Here is what the Cardinal is promoting
Mystical Transformation: The Liturgical Ontology of Odo Casel
Br. Peter Totleben, O. P.
Odo Casel, one of the major theoreticians of the 20th century liturgical movement, was born in 1886. He entered the Benedictine abbey of Maria Laach in the German Rhineland in 1905. During his time at the monastery, its abbot, Illdefons Herwegen, built the place into a formidable center of Catholic intellectual and liturgical life. By all accounts, Dom Casel lived an exemplary monastic life: retiring and prayerful. He made a notable contribution to 20th century Catholic theology through his understanding of the nature, effects, and centrality of liturgical worship in the Christian life. The details of the theory sparked quite a bit of controversy at the time of their writing, and are not entirely satisfying. Nevertheless, Casel’s overall approach to the liturgy and Christian life offers the authentic spirituality of the Church, and could be a potent source of liturgical enrichment even today. Casel died in 1948, shortly after falling ill while proclaiming “The Light of Christ” at the Paschal vigil, a fitting end for a man so devoted to liturgical worship.1 Most of his work and the literature surrounding it is in German. But one of his most influential books, Das Christliche Kultmysterium was translated into English in 1963.2
In order to understand Odo Casel’s project, we must understand the times in which he lived and the contemporary trends against which he developed his teaching. Casel was concerned with the ways in which the various “-isms” of his time had corrupted the genuine religious sense of his fellow Catholics. The threats of Modernism, Rationalism, and Romanticism had joined forces to destroy the authentic piety of the People of God. Casel’s project was to simultaneously eliminate these three threats by proposing a theory based on his extensive understanding of the ancient Church.
By the end of the 1920’s, the conclusions of liberal Protestant Religionsgeschichte had made their way into the Catholic Church through the Modernist movement. In particular, this school undermined the uniqueness of Christianity by claiming that the Church’s doctrine and worship were shaped more by Hellenistic mystery cults than by the simple teaching of Jesus as found in the Gospel. Casel’s theory was designed to turn these arguments on their head, claiming that Hellenistic religion was actually a providential preparation which would enable people to have at hand helpful analogies for understanding the Christian life. “His great and courageous feat was rather to accept all the materials brought forward by the ‘comparative’ school and to propound a new interpretation of these materials, much deeper and richer than that of his opponents.”3
On the other side of the spectrum of Catholic opinion, a certain rationalism had set in. The roots of this rationalism lie in the decadent Scholasticism and overly-subjectivistic piety that began to take hold in the Church late in the Middle Ages. By Casel’s time, “exercises of devotion” were largely didactic and moralistic. For too many people, Christian life had been reduced to doctrines and behavior. The sacramental worship of the Church was all too easily reduced to a system of rites, performed in a punctilious and formalistic way, by which the people would receive “graces” that would help them to behave well.4
To this, Casel wished to propose a richer view of the Christian life:
Christianity is not a religion or a confession in the way the last three hundred years would have understood the word: a system of more or less dogmatically certain truths to be accepted and confessed and of moral commands to be observed or at least accorded recognition. . . The Christian thing, therefore, in its full and primitive meaning of God’s good Word, or Christ’s is not, as it were, a philosophy of life with religious background music, nor a moral or theological training.5
But, in trying to transcend such categories, we must not try to transform religious devotion into an athematic encounter with “The Divine” and turn religious experience into a mere expression and release of feelings, as Romanticism would have us do.6
Not only were these three paths each the wrong way to go, Casel knew that their energies were spent. What modern men and women needed was contact with something more profound than Modernism, Rationalism, or Romanticism could offer. What they needed was the ancient outlook of the Church:
Mankind today is sick with the rationalism of exact science and longs once more for the symbols of God’s world. It can find them, where they have always remained, in Christ’s church, where his mystery is proclaimed by the true God and shows the way to him. The church’s faithful, however, must learn once more the greatness of their treasures; they must cleanse away the rust of neglect, and let them shine once again in the light which love and knowledge brings to bear, so that they may show the world once more the only true and saving mysteries.7
