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The Liturgy as Play

by Romano Guardini
Read slowly and reflectively to the end, and savor the last two paragraphs


When the liturgy is rightly regarded, it cannot be said to have purpose, because it does not exist for the sake of humanity. . . . Eternal Wisdom speaks: "I was with him, forming all things, and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times, playing in the world. . .

This is conclusive. It is the delight of the eternal Father that Wisdom should pour out its eternal essence before him in all its ineffable splendor, without any purpose for what purpose should it have? but full of decisive meaning, in pure and vocal happiness; the Son plays before the Father.

Such is the life of the highest beings, the angels, who, without a purpose and as the Spirit stirs them, move before God and are a mystic diversion and a living song before him.

In the earthly sphere there are two phenomena which tend in the same direction: the play of the child and the creation of the artist.

The child, when it plays, does not aim at anything. It has no purpose. It does not want to do anything but exercise its youthful powers, pour forth its life in an aimless series of movements, words and actions, and by this to develop and realize itself more fully; all of this is purposeless, but full of meaning nevertheless, the significance lying in the unchecked revelation of this youthful life in thoughts and words and movements and actions, in the capture and expression of its nature and in the fact of its existence. And because it does not aim at anything in particular, because it streams unbroken and spontaneously forth, its utterance will be harmonious, its form clear and fine; its expression will of itself become picture and dance, rhyme, melody and song. That is what play means; it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence. It will be beautiful, too, if it is left to itself, and if no futile advice and pedagogic attempts at enlightenment foist upon it a host of aims and purposes, thus denaturizing it.

As life progresses, conflicts ensue, and it appears to grow ugly and discordant. Human beings set before themselves what they want to do and what they should do, and try to realize this in their lives. In the course of these endeavors they learn that many obstacles stand in their way, and they perceive that it is very seldom that they can attain their ideal.

It is in a different order, in the imaginary sphere of representation, that people try to reconcile the contradiction between that which they wish to be and that which they are, the soul within and nature without, the body and the soul. Such are the visions of art. It has no didactic aims; it is not intended to inculcate certain truths and virtues. A true artist has never had such an end in view. In art, he or she desires to do nothing but overcome the discord to which we have referred and express in the sphere of representation the higher life of which he or she stands in need which, in actuality, any artist has only approximately attained. Artists merely want to give life to their being and its longing, to give external form to the inner truth. People who contemplate a work of art should not expect anything of it, but they should be able to linger before it, moving freely, becoming conscious of their own better nature and sensing the fulfillment of their now intimate longings. They should not reason and chop logic, or look for instruction and good advice from it.

The liturgy offers something higher. In it people, with the aid of grace, are given the opportunity of realizing their fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to their divine destiny they should be and long to be: children of God. In the liturgy a person is to go unto God, who gives joy to youth. All this is, of course, on the supernatural plane, but it corresponds to the same degree to the inner needs of a person's nature. Because the life of the liturgy is higher than that to which customary reality gives both the opportunity and form of expression, it adopts suitable forms and methods from that sphere in which alone they are to be found, that is to say, from art. It speaks measuredly and melodiously; it employs formal, rhythmic gestures; it is clothed in colors and garments foreign to everyday life; it is carried out in places and at hours which have been co-ordinated and systematized according to more sublime laws than ours. It is in the highest sense the life of a child, in which everything is picture, melody and song.

Such is the wonderful fact which the liturgy demonstrates; it unites art and reality in a supernatural childhood before God. That which formerly existed in the world of unreality only, and was rendered in art as the expression of mature human life, has here become reality. These forms are the vital expression of real and frankly supernatural life. But this has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art it has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God's sight not to create, but to exist such is the essence of the liturgy. From this is derived its sublime mingling of profound earnestness and divine joyfulness. The fact that the liturgy gives a thousand strict and careful directions on the quality of the language, gestures, colors, garments and instruments which it employs can only be understood by those who are able to take art and play seriously. Have you ever notices how gravely children draw up the rules of their games on the form of the melody, the position of the hands, the meaning of this stick and that tree? It is for the sake of the silly people who may not grasp their meaning and who will persist in seeing the justification of an action or object only in its obvious purpose. Have you ever read of, or even experienced, the deadly earnestness with which artist-vassals labor for art, their lord; of their sufferings on the score of language; or of what an overweening mistress form is? All this for something that has no aim or purpose? No, art does not bother about aims. Does anyone honestly believe that the artist would take upon himself or herself the thousand anxieties and feverish; perplexities incident to creation if they intended to do nothing with their work but to teach the spectator a lesson, which they could just as well express in a couple of facile phrases, or one or two historical examples or a few well-taken photographs? The only answer to this can be an emphatic negative. Being an artist means wrestling with the expression of the hidden life of human beings in order that it may be given existence; nothing more. It is the image of the divine creation, of which it is said that it has made things ut sint [as they may be].

The liturgy does the same thing. It too, with endless care, with all the seriousness of the child and the strict consciousness of the great artist, has toiled to express in a thousand forms the soul may therein have its existence and live its life. The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. If we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline "who has knowledge of the world" the Holy Ghost who has ordained the game which the eternal Wisdom plays before the heavenly Father in the church, its kingdom on earth. And its delight is in this way "to be with the children of men."

Only those who are not scandalized by this understand what the liturgy means. From the very first every type of rationalism has turned against it. The practice of the liturgy means that by the help of grace, under the guidance of the church, we grow into living works of art before God, with no other aim or purpose than that of living and existing in his sight; it means foregoing maturity with all its purposefulness, and confining oneself to play, as David did when he dance before the Ark. It may, of course, happen that those extremely clever people, who merely by being grown up have lost all spiritual youth and spontaneity, will misunderstand this and give at it. David probably had to face the derision of Michal.

It is in this very aspect of the liturgy that its didactic aim is to be found that of teaching the soul not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life. The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waist time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking "why?" and "wherefore?" It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.

In the end, eternal life will be its fulfillment. Will the people who do not understand the liturgy be pleased to find that the heavenly consummation is an eternal song of praise? Will they not rather associate themselves with those other industrious people who consider that such an eternity will be both boring and unprofitable?