Mass Propers
Gregorian Chant
Dom Cabrol
Romano Guardini
Papal Documents


By Romano Guardini



IN the liturgy the faithful are confronted by a new world, rich in types and symbols, which are expressed in terms of ritual, actions, vestments, implements, places, and hours, all of which are highly significant. Out of this the question arises--what is the precise significance of all this as regards the soul's intercourse with God? God is above space; what has He to do with directions as to specific localities? God is above time; what does time, beginning with the liturgical hours and ending with the ecclesiastical year, matter to Him? God is Simplicity; then how is He concerned with specific ritual, actions and instruments? Let us desist from the attempt to enter more fully into the question, and content ourselves with asking: God is a Spirit--can matter therefore have any significance in the soul's intercourse with Him? Is not the intervention of material things bound to pervert and to degrade this intercourse? And even if we admit that man consists of soul and body, that he is not pure spirit, and therefore as a logical conclusion that a material element will always play a certain part in his spiritual life--must we not regard this as a defect against which we must strive? Should it not be the task of all true religion to come to be the "worship of God in spirit and in truth," and at least to aim at, if not to succeed in, eliminating the bodily and material element as far as possible?

This question penetrates deeply into the essence and nature of the liturgy.

What meaning has matter--regarded as the medium of spiritual receptivity and utterance, of spiritual impression and expression--for us?

The question depends upon the manner in which the Ego, within its bodily-spiritual personality, experiences the relationship between body and soul.1 There exists a peculiar form of this self-experience, in which the boundary between the "spiritual" and the "bodily" or "physical" is sharply defined. In such cases the spiritual plane appears as entirely self-contained, lying within--or perhaps it would be better to say beyond--the physical plane, and having little or nothing to do with the latter. The two planes--
spiritual and physical--are felt to be two distinct orders, lying closely adjacent, between which communication certainly takes place; but communication of such a nature that it rather appears as a transposition from the one into the other, than as the direct co-operation of both. Such is the frame of mind which has probably drawn its conception of the external world from Leibniz's theory of monads, and its conception of the soul from the teaching of psycho-physical parallelism.

It is obvious that people who favor such a system of thought will only attach a more or less fortuitous significance to the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. The latter, they consider, is intimately bound up with the former, and is also in need of it, but as far as the life of the soul proper is concerned, the physical has no importance; it merely appears to encumber and to degrade spiritual activity. The soul strives to attain its goal--
that is to say, truth, the moral impulse, God, and the Divine--by purely spiritual means. Even when such people know that this endeavor cannot possibly succeed, they still exert themselves to approach to the purely spiritual at least as nearly as they can. To them the physical is an alloy, an innate imperfection, of which they endeavor to rid themselves. They may perhaps credit it with a limited external significance, and look upon it as an aid to the elucidation of the spiritual, as an illustration, or as an allegory; but they are all the time conscious that they are making what is actually an inadmissible concession. Moreover, the physical does not appeal to them as a medium of vividly expressing their inner life. They scarcely even feel the need of expressing that life in a tangible manner; for them the spiritual is self-sufficing, or else it can express itself in a straightforward moral action and in a simply uttered word.

People of such a turn of mind will inevitably have great difficulties to face in the liturgy.2 Somewhat naturally, they gravitate towards a strictly spiritual form of devotion, which aims at suppressing the physical or material element and at shaping its external manifestations in as plain and homely a manner as possible; it prizes the simple word as the most spiritual medium of communication.