In order to meet this need, Casel proposed a new (that is, old) approach to Christian life: it is a transformation in Christ. This transformation is brought about through participation in the sacramental liturgy of the Church, in which each believer mystically experiences the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In order to explain how this happens, Casel adumbrates an “evangelical ontology of the liturgy” 8 inspired by the Christian Platonism of the early Church. In a highly realistic way, the liturgy brings about a participation in the mystery of Christ. The liturgy is:
not an extension of aesthetically-minded ritualism, not ostentatious pageantry, but the carrying out, the making real of the mystery of Christ in the new alliance throughout the whole church, in all centuries; in it her healing and glory are made fact. This is what we mean when we say that liturgical mystery is the most central and most essential action of the Christian religion.9
According to Casel, mystery is “a sacred ritual action in which a saving deed is made present through the rite; the congregation, by performing the rite takes part in the saving act, and thereby wins salvation.”10 In a Christian context, there are three levels of the Mystery. The primordial mystery is God in Himself “as the infinitely distant, holy, unapproachable, to whom no man may draw near and live; in likeness to whom everything is impure.”11 On a second level, the Mystery is God in His revelation to us. Finally, the Christian Mystery is Jesus Christ Himself: “Christ is the mystery in person, because he shows the invisible godhead in the flesh. The deeds of his lowliness, above all his sacrificial death on the cross, are mysteries because God shows himself through them in a fashion which surpasses any human measurement.”12
Casel finds the primary inspiration for this view of Christianity in the New Testament itself. “For Paul, Peter, and John, the heart of faith is not the teachings of Christ, not the deeds of his ministry, but the acts by which he saved us.”13 In fact, the New Testament uses the word μυστήριον 27 times, mostly in the epistles of St. Paul. For St. Paul, the mystery is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “But we impart a hidden wisdom of God in mystery, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (1 Cor 2:7). God has made known “to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him” (Eph 1:8-9).
But St. Paul says that “this mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (Eph 3:6). Casel took this insight very seriously. In fact, in trying to describe what kind of thing the liturgy is, Casel drew an analogy to the pagan mystery cults which existed side-by-side with Christianity in its early centuries.
Casel thinks that the pagan mystery cults offered a participation in the lives of the gods. Each cult was based on a myth where in a certain mythic aion, a god walked among men. Forces conspired to bring about the death of this god, forces which the god conquered in coming to new life. The participants in the mystery cult symbolically re-enacted this death and resurrection in their rites, thereby mystically entering into the godlike life of the divine realm. This gave them new impulses for moral action and assurance against death. The participants, so bonded in a new mode of life, formed a hierarchical community.14
For Casel, the mystery cults served a twofold purpose. First, they were God’s providential preparation for the preaching of the Gospel among the Gentiles. The mystery cults had developed a “sacramental” symbol system out of nature15 and had taught the Gentiles to hope for the kinds of things that the Gospel promised to believers.16 Second, the pagan mysteries supplied an analogy which the early Church could use to adumbrate its own theology of worship.17 In short, Casel saw the pagan mysteries as a providentially-provided point of inculturation.18
Casel thinks that the later Scholastic tag Sacramenta efficiunt quod significant had its remote roots in an early Christian analogy to the pagan mystery cults.19 The liturgical celebrations of the Church did not simply offer worship to God; they did not simply comfort believers or inspire them to do good works. Rather, they brought believers into a real participation not just in Christ, but in the very theandric actions by which He saved us:
Christ’s salvation must be made real in us. This does not come about through a mere application, with our behaviour purely passive, through a ‘justification’ purely from ‘faith’, or by an application of the grace of Christ, where we have only to clear things out of the way in a negative fashion, to receive it. Rather, what is necessary is a living, active sharing in the redeeming deed of Christ; passive because the Lord make it act upon us, active because we share in by a deed of our own. . . What he experiences in his worship is not only an after effect of the saving act; the saving act itself takes on presence. The object of all Christian worship is this saving act of Christ. . . The mystery is no mere recalling of Christ and his saving deed; it is a memorial in worship. The church does what the Lord did, and thereby makes his act present.20
This conception of liturgical participation is highly Platonic, and underlying it is a Platonic conception of time. Plato calls time “a moving image of eternity.”21 In His resurrection, Christ destroys death and, with his humanity, enters a new aion, thereby making the events of his human life available to the liturgical celebrations that occur at all times.
