By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Liturgical Psychology 101

Among Catholics, liturgical tinkering and reform are a great past time practiced both by liturgical liberals and liturgical traditionalists. One blogger even claims that saving the liturgy will save the world--a claim which implies, in my opinion, the Pelagian view that we can somehow save ourselves and reach to heaven by building a modern day Tower of Babel "brick by brick." I appreciate the great sincerity and earnestness behind many of these attempts at liturgical reform, but more needs to be said before the train leaves the station.

Go back to Psychology 101, and some of you may recall that the famous writer on religious experience William James (1842-1910) proposed a psychological theory of emotion (now apparently rejected by many) which said that emotion follows from our physiological reactions. In his classic example, James proposed that we do not first fear the bear that we see and then run; but rather that instead we first run and then experience the emotion of fear.

I personally have my doubts about what James proposed. Yet, we see this theory all over our popular discourse: for example, the advice that we should smile so that we will eventually feel happy. Even the great Pascal has a few lines that remind me of the James theory: Pascal advises the wavering believer to simply cross himself with holy water and jump into the practice of the faith so that then the faith will come. Certainly, there is a kernel of truth here: we need to trust and step out in faith so that our faith will increase. As the father who sought healing for his child from Jesus famously prayed: "I believe, help my unbelief."

Yet, notice that, in the case of both Pascal and the desperate father in the Gospel, both begin with an act of faith. Some faith--the size of a mustard seed--came first and then the action that could engender even more faith. This sequence contradicts the James theory (strictly speaking, the James-Lange Theory of Emotion) which proposes that the physical action comes first and only then the emotional content.

It seems to me that many liturgical tinkerers and would-be reformers, whether liberal or traditionalist, really are unconsciously applying the James theory of emotion to liturgical reform: if only this practice changes, then reverence and devotion will follow among those attending the liturgy. The examples are legion: if only the priest faces ad orientem, then the people will really be praying to God; if we do not receive communion in the hand, then the people will embrace the Real Presence; if we use an archaic liturgical language such as Latin more widely, then the people will have a greater sense of the awesome mystery of God, etc. The list goes on and on and includes everything from the style of vestments to church architecture.

In spite of such implied or explicit assumptions, the hard truth is that ritual action alone does not change hearts or lift up our minds to God. There are many who have received the Eucharist for years, some even daily, who show no signs of personal transformation. There are many who have attended for years the most liturgically traditional Masses but show few signs of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their interactions with others. As I heard a very conservative priest say recently, we are not saved by ritual. That is also the fiery message of many of the Old Testament prophets. That was and is also the message of the Jesus who still speaks to us in the Gospels and whose greatest and most vociferous condemnations were reserved for the ritualistic Pharisees of his time.

In contrast to the James theory that action begets the emotion, in the realm of conversion, the Scriptures speak of a gift, an amazing gift, an undeserved gift called charis or grace. That grace then leads us to engage in praise and thanksgiving. That grace leads us to open our hearts in the liturgy to receive more from Jesus. I submit that the biblically and theologically correct sequence is conversion through the grace of God and then liturgical action. Liturgical action alone saves no one individual, much less the entire world. Even the sacraments which always objectively bestow grace will have no visible effect on our lives and personalities if we do not approach them with a heart of initial faith and trust.

So my counsel to the liturgical reformers is this: preach conversion first and the rest will follow. Truly converted people will have no problems showing reverence or belief in the Real Presence. Once there is authentic conversion, all licit liturgical forms of the Church perform beautifully. The key is not which licit form is used. The key is the kind of hearts engaging those licit liturgical forms. It's time to abandon the "James Theory of Liturgical Reform" and focus on conversion and evangelization first. Conversion will make the liturgical problems and abuses disappear, heart by heart.