The importance and relationship between external actions and internal disposition in worship

Within Catholic circles there can often be an attitude that following the rubrics (the parts of the missal  that tell us what we should be doing) is unimportant or flexible. This can be seen when we have people who choose to disregard the rubrics and kneel and stand when they want to rather than when they are meant to, “I know the rubrics says stand now but I am going to kneel instead”, or even the attitude that learning the proper times for external actions in unimportant “I don’t have the time for that, besides its not that important, Jesus knows my heart”.

On the other hand we must also be careful that our worship does not become meaningless external behaviour when the internal is elsewhere. This is demonstrated by those who could be called “bench warmers” or “zombie congregations”, those who come to Mass, sit, stand kneel, in a zombie like fashion, get what they think is the lucky white wafer and leave satisfied with the idea that they will avoid going to hell – if it exists – for having to sit through that boring thing they do every Sunday.

It is important that we get the balance right. We need both internal and external participation.

“When kneeling [insert any other external act of worship here] becomes merely external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. On the other hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affects the whole man.”

~ Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Spirit of the Liturgy, Kindle Edition, Location: 2187).

As human beings we are body and soul. We are not pure spirit, we are not angels. Not only can we worship with with our hearts and minds, we can also worship with our physical body. In a way, if we are not giving both our internal and external faculties to our Lord in worship, we are not fully giving ourselves to God.

As Man is both spirit and matter, one part of us can influence the other. An example in the positive sense is that fasting (choosing not to eat) can strengthen the will, and in turn help us avoid occasions of sin. In the negative, glutteny (over indulgence in eating and drinking) can lead to a weakening of our will making it harder to avoid other sins. So like external actions can influence our internal state as shown above, the exact same can be said for our external actions at Mass.

“Their [those who strive to make the liturgy even in an external way a sacred act] chief aim is to foster and promote the people’s piety and intimate union with Christ and His visible minister and to arouse those internal sentiments and dispositions which should make our hearts become like to that of the High Priest of the New Testament.”

~Pope Pius XII (Mediator Dei, S106).

Our external actions in the Mass foster our union with the Church, with one another, and with Christ. In fact deliberate failure to follow the rubrics during Mass is a direct act of disobedience to the Church and hence to God. The more our external and internal worship is directed towards God, the more we can benefit from the infinite graces that are available in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Second Vatican Council recognised the importance of both correct external actions and internal disposition. The Council also attempted to give practical ways in which to foster this growth. Beginning with the proper training of teachers of theology, then seminarians and priests.

“With zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally… By so doing, pastors will be fulfilling one of the chief duties of a faithful dispenser of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only in word but also by example.”

~ Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium, S19).

What is the role of the laity? Encourage one another to develop true worship, and worship through the integration of external and internal faculties. Get to know the rubrics yourself, get a missal, and follow along, even if others do so incorrectly, as you will be a witness to correct external worship. Encourage those who know less about the faith to learn more about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, explain to them what is happening, offer some advice on how you internally pray the Mass.

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2 Responses to The importance and relationship between external actions and internal disposition in worship

  1. As always, a great article.
    I take issue with just one thing: the People’s actions are rarely dictated by the rubrics. Instead, they can – for the most past – be found in the GRIM and it’s local adaptations (ie, the various GIRMs published by the relevant Episcopal Conference with the aproual of the Holy See.)

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