What Christ did by dying and rising was no an historical event like any other; it was saving action, saving history. As such it burst the bonds of time and history. Christ dies to leave the world of sin and open the new age of divine order. At the moment of his death upon the cross and the fall of Satan’s power the age of sin, the age which is bound up in time is broken, and the new age, the age to come, the kingdom of God’s goodness has arrived.22
The liturgy of the Church gives us a participation in time of this new aion, making us “true contemporaries”23 with Him and His acts, “in every detail.”24
In the liturgy, then, the historical events of Christ’s life are really present, in a new mode of being, a “sacramental” mode of being.25
In this new manner it is made present to us, so that we enter into it and can make it our own. . . What is meant is that the whole oikonomia, the whole design of salvation from the incarnation to the parousia, which has not yet appeared in point of time, does take on a sacramental presence and therefore can be the subject of our co-participation in the most vivid way.26
Casel’s theory of the presence of the Mysteries highlighted the role of Baptism and the Eucharist. But he did not stop there. It is not just the strictly sacramental rites that bring the believer into the new aion of Christ. This is the function of the entire liturgy. Each day the Church offers a continual sacrifice of praise to her Lord in the Divine Office. The daily cycle of the Church’s worship flows from and adorns her celebration of the Eucharist. Casel sees the celebration of the Eucharist as the culmination of the Mystery. In the Divine Office, the Church “unpacks” the content of this Mystery, in a manner befitting the time of day and the season of the year. Because it is related to the Eucharist in this way, the Divine Office also occurs in a special liturgical time.27
This view of liturgical time extends to the notion of the liturgical year as a whole. The annus circulus of the Church’s commemorations is not simply a catechetical device.28 Rather, the progress of the liturgical year enables the believing Church to become gradually assimilated to the Mystery under all of its aspects,29 while the circularity of the liturgical year recalls that what we are being assimilated to is Christ, living and reigning in the new aion which we foretaste in the liturgy.30 The Mystery remains one, but it is so deep that we celebrate it in a refractory way throughout the year. “The mass is always the high-point of liturgy, because it contains the mystery of redemption in its source, the passion and resurrection of Jesus. But from the source a mighty stream of mysteries flows into the Church’s ground, and on its banks the Spirit’s Word forms ever new pictures in the liturgy to clothe and express the rites.”31
Casel provides an extremely helpful contribution to liturgical understanding in explaining how the various events of the life of Christ are related to the one Mystery celebrated in the liturgy. The question might be asked: when we celebrate Mass on a feast, how is the Eucharistic sacrifice related to the liturgical commemoration? Are they simply juxtaposed, or do they somehow qualify one another? Put concretely, do we celebrate the Mass on Christmas Day, or do we celebrate the Mass of Christmas Day? Casel opts for the latter. In the Mass of a feast, we enter into the Mystery of Christ’s Pasch through the doorway, so to speak, of the event commemorated. At the Mass of Christmas Day, we re-present the Paschal sacrifice from the vantage point of marveling at the One who would take on flesh for us and for our salvation.32
Odo Casel’s theory provoked a great deal of discussion from the end of World War I all the way until the Second Vatican Council. The criticisms of the theory fall into three categories: Casel’s account of the pagan mysteries, his use of the sources of the liturgy and tradition, and the speculative coherence of his account of the presence of the mysteries. Despite these criticisms, however, Casel’s concerns and his general approach became an important, if unacknowledged, part of the liturgical movement.33
Everyone agrees that Casel’s understanding of the pagan mystery cults and their relation to the liturgical practice of early Christianity is wrong.34 To be fair, Casel was simply trying to respond creatively to challenges raised by his contemporaries concerning the origins of Christian orthodoxy (and he was willing to jettison this part of the theory) need be), but most of their conclusions have been overturned. It turns out that the understanding shared by Casel and the partisans of the Religionsgeschichte school found so much of Christianity foreshadowed in the pagan mysteries because they unwittingly interpreted these mysteries in terms of Christian categories.35 The real roots of the pagan mystery cults were in the fertility rituals of agrarian peoples. These rites were appropriated by cosmopolitan citizens of the large and impersonal Roman empire, who ascribed to them a new significance which would give their lives a sense of meaning and purpose.36
Actually, the scheme of the pagan mysteries is a poor fit for understanding the Christian liturgy. The pagan mysteries were based on stories that occurred in a mythical age. But the event of Christ’s Pasch occurred in a definite historical and cultural context.37 In the pagan cults, the mystery is the rite itself, but in Christianity, the saving event is the real mystery. The myths behind the pagan mysteries featured gods who were saved from death, with this salvation leaving the cosmos intact. Salvation is escape from the cosmic order. The Christian Mystery, on the other hand, is about a Savior God, who saves precisely by means of death, and changes the cosmos for the better.38 As St. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians claim, the entire cosmos is “recapitulated” or “reconciled” in Christ; salvation is not an escape.
