Guardini vs. Erasmus on Active Participation

One of the primary concerns of the the Liturgical Movement was the demand for participatio actuosa, active (or actual) participation of the congregation in the liturgy. An early expression of this concern can be found in Romano Guardini’s 1918 book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Guardini writes:

It is of paramount importance that the whole gathering should take an active share in the proceedings. If those composing the gathering merely listen, while one of the number acts as spokesman, the interior movement soon stagnates. All present, therefore, are obliged to take part. It is not even sufficient for the gathering to do so by repeating the words of their leader.

Guardini goes on to contrast the form of prayer found in a Litany, with that of the antiphonal singing of the Psalms. While the former has its uses, he argues, the later is the normative form of liturgical prayer:

The liturgy adapts the dramatic form by choice to the fundamental requirements of prayer in common. It divides those present into two choirs, and causes prayer to progress by means of dialogue. In this way all present join the proceedings, and are obliged to follow with a certain amount of attention at least, knowing as they do that the continuation of their combined action depends upon each one personally. Here the liturgy lays down one of the fundamental principles of prayer, which cannot be neglected with impunity. However justified the purely responsive forms of prayer may be, the primary form of prayer in common is the actively progressive–that much we learn from the lex orandi. And the question, intensely important today, as to the right method to employ in again winning people to the life of the Church is most closely connected with the question under discussion. For it is modern people precisely who insist upon vital and progressive movement, and an active share in things.

I have highlighted the words “people” and “modern people” which represent a strange error, or perhaps correction, in Ada Lane’s translation of Guardini. In the translation the passage clearly anticipates later stages of the Liturgical Movement; it is modern people who insist on active participation, as opposed to passive looking and listening. People have stopped going to church, and in order to draw them back, they must be allowed to take a more active part, as monastic choirs chanting the divine office do. In the original of the passage, however, there is no equivalent to the words “people” or “modern”. Here is the original:

Vielmehr verwendet die Liturgie als Grundgestalt des gemeinsamen Betens die dramatische. Sie teilt die Anwesenden in zwei Chöre und läßt das Gebet in Rede und Gegenrede voranschreiten. Das bringt die Masse in Fluß und erhält sie auch darin, denn jeder ist genötigt, wenigstens mit einer gewissen Aufmerksamkeit zu folgen; jeder weiß, daß von ihm das Voranschreiten der gemeinsamen Gebetshandlung abhängt. Damit weist die Liturgie auf ein Grundgesetz seelischer Bewegung hin, das nicht ungestraft vernachlässigt wird. So sehr auch die bloß antwortenden Gebetsformen berechtigt sind, die Grundform gemeinsamen Betens ist die handelnd voranschreitende, das lehrt uns die Lex orandi. Und die heute so brennende Angelegenheit, wie der Mann wieder mehr für das kirchliche Leben zu gewinnen sei, hängt auf das engste mit der erörterten Frage zusammen. Denn gerade er will lebendig voranschreitende Bewegung, handelnde anteilnahme.

The word which Lane translates as “people” is der Mann, that is, the man, not the general term for man as opposed to other creatures, Mensch, but the more special term Mann, meaning man as opposed to woman. Men have stopped going to church (even if women still attend), and to bring them back more active participation is necessary. I wonder why Ada Lane decided to change the sense of the passage. Perhaps she was embarrassed by the implied assertion about women in Guardini’s words. It is also possible that she was simply working from a different edition. Guardini made changes between various editions of the work, but I have not yet found an edition that corresponds to the translation.

In any case, however, it shows much about the masculine character of modernity that it was so easy to transpose a point about the difference between men and women into a point about the difference between premodern and modern culture.

A friend of mine recently sent me a passage from Erasmus of Rotterdam, at the dawn of modernity, in which he rejects the demands of the Protestant reformers for a return to more active participation of the congregation in the liturgy. It is worth comparing the passage from Guardini above with the following words of Erasmus:

Since the church, like all other affairs of mortals, has its beginning stages, development, and culmination, to call it back now to its origins is no less ridiculous than to drag a grown man back to his cradle and his infancy. Time and conditions of events bring much with them, and change much for the better. At one time, Christians met secretly, in small numbers, in private houses; now they all flock to a public, consecrated temple. Which is more fitting? Surely the latter. At one time, the Eucharist was taken during dinners, at which, as Paul bears witness, one person was hungry, another drunk; now it is taken at a sacred table, by people who are fasting. Which is more devout? At one time, one person had a hymn to offer at church, another a revelation, another a psalm, another spoke in tongues, another prophesied; and meanwhile the women were chattering away; now the tasks have been distributed to definite individuals; the others are silent, calmly listening or praying. Which is more devout? […] At one time, the whole people sang and responded ‘amen’ to the priest. Noise, not unlike thunder, and a laughable confusion of voices showed, on such occasions, a spectacle unworthy of divine worship. Now those who can sing properly have been assigned this task; the rest sing to the Lord in their hearts.

Epistle Against the False Evangelicals, trans. Garth Tissol

Who is right, Erasmus or Guardini? Perhaps there is a middle way.

In any case, Guardini’s ideal of a whole congregation participating in the antiphonal singing of the psalms was realized in certain places years before the “pastoral phase” of Liturgical Movement. In 1901 (17 years before the publication of Guardini’s book), Belloc was in a Swiss village in which he witnessed the whole population singing vespers by heart:

As I was watching that stream against those old stones, my cigar being now half smoked, a bell began tolling, and it seemed as if the whole village were pouring into the church. At this I was very much surprised, not having been used at any time of my life to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glozed over our tragedies and excused our sins. Certainly to see all the men, women, and children of a place taking Catholicism for granted was a new sight, and so I put my cigar carefully down under a stone on the top of the wall and went in with them. I then saw that what they were at was vespers.

All the village sang, knowing the psalms very well, and I noticed that their Latin was nearer German than French; but what was most pleasing of all was to hear from all the men and women together that very noble good-night and salutation to God which begins–

Te, lucis ante terminum.

My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act, and I saw for a moment the Catholic Church quite plain, and I remembered Europe, and the centuries. Then there left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with the Faith. The cities dwindled in my imagination, and I took less heed of the modern noise. I went out with them into the clear evening and the cool. I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief.


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