Words on Holy Days (Essay Fragment, Unfinished)

An essay I have had around for a long time, unfinished and more-or-less in first-draft limbo.  Posting it here to remind myself to trash it or finish it.


The Liturgy refers to itself at one point—or rather the celebrant, celebrating the Liturgy, refers to it at one point—as “the work of our human hands”. The rhetorical figure here stresses that the Liturgy is the work of our minds and our lips: we make these words, on this day, in this place, together. Around the altar we gather in a holy place, a place of prayer. “And my house shall be called an house of prayer.”

How do we begin to pray? What standing have we to call upon the Lord? What words do we have that can stand the strain, even if we had such standing? Augustine famously struggles with this problem of the beginnings of prayer in Confessions. He asks for help: “How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord?…Have mercy so that I may find words.” Augustine stands in aporia, bewildered. He wills to speak, he must speak, he cannot speak. Yet he speaks. “Yet woe to those who are silent about you…” He believes and so he speaks.  We believe and so we speak.

We speak in worship; worship is the norm of Christian existence.  Christian worship is an encounter, always an encounter:  first and foremost–an encounter with God, a dialogue with him.  There are two partners in this dialogue, God and the praying community (and that praying community is not an impersonal body, but rather a community of responsible, praying persons).  We might say that on one side of the dialogue, our side, there is a duality:  the community stands by personal faith and commitment, and yet it is corporate.  And it helps to remember that one the other side of the dialogue, God’s, there is a trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Holy Illocutionary Space

“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; now, and forever: world without end”

So the Liturgy begins. But what so begins? A prayer—long, complex, intricately structured—a prayer bodied forth not just in words but in actions, ritual actions performed by the priest and the faithful. Recall Wittgenstein’s language games. These are not games played with words, but rather activities in which words play a crucial part, of which words are a crucial part. They are wordy deeds. We speak in a holy illocutionary space[1].

Here I agree with Virgil Aldrich:  “A man as a language-using animal lives, moves and has his being distinctively in illocutionary space, with nothing metaphorical about it.”  Aldrich notes that what he means by ‘illocutionary space’ (in its literal sense) has already been spelled out by Wittgenstein and especially Austin.  Of course, Aldrich knew that he was running against the grain here because of our tendency to think that real space is exclusively physical space.  He notes that:

Even Kant thought something like that–and got into a frightful cramp over it as a moral philosopher.  It made moral talk look like an unintelligible metaphor.  His aim was to give an adequate account of a man in moral action.  A moral agent moves freely and surely this “doing” presupposes room for it, “room” in some literal sense.  Kant mentioned the “causality of freedom.”  He had use also (implicitly) for the notion of the “space of freedom.”  Indeed, to be free is to have the sort of room that one takes action in–not just physical space to move in as a physical object.[2]

The Liturgy takes place in the space in which holy actions can be performed.  It needs room that such actions can take place in, and in which the relevant agents can act–and not just as physical objects moving in a physical space.  When I was converting to Orthodoxy, my good friend who had long been Orthodox told me to take off my watch when I entered the church, because I was no longer in the time my watch told, profane time; I was entering sacred time:  likewise,  when we enter the church, we also change from one space to another, from profane into sacred space. When I enter sacred space, a space structured by icons (as is commonly the case in Orthodox churches), eternity moves next door, as it were, the bodiless powers, the Intelligences and the First Cause, are my neighbors.  The saints in the icons are far closer to us than the trees we see through the window.  We can think of this as implicated in the peculiar perspective of most icons.  Instead of perspective running away from us and converging in the pictorial distance, as happens familiarly in paintings, when before an icons, I stand at that point and face a perspective that is running away from me, a space that opens up.  In effect, the perspective of the icon makes it the case that I am in a sense the one that is being represented, contemplated, considered.  The result should be humility.  I stand in this space to be judged–among other things–but not to judge.  The perspective is the perspective of the icon, not mine.  The space is the space of the icon, not mine–at least not in a proprietary sense.  We might say that sacred space, the space in which we can speak the Liturgy and thus do it and not just parrot its words, is a space that reverses our normal perspective on things.  We speak the words of the Liturgy, do the Liturgy in that reverse-perspectival space, that holy illocutionary space.