The real roots of the Christian mystery lie in Judaism. For the ancient Israelites, wisdom was the sole property of God, and it could be given to those who fear Him. The Lord’s exercise of wisdom could seem mysterious, but the prophets taught the people to see God’s mysterious designs as embracing all nations and to see all of history culminating in a new creation (in the Bible, “creation” is a prophetic word). To the post-Exilic Israelites, these plans seemed to be unlikely to be realized directly on the historical plane, and so the apocalyptic literature re-imagined the ultimate direction of history. The real background to Pauline mystery theology, then, lies in passages such as Dan. 2:17-23, 30, 44-45, 47, where the mystery of God’s wise plan refers to His oikonomia, His direction of history and the cosmos to a definitive telos. This is radically different from the pagan mysteries, which are more concerned with an escape from history into a mythic aion. 39 Thus a radical chasm divides Jєωιѕн and Christian outlooks on the one hand from pagan outlooks on the other. Given this, it is surprising that Casel does not just ignore Jєωιѕн themes, he emphatically denigrates Jєωιѕн thought and its ability to contribute anything to Christianity.40
Another concern about the grounding of Casel’s theory is his use of Biblical, patristic, and liturgical sources. They do not necessitate, and sometimes do not even support his theory. We will take a few examples; other cases can be answered with similar arguments. A standard Biblical text that Casel uses to support his theory is Rom 6:3-11. It does seem quite suggestive: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.” (6:3-4) But an examination of the context shows that this passage lays more of an emphasis on freedom from sin and mystical union with Christ. Dying and rising with Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life. This is how we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. “As sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” (5:21, 6:11-12) Casel’s interpretation may be compatible with this passage, but it is not necessitated by it.
Perhaps the strongest patristic source that offers support for Casel’s theory is St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis 2.6:
We know full well that Baptism not only washes away our sins and procures for us the gift of the Spirit, but is also the antitype of the Passion of Christ. . . Perhaps [Paul’s words] were directed against those who supposed that Baptism procures only the remission of sins and the adoption of sons and does not, beyond this, really make us imitatively partakers of the sufferings of Christ.41
The exact interpretation of this passage depends on how we interpret “antitype.” One commentator suggests that, following Heb 9:24, an antitype is the earthly copy of a heavenly reality. The sacramental antitype here mediates the benefit of the heavenly reality which it imitates. Thus this passage can be understood to mean that Baptism “confers the benefits of Christ’s passion, and perhaps a mystical identification with it.”42 At any rate, Cyril also says, right in the immediate context of the above passage:
We did not really die, nor were really buried or really crucified; nor did we really rise again: this was figurative and symbolic; yet our salvation was real. Christ’s crucifixion was real; and all these he has freely made ours, that by sharing His sufferings in a symbolic enactment we may really and truly gain salvation. . . Mark closely the words of the Apostle: he did not say: ‘for if we have become one planting by His death,’ but ‘by the likeness of his death’. . . In His case it all really happened. But in your case there was only a likeness of death and suffering, whereas of salvation there was no likeness but the reality.43
Something similar can be observed in Casel’s use of liturgical sources. Casel quotes the Secret of the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: “Concede nobis, quaesumus, Domine, haec dignae frequentare mysteria: quia, quoties huius hostiae commemoratio celebratur, opus nostrae redemtionis exercetur.” Now, nothing about this prayer demands that the historical events in Christ’s life be present. The prayer says that the work of our redemption is brought about when the commemoration of Christ’s offering is celebrated. Other people have interpreted this prayer differently than Casel did. In fact, St. Thomas says that this prayer means that we are made partakers of the fruit of the Passion.44