Facing these, and in contrast with them, are people of a different mental constitution. For them, the spiritual and the physical are inextricably jumbled together3; they incline to amalgamate the two. While the former type of disposition labors to separate the physical and the spiritual spheres, the latter endeavors to unite them. People like this are prone to look upon the soul merely as the lining of the body, and upon the body as the outside, in some sort the condensation or materialization, of the spirit within. They interpret spiritual elements in terms of physical conditions or movements, and directly perceive every material action as a spiritual experience. They extend their conviction of the essential oneness of the soul and the body beyond the province of the individual personality, and include external things within its sphere of operation. As they frequently tend to regard externals as the manifestation of spiritual elements, they are also capable of utilizing them as a means of expressing their own innerness. They see this expressed in various substances, in clothing, in social formations, and in Nature, while their inner struggles are reflected even in conditions, desires, and conflicts which are universal.4

Of the two types of spiritual character, the second at the first glance would seem to correspond the more closely to the nature of the liturgy. It is far more susceptible to the power of expression proper to liturgical action and materials, and can the more readily apply these external phenomena to the expression of its own inner life. Yet in the liturgy it has to face problems and difficulties all its own.

People who perceive the physical or material and the spiritual as inextricably mingled find it hard to confine the manifestations of the individual soul to set forms of expression, and to adhere strictly to the clearly defined significance of the formulas, actions and instruments employed in such expression. They conceive the inner life as being in a perpetual state of flux. They cannot create definite and clearly outlined forms of expression because they are incapable of separating spiritual from physical or material objects. They find it equally difficult to distinguish clearly the specific substance behind the given forms of expression; they will always give it a fresh interpretation according to varying circumstances.5

In other words, in spite of the close relationship which in this case exists between the physical and the spiritual such people lack the power of welding certain spiritual contents to certain external forms, which together will constitute either the expression of their inner selves or a receptacle for an extraneous content. That is to say, they lack one of the ingredients essential to the creation of symbols. The other type of people do not succeed any better, because they fail to realize how vital the relationship is between the spiritual and the physical. They are perfectly capable of differentiating and of delimiting the boundaries between the two, but they do this to such an extent that they lose all sense of cohesion. The second type possess a sense of cohesion, and with them the inner content issues directly into the external form. But they lack discrimination and objectiveness. Both--the sense of cohesion and the power of discrimination--are essential to the creation of a symbol.

A symbol may be said to originate when that which is interior and spiritual finds expression in that which is exterior and material. But it does not originate when6 a spiritual element is by general consent coupled with a material substance, as, for instance, the image of the scales with the idea of Justice. Rather must the spiritual element transpose itself into material terms because it is vital and essential that it should do so. Thus the body is the natural emblem of the soul, and a spontaneous physical movement will typify a spiritual event. The symbol proper is circumscribed; and it may be further distinguished by the total inability of the form selected as a medium of expression to represent anything else whatever. It must be expressed in dear and precise terms and therefore, when it has fulfilled the usual conditions, must be universally comprehensible. A genuine symbol is occasioned by the spontaneous expression of an actual and particular spiritual condition. But at the same time, like works of art, it must rise above the purely individual plane. It must not merely express isolated spiritual elements, but deal with life and the soul in the abstract.

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Consequently when a symbol has been created, it often enjoys widespread currency and becomes universally comprehensible and significant. The auspicious collaboration of both the types of temperament outlined above is essential to the creation of a symbol, in which the spiritual and the physical elements must be united in perfect harmony. At the same time it is the task of the spiritual element to watch over and determine every stroke of the modeling, to sort and sift with a sure hand, to measure off and weigh together delicately and discreetly, in order that the given matter may be given its corresponding and appropriate form. The more clearly and completely a spiritual content is cast in its material mold, the more valuable is the symbol thus produced, and the more worthy it is of its name, because it then loses its connection with the solitary incident which occasioned it and becomes a universal possession. The greater the depth of life from which it has sprung, and the greater the degree of clarity and of conviction which has contributed to its formation, the more true this is in proportion.