The larger point here is that there are illocutionary acts that are only felicitous in a certain space, that need a certain kind of room.  Not just any illocutionary act can be performed just anywhere.  (Just as not just anything can be said to just anyone at just anytime:  St. Athanasius reminds of us this when he points out in The Incarnation of the Word that you cannot put straight in someone else what is crooked in yourself.) Obviously, this is a big claim and I have done little put illustrate it–and that only sketchily.  But let me try to head off one misunderstanding.  I have ‘located’ sacred space inside the church, as if it is separated from secular space by windows and doors.  (“The doors, the doors!”)  That is not right, ultimately.  I may first discover–typically, I will first discover–sacred space in the church.  But what I ought also to discover is that what I previously took to be secular space is in fact a distinct region of sacred space:  not one in which the Liturgy can be done, but still one broadly of the sort in which the Liturgy is done.  So what I took to be the difference between sacred and secular space is better taken to be the difference between holy Liturgical space and holy non-Liturgical space (think of the first as more complicatedly ‘structured’ (i.e., as having different, and more complicated, felicity-conditions than the latter).  We live and move and have our being as Christians in a reverse-perspectival space, a space that we take everywhere to open out on eternity.

The Liturgy is a wordy deed, composed of wordy deeds. The Liturgy is work. The Liturgy is done—and we do it.  We have been given this work to do. It is the work of our hands, but we do it according to divine plan. What we offer up, we offer back. We bring nothing of our own, despite the fact that we bring ourselves, for we are not our own.  Recognizing this is not easy, since to recognize that we are not our own is not simply to accept a certain bit of information about ourselves, but to inculcate a way of being:  it is to be humble in a particular way about ourselves, it is to understand and to act in the light of the understanding that we are, and will remain, mysteries to ourselves.  It is to not merely know but to acknowledge being a creature, a created being.  The Liturgy teaches us in a way that changes us.  Our assent to the fact that we are not our own has to work to become ‘real’ and not merely ‘notional’ (in Newman’s terms).  What we do during the Liturgy helps to work this change.

With Love and Fear

During the Liturgy, we stand in fear and we stand in love–in some fusion of the two.

How is that possible?  Fear and love seem incompatible, one a strong inclination fromwards, the other a strong inclination towards. How can these be fused without confusion? One seems undesirable, the other desirable.  Again, how can these be fused without confusion?

A preliminary:  scripture tells us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  But of course ‘beginning’ here cannot mean just something that happens early on and then ceases, as if the wise person began by fearing the Lord but later lost that fear, perhaps having it replaced by something else; perhaps by love.  But that is not what ‘beginning’ means here.  Its meaning is closer to the meaning of the Greek word, ‘arche’.  The fear that is the beginning of wisdom is not just something present at the start, but is something that remains throughout, in the form of the controlling initiative, even as the inner form of that wisdom.  At no time does someone wise not fear the Lord. But at no time does someone who properly fears the Lord not love the Lord.  (The demons in St. James’ Epistle believe and tremble–but they do not fear properly.  Their fear is not proper, not wise fear.  After all, they tremble, then–nothing. They believe without works, and so believe in only an attenuated sense–and so fear in only an inappropriate sense.)

If we are wise, we fear God as a creature, created from nothing, fears its Creator, the plenitude of being.  The fear is the recognition of the distance between creature and Creator.  Love closes the distance without eliminating it.

Fear of the Lord interpenetrates love of the Lord.  If I love the Lord, then I fear Him. If I fear Him, then I love Him. If I claim to do one but not the other, I am confused.  A God I love but do not fear is not the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac.  A God I fear but do not love is not the God of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John.  But this still makes it seem as if fear and love could cohabitate the heart of the believer, but in separate chambers.  That is not right.  They need, as it were, to become one flesh:  to marry, not just to live together.  But, again, what does that mean?