Various parties have raised various questions about the metaphysical details of this scheme. The debate centers not so much around the fact that the mysteries of Christ’s life are applied to us and bring about our transformation into Christ, incarnate, crucified, and risen. All are agreed on this point. Rather the debate centers on how the mysteries of Christ’s life are present. Casel suggests that since Christ was God, the events of his life enter into the Eternal Today of God, and can thus be participated in in all times and places.45 The objections to this approach all claim that here again, Casel does not fully take into account the historical nature of the deeds of Christ. These were actions that were placed at a definite moment in time. That time has passed. The historical events can no longer exist. It will not do to appeal to Christ’s divine nature, for these were theandric acts of Christ, made with a real human will with its own proper act, and not even the Divine omnipotence can make a transient, temporal human act a trans-temporal reality. So, Casel’s theory is metaphysically impossible. Moreover, speaking of the historical mysteries as being present “in a sacramental mode” does not solve this problem, but simply masks it with a label.46 “The trouble was, however, the if all the gains of clarity provided by Christian scholasticism were not to be lost to the Latin church, Maria Laach’s insistence that not only all the sacraments but all the sacramentals and the Liturgy of the hours manifested the mysterious presence of the saving acts of Christ seemed too sweeping an assertion.”47 Yves Congar and Michael Schmaus also pointed out that with such extreme realism, it is hard to see how, for instance, baptism, is not also a sacrifice.48
The appropriate response to Casel’s concerns is a question that has divided Thomists. On the one hand, Thomists such as Jean-Pierre Torrell and Charles Journet think that it is quite possible for a past historical event to have a causal influence in the present. On the other hand, Thomists such as Jean-Herve Nicholas and Colman O’Neill think that this is impossible.49 For this latter group, the mysteries of Christ’s life are present in the liturgy of the Church on three levels. At the most basic level, they are intentionally present simply by the power of the theological virtue of faith in each of the believers who gather to perform acts of worship. Secondly, the mysteries are exemplary causes of our sanctification, inasmuch as there is a real analogy between the mystery as it took place in Christ and as it takes place in our transformation in Christ (and this is the best way to interpret passages such as Romans 6). Thirdly, the mysteries are instrumental efficient causes, inasmuch as they have shaped the humanity of Christ, the instrumental cause of all grace. All instruments add a particular modality to the production of an effect. The instrument which is the sacred humanity of Christ was rendered apt to be a cause in the communication of grace by all that He did and suffered on earth. These events shaped the humanity of the Christus resurgens now standing in glory before the Father. So, when God bestows grace through the sacred humanity of Christ, this humanity contributes a certain mode, and the mode that it contributes is determined by the events that shaped the life of Christ. It is in this sense that the historical mysteries of Christ’s life can be instrumental efficient causes of grace. The Mass can still be a true sacrifice because Christ’s human will is even now making identically the same act of offering His body and blood which He began to make at the Last Supper and continued to make throughout His passion. This is possible because of the stability of the infused knowledge by which this act of the will is elicited. The sacrifice is really made present through the sacramental sign of the separate consecration of the Body and Blood made by the priest who is properly empowered by the sacramental character to participate in making Christ’s self-offering present. Thus, when the Church worships, intentionally recalling Christ in faith, hope, and charity, the glorious Christus resurgens enters into it, bestowing a grace touched by all the events of his life, so that he can produce a like transformation in us, conforming us to the image of His glory. This transformation requires the analogical reproduction in us of all that He did or suffered on our behalf.50 Such an explanation answers all of the authentic concerns of Casel, takes into account the data of Scripture and the Fathers, and is metaphysically possible.
How has the Church received the thought of Casel? The reception has been mixed. The first