. Surely ‘remission’ gives more meaning to our final judgement ?), and although I can live without the Tridentine Mass, I would still like access to it on occasion.
    Thanks, as always, for your wonderful blog.


    1. Dear James,

      You are kind to a fault.

      You will notice that I did not capatilize the “opus dei” tag, lest any wandering SJs become alarmed.

      Perhaps the import of my piece is that there has been too much touching of the liturgy in the last few decades, hasty and heavy-handed. The more men mould it to their sentiments, the less it remains the work of God, and more the “work of human hands”, as the priest says at the preparation of the gifts, itself a drastic revision of the offertory. The irony of it all!

      Peace and all good things to you.


  2. Why the New Mass and New Rite of Ordination are Invalid

    Dear Fr. Hugh,
    I wonder have you viewed the above on You Tube? While I do not agreed at all with the commentary which is inaccurate and OTT, many of the accompanying pictures leave me gob smacked, even after 40+ years in Consecrated Life during which time I’ve experienced some outlandish “liturgies”. I do feel the liturgical revision was not well thought through with a multiplicity of changes, one after the other.
    Rome wasn’t built in a day !
    I like your observation: When we get liturgy right, holiness will flourish. Nous vivons dans l’espérance !


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