The power of symbol-building was at work, for instance, when the fundamental rules governing social intercourse were laid down. From it are derived those forms by which one person signifies to another interest or reverence, in which are externally expressed the inward happenings of civil and political life, and the like. Further--and in this connection it is specially significant--it is the origin of those gestures which convey a spiritual meaning; the man who is moved by emotion will kneel bow, clasp his hands or impose them, stretch forth his arms, strike his breast, make an offering of something, and so on. These elementary gestures are capable of richer development and expansion, or else of amalgamation. They are the source of the manifold ritual actions, such as the kiss of peace or the blessing. Or it may be that certain ideas are expressed in corresponding movements, thus belief in the mystery of absolution is shown by the Sign of the Cross. Finally, a whole series of such movements may be co-ordinated. This gives rise to religious action by which a richly developed spiritual element--e.g., a sacrifice--succeeds in attaining external and symbolic expression. It is when that form of self-experience which has been described above is extended to objects which lie without the personal province, that the material concrete factor enters into the symbol. Material objects are used to reinforce the expressiveness of the body and its movements, and at the same time form an extension of the permanent bodily powers. Thus, for instance, in a sacrifice the victim is offered, not only by the hands, but in a vessel or dish. The smooth surface of the dish emphasizes the expressive motion of the hand; it forms a wide and open plane, displayed before the Godhead, and throwing into powerful relief the upward straining line of the arm. Or again, as it rises, the smoke of the incense enhances the aspiration expressed by the upturned hands and gaze of those who are at prayer. The candle, with its slender, soaring, tapering column tipped with flame? and consuming itself as it burns, typifies the idea of sacrifice, which is voluntarily offered in lofty spiritual serenity.

Both the before-mentioned types of temperament co-operate in the creation of symbols. The one, with its apprehension of the affinity between the spiritual and the physical, provides the material for the primary hypothesis essential to the creation of the symbol. The other, by its power of distinction and its objectiveness, brings to the symbol lucidity and form. They both, however, find in the liturgy the problems peculiar to their temperament. But because they have shared together in the creation of the liturgical symbol, both are capable of overcoming these difficulties as soon, that is, as they are at least in some way convinced of the binding value of the liturgy.

The former type, then, must abandon their exaggerated spirituality, admit the existence of the relationship between the spiritual and the physical, and freely avail themselves of the wealth of liturgical symbolism. They must give up their reserve and the Puritanism which prompts them to oppose the expression of the spiritual in material terms, and must instead take the latter as a medium of lively expression. This will add a new warmth and depth to their emotional and spiritual experience.

The latter type must endeavor to stem their extravagance of sensation, and to bind the vague and ephemeral elements into clear-cut forms. It is of the highest importance that they should realize that the liturgy is entirely free from any subjection to matter,7 and that all the natural elements in the liturgy (cf. what has been previously said concerning its style) are entirely re-cast as ritual forms. So for people of this type the symbolizing power of the liturgy becomes a school of measure and of spiritual restraint.

The people who really live by the liturgy will come to learn that the bodily movements, the actions, and the material objects which it employs are all of the highest significance. It offers great opportunities of expression, of knowledge, and of spiritual experience; it is emancipating in its action, and capable of presenting a truth far more strongly and convincingly than can the mere word of mouth.


1. The more precise discussion of the question belongs to the domain, is yet but little explored, of typological psychology.

2. This disposition does not, of course, actually exist in the extreme form portrayed here any more than does that which is described later. We are concerned, however, with giving an account of such conditions in the abstract and not in detail.

3. It need hardly be said that no intention exists of discussing in this connection the real relationship of soul and body. We are concerned with describing the manner in which this relationship is felt and interiorly experienced. It is not a question of metaphysics, but merely of descriptive psychology.

4. Cf., for instance, the feeling of the Romantics for Nature.

5. Hence the tendency of people like this to forsake the Church, with her clear and unequivocal formulas, and to turn to Nature, there to seek an outlet for their vague and fluctuating emotions and to win from her the stimulus that suits them.

6. As in allegory.

7. Such as is found in Nature-religions, for instance, which are directly derived from Nature herself, from the forest, the sea, etc. The liturgy, on the contrary, is entirely designed by human hands. It would be extremely interesting to investigate in a detailed manner the transformation of natural things, shapes and sounds into ritual objects through the agency of the liturgy.