The Animal That Prays: 5 Ways Liturgy Makes Us Human

It is sad to see our special liturgical seasons go. For six months of the year we get Advent, then Christmas, a brief pause, then Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The Sacred Heart is the last “movable feast” dated from Easter.

But even in Ordinary Time, the liturgy makes us who we are. That is because from the beginning of humanity, ritual is what has knit us together in bonds of trust directed to God.

Liturgy calls us, connects us, challenges us, deepens and defines us. Let me briefly explain each.

First, liturgy calls us: From the dawn of humankind, ritual has drawn us together.

Matt Rossano, a psychologist at Southeaster Louisiana University, has been sharing exciting evidence from anthropology that suggests a new answer to the question “What is different about human beings?”

From our earliest days, Rossano points out, ritual has distinguished us from other animals. He sees this especially in evidence of costly and extensive attention given to the burial of the dead, ritual activity deep in caves, and evidence such as Jordan’s Wadi Faynan, an 11,000-year-old amphitheater whose construction was a massive undertaking. Yet this prehistoric cathedral is older than any civilization we have found — and older than settled agriculture.

Rossano posits that the human ability to cooperate is what made us the dominant species on earth, and it seems that a religious sensibility — a call to reckon with God — is at the heart of the earliest examples of cooperation.

Second, liturgy connects us: Rituals commit us to one another.

Rossano uses military marching as an example of the power of ritual. Armies no longer march as a battle strategy, but soldiers still practice marching extensively. That’s because marching together — or, it seems, any synchronized movement — bonds people deeply. They may not march into battle anymore, but soldiers who have marched together will be more courageous and team-minded than those who have not.

Ritual does the same thing for people today, from Papua Guinea tribal dances to Corpus Christi processions.

Third: Liturgy challenges us.

Many newly popular forms of religious behavior seem to want to serve human beings’ dreams and wishes. Astrology promises predictions; yoga promises relaxation; wicca promises a supernatural power over others.

Liturgy centered on God does something very different. “The radical theocentrism of the liturgy teases us sinners out of our native egocentrism,” Bishop Robert Barron wrote. “A proud or concupiscent person will appreciate things only inasmuch as they serve his purposes, but …  the liturgy compels us to open our minds to the moral and spiritual dimensions of life and finally to open our hearts to hear the voice of God.”

The authentic voice of God doesn’t serve us, but challenges us, from Jesus’ demand that we “repent!” to the Mass telling us to “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Fourth, liturgy deepens our personality.

The words form Bishop Barron I quoted above are from his introduction to a new reprinting of Liturgy and Personality by Dietrich von Hildebrand. That 1932 work had a great influence on the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s liturgical thinking.

In it, Hildebrand says liturgy incarnates the faith in each of us.

“The Liturgy is accomplished faith, lived faith,” he said. In the Liturgy, “faith penetrates every pore of our being, in which we breathe the supernatural air; it brings us to the ultimate reality which, in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in the sacraments, we even touch ontologically.”

Fifth, liturgy defines our purpose.

Add all this up and you get a powerful force in our lives.

The liturgy calls us to God, connects us to each other, challenges us to change and deepens us.

All of that tells us who we are, in Christ.

“None of us is ever so much himself, nor is the Church so much herself, nor are the universe and history so exalted in hope of glory, as when the liturgy is being celebrated,” said Father Jean Corbon, the principal author of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on prayer. “The liturgy is celebrated at certain moments but lived at every moment.”

This appeared at Aleteia.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story on Ex Corde. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.