With the liturgy, we encounter the God who has made us and who has given us the liturgy as the form and the consummation of our praise. The liturgy sweeps us out of ourselves…

Anyone coming upon Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality (Hildebrand Press), who thinks it will be a manual on how to imbue the liturgy with one’s personality, or how not to do so, is in for a surprise, unsettling and salutary. The work is, in the first instance, metaphysical: We cannot discuss the relationship between liturgy and personality until we have identified what it means to possess personality in the first place.

Personality is not peculiarity, or pathology, or even the possession of striking natural gifts, such as marked the brilliance of Goethe or Beethoven. “A personality in the true sense of the word,” writes Hildebrand, “is the man who rises above the average only because he fully realizes the classical human attitudes, because he knows more deeply and originally than the average man, loves more profoundly and authentically, wills more clearly and correctly than the others, makes full use of his freedom; in a word—the complete, profound, true man.” But this is not a matter of mere style, say, Cicero’s sympathy, or Seneca’s sober brooding. We must turn to the words of Jesus: He who would save his life must lose it.

That is not a condition imposed upon man extrinsically. It is an intrinsic law of contingent being. When we acknowledge our complete dependence upon God, and when we give him and all his works the praise they are due, then, in this self-forgetfulness, this exit from the prison of the ego, from the “inhibitions, infantilisms, repressions” of the average man, we draw nearer to the Creator. Praise is the right response to and the most faithful participation in God’s power, wisdom, and love. God sends forth his Spirit, as the psalmist says, and they are created: Creation is, if I may press the analogy, like a superabounding self-forgetfulness in God.

The true personality, which Hildebrand sees in men like Saint Francis and Saint Augustine even before their conversions, beholds the objective value in each thing and, in the fullness of his heart, responds accordingly. The stream trickling down the rocks is, for him, not an opportunity to take a nice picture, but a mysterious fount of melody: His heart cries, “How good it is that you exist!” And here the liturgy begins our instruction, building us up to the full stature of Christ. It is too easy for the man at the stream to pass it by, to think of it as only a little brook, of no consequence. Not so with the liturgy, for there we encounter not only what we have not made, but the God who has made us and who has given us the liturgy as the form and the consummation of our praise.

In other words, the liturgy sweeps us out of ourselves. We do not set about this transformation directly, says Hildebrand. That would be a contradiction. We cannot forget ourselves while assiduously gauging the measure of our spiritual progress. We do not participate in the liturgy for the experience: The ravishment comes “in an entirely gratuitous manner.” The proper attitude of the man being transformed by the liturgy “is like that of love which is entirely directed towards its object, a love which in its very essence is a pure response-to-value, which comes into existence only as a response to the value of the beloved.” Had Dante said, “I think I shall fall in love with this girl Beatrice, because she will enable me to write great poetry,” he would have been but one of the great crowd of poetic poseurs, and could never have written his Commedia. Hildebrand insists upon the necessity of love. If we say, “I shall attend this Mass because it will be good for me,” it will be of no avail. It would be like trying to win the love of a woman by gazing into a mirror.

“The liturgy,” says Hildebrand, “is Christ praying.” It follows that to be transformed by the liturgy is to be transformed into Christ, which the philosopher says is the vocation of every human being. That means a transformation into the One who, as Pope Benedict has said, was all gift: all being-for, in his obedience to the Father and his love for man. But notice the paradox the world misses. Augustus Caesar, shrewd, moralistic, and ruthless, thought he was quite a personality, yet how pallid and empty do his grand sand-bitten memorials appear beside a simple memorial of the Last Supper of Christ, held in a small country church in the hills of Italy, or in a bamboo hut in the forests of Timor! It must be so, since “the more a man becomes ‘another Christ,’ the more he realizes the original unduplicable thought of God which He embodies.” When we imitate another man, Hildebrand observes, we become servile and lose our individuality, but when we imitate Christ, we imitate the One in whom the whole of humanity is contained and the plenitude of divinity.

That explains the sharply and sweetly distinct personalities of the saints, those who have been fully transformed into Christ. Consider the precise touches that render the uniqueness of the holy men and women in Fra Angelico’s Final Judgment: With the precision of an illuminator laboring over the smallest details of a manuscript, the painter gives us the amiable countenance of Pope Gregory the Great, the passion of Saint Francis, the playful innocence of holy children. The world knows something of the “purely natural genius,” but even a man of modest endowments, a modest natural capacity to behold with wonder the greatness of a beautiful work of art or nature, will transcend that man of genius when he is transformed into Christ. Hildebrand calls to mind the humble Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, whom to call an important man is to “betray a complete lack of understanding of the world of the supernatural.” That saint, patron of all who are painfully slow at their studies, never sculpted a David or composed Faust. And yet “the average man, in his petty limitations, is further removed from the world of the most simple saint…than he is from the rich intellectual world of a Goethe.”

The saints dwell in a world of colors so brilliant they make the natural genius look gray by comparison. How to enter that world? Cease to think of entering it; be guided by the liturgy, and think only of the beauty of the Beloved.

Republished with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine (December 2016).

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Editor’s note: The featured image is “A Scottish Sacrament” by Henry John Dobson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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