Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Liturgical "Hierarchy of Needs"

When I was in high school, I discovered Lincoln-Douglas debate, which quickly became a favorite hobby of mine because it was an outlet for all of my opinionizing and analyzing. One of the staples of L-D debate is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This little psychological nugget is, as I understand it, most often taught in the context of educational or child psychology, but as a general descriptor of basic human needs it has a ton of useful applications, especially in ethical debates.

The gist of the hierarchy is that people's most profound and distinctively human needs supervene their basic physical and psychological needs. "Supervene" is a great word; it means that the higher needs depend upon the basic ones, but are more than the basic needs, and do not necessarily follow, and therefore need specific attention. In other words, people cannot be reduced to their need for food, water, and shelter; but they cannot hope for love or fulfillment without these things. "All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them." (Luke 12:30)

Now, it seems to me that Maslow's hierarchy applies beautifully to the liturgy. Not word for word, of course, but the liturgy, like a person, has a hierarchy of needs that supervene on one another. Consider the following:

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsLiturgical Needs
6. Self-Transcendence6. Salvation
5. Self-Actualization5. Active Participation
4. Esteem4. Community Integration
3. Love & Belonging3. Beauty
2. Safety2. Stability
1. Physiological Needs1. Humble Obedience

Humble Obedience - Sorry to make liberals bristle, but this is simply true. To perform the liturgy (especially the Mass) at all is an act of solemn and religious obedience--"Do this in memory of me." More than that, however, any lacking in humble obedience on the part of the minister or the congregation will severely impact the entire liturgy. The liturgy is not the property of the priest or the congregation. The onus here is evidently on the priest, however, whose charism it is, not only to conduct and direct the liturgy, but also to help form his congregation in the virtues necessary to make the liturgy possible and fruitful. Now, humility and obedience do not themselves rank as the highest virtues, and it is not my intention to inflate them by assigning them as the prerequisites of liturgy, the "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed" (SC 10). But let us keep in mind our analogy--eating and drinking are obviously not the highest activities of the human person. Yet just as a person cannot even begin to be personally fulfilled if he does not eat and drink, so also our salvation cannot accomplished through the liturgy if it is not conducted in humility and obedience.

Now, the analogy extends still further. Humble obedience may be basic prerequisites for the liturgy--but does that mean that liturgy is impossible unless the humble obedience is at 100%? No. In fact, 100% humility and obedience is impossible even for living saints (just as perfect nutrition is impossible for even the most neurotic dieter). It is not simply a question of whether every single relevant rubric is followed to the letter (which itself, I'm sure most good conservative Catholic priests will agree, is a challenge even when the congregation is cooperative!). It's that nasty little word, "humility," that throws a wrench into the gears and makes this prerequisite crushingly difficult for even the most rigoristic clergyman.

Thus, even liturgies with slightly more obvious deficiencies in humble obedience are not thereby 'invalid' or 'worthless'. But as much as a liturgy is prideful or disobedient, that much damage is done to the fulfillment of each of the higher needs, or else it makes their fulfillment superfluous.

Stability - Stability is parallel to Maslow's stage of "safety" not only analogically but really. As William James wrote in his essay, "The Sentiment of Rationality," any good and acceptable idea will, at least in some way, "banish uncertainty from the future." Widespread uncertainty about the future is damaging to the liturgy and the life of the whole parish. Of course, there is no way to expell this uncertainty completely (to try to do so is to be an idealogue), but the pastor must be mindful not to generate needless confusion through constant or dramatic change. Catholics have a right to the comfort of knowing that next week will not be terribly different than this one.

Recall that I said that supervenience means that higher needs do not necessarily follow when basic needs are met. Thus, humble obedience does not gaurantee stability. This is true here for at least two reasons. First, the hot-shot liturgical priest, who knows all of the rubrics, reads all of the liturgical journals, and even has contacts in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, may be in danger of turning the liturgy into a fidgety perfectionistic mess. Not only does immediate lock-step cutting-edge rigorism imply frequent changes in minor aspects of the liturgy, but devotion to theoretical speculations as to the best way to fulfill the rubrics can itself cause wildly varying practice and do great harm to the congregation. The other reason is that a new pastor of a parish whose liturgy has been long lacking in 'humble obedience' could greatly endanger stability by making sweeping changes too quickly or too often in rapid succession. Going back to our analogy of the person, consider the disaster following the American liberation of starving Holocaust victims. US soldiers at times distributed Snickers candy bars to the prisoners, causing their fragile digestive organs to hemorrhage and kill several of them. So much for good intentions...