Consider the thought that fear is undesirable.  Of course, there is a point beyond which fear becomes, to use H. H. Price’s phrase, ‘catastrophic’.  Such catastrophic fear paralyzes.  But, when short of catastrophic, fear can be desirable.  To be free of fear, as Lord Nelson was said to be, is to lack something crucial.  Such a lack is properly to be pitied.  Such a person would live a life free of thrills, a life in which adventures might be had but could not be lived through as adventures.  No adventure the great in this life–only insipidity all around.  So fear, like love, can be desired.  There is no reason to think …

But how can fear and love fuse?  Augustine sheds light here with his description of the Uncreated Light:

What is the light which shines right through me and strikes my heart without hurting?  It fills me with terror and burning love:  with terror inasmuch as I am utterly other than it, with burning love in that I am akin to it.

Augustine makes clear it is our status as creatures of God but creatures made in his image that allows fear and love to fuse.  We are creatures God made in his image–such are the creatures we are.  We are infinitely far from God; He is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  But we are where we are and we are what we are:  we are not in two places (one far from God, one near); we are not two things (a creature and an image of God).  Just as we can be near God and far from God while in one place, and just as we can be a creature and an image of God while one thing, we can love and fear God without confusion, feeling, as it were, one thing and not two.

The ‘Sacrament’ of Attention

Ultimately, the Liturgy demands our attention.  But it is easy to misunderstand this, despite the fact that the celebrant calls us to attention repeatedly during the liturgy.  We misunderstand because we have a mistaken conception of the attention being called upon.  Simone Weil notes this confusion:

Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort.  If one says to one’s pupils:  “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles.  If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, the cannot reply.  They have been concentrating on nothing.  They have not been paying attention.  They have been contracting their muscles.

She then continues with a description of the attention that is being called upon:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of… Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

Weil’s point is that we cannot obtain the most precious gifts–for example, the gifts of the Liturgy–by searching for them actively.  We must wait for them passively, in a state of profoundest attention.  If we search for them actively, our effort itself becomes or creates a doppelganger of the precious gift, and the very intimacy of the doppelganger with us, its being a form or product of our own activity, makes it nearly impossible, if not impossible, to discover.  I am always best at deceiving myself.  It is the counterfeit bills of which I am the printer that I am most likely to take as legal tender.

If we step back from Weil’s way of putting all this, we can, I believe, see that she seems to be right about the logical behavior of the concept of ‘attending’.  “Attending is not a form of searching; it is like looking at or listening to rather than looking for or listening for.”  And, while attending can be done for a particular purpose, it need not be done on purpose.  We can just attend to something–or attend to it for pleasure or because we cannot tear our attention away.  Attending is something that we can decide or resolve or promise to or refuse to do, and it is something we can be blamed for not doing.  We can be trained or train ourselves to attend, as we can be trained or train ourselves to acquire any habit.

But one worry we might have about Weil’s way of putting this is that ‘attending’ seems to be an activity-concept–whereas Weil seems to deny that it is an activity-concept.

But this worry is not serious.  Weil does deny that attention is a kind of muscular effort, but that is not to say that the concept of ‘attention’ is not an activity-concept.  Weil does also say that attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it empty and receptive.  But Weil is talking about suspending and holding–and the concepts of these are activity-concepts, even if they are, as we might put it, ‘nullifying’ activity-concepts, not ‘positive’ activity-concepts.  Not much rests on these terms.  The main point is that the ‘nullifying’ actions are such that when we perform them, specifiable might-have-been events do not occur or specificable might-have-been states of affairs do not obtain.[3]   …



The Liturgy aims to remake us.

[1] Aldrich

[2] Aldrich, p. 27

[3] Ryle, Negative Actions…

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