Beauty - Beauty, in a Christian sense, is an objective category. (Liberals: *bristle bristle bristle*). Now, I use the word 'objective' only in a loose sense, because the beautiful is beautiful in its being perceived by subjects; thus there is no strict subject-object split here. But the beautiful pertains to what is beautiful universally, by virtue of its identification with the Good (see reply to Objection 3) and the True. Thus, for that which is truly beautiful, for a person to perceive it as ugly, the defect would not be in the beautiful object, but in the perceiving person. Of course, in such cases, the solution is not to brow-beat the fellow with his defect of perception, but rather to invite him or her to further displays of beauty so that a connection may be seen.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that the beautiful contains two elements: harmony and clarity. Harmony is something like truth and something like justice. Harmony is like truth because it involves a correspondence, an equality, a parallelism, a resemblance. It means: there is a real connection between what I now see and deep reality. It is a union of reality, knowledge, and expression. Harmony is like justice because it inolves giving everything its due. Nobody and nothing is cheated or cheapened; rather, everything has its due being; everything is as it ought to be. Duties fulfilled, creation complete, etc., i.e., the Good.

The task of the priest, as the director of the liturgy, is to help it achieve as much beauty as possible. In other words, decisions must be made that enable the liturgy to glorify God in its aesthetic elements. The rubrics incorporate this concern somewhat, through their instructions that roles receive their due fulfillment, and the parts of the Mass their due emphasis. However, of course, a rubrically correct liturgy can still manage to be horrifically un-beautiful.

An important precept regarding the beauty of the liturgy is that it must be done as though God himself was the true and only "audience"--because he is. Even the homily, which is addressed to the congregation, has as its deepest goal the conversion of minds to the pleasing of God more and more. The Christian community never addresses itself for its own sake. No action which has a human being as its agent is ever finally addressed to the congregation or to the person of the priest; not the music, nor the prayers, nor even the Sign of Peace or the Eucharist. The Sign of Peace is a sign to God and Church of our preparedness to receive the Eucharist, and the Eucharist itself has no merely human agent. All human efforts in the liturgy have God as their origin and God as their end; all human benefit comes from God alone without human merit.

Misdirected human action is the most popular source of the "cheapening" of the liturgy. The congregation is made into the audience, so both church architecture and liturgy are twisted to serve merely the delight of a particular group of people. Thus the images, music, and manner of celebration no longer even attempts to give God his due glory, the greatest due is fulfilled the least, and ugliness ensues. It may be that a self-justifying mini-theology may crop up that says, "When we are pleased, God is glorified"--which runs so contrary to the teaching of the Bible that it is mind-boggling. "For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed." (Wisdom 3:4-5)

But it would be a mistake to suppose that beauty was somehow opposed to delight. People receive delight in different ways. St. Thomas quotes Augustine, "many things are beautiful to the eye [i.e., delightful], which it would be hardly proper to call honest [i.e., beautiful]." The really beautiful, because it is beautiful, is delightful; but the delightful is not always beautiful. Thus a liturgy that myopically focuses on delight risks ejecting beauty; but a liturgy which is beautiful is gauranteed to delight.

But this point needs to be augmented by one more fact if it is not to devolve into rigoristic naiveté: beauty in the liturgy, because it does come from human hands, after all, has a subjective quality. But this subjectivity is not a subjectivity of taste, and therefore not an individual subjectivity; but rather a subjectivity of culture and expression; a communal subjectivity. The liturgy is directed to God and has God as its origin and motivation, but it depends upon the work of human imagination, and thus will always and rightly be subject to local custom and systems of meaning. The congregation is not the audience, but it is one of the 'performers'. If the liturgy is a letter to God, it is written in a particular language and handwriting. Thus a community should never exercise a liturgy with less than its very best, holy, and important artistic and musical traditions--much less music designed for more juvenile ends--but neither should it be forced to exercise a musical/artistic style which is not its own.

A final point for this section (and this blog post). People might make much of the fact that God, because he is God, can never be given his "due" by any liturgy, thus making all liturgies inherently ugly. This is true, to an extent. However, two points must be made: (1) God is merciful, and looks upon our finitude with loving pity and condescension, and so is very much pleased even with our meager efforts at beauty which are only dirt compared with his own beauty. See: parable of the woman's gift of two coins (Mark 12:41-44). (2) One must remember that, by virtue of Christ's incarnation, an incarnate liturgy and liturgical beauty have a new power which transcends human efforts.

More later (I hope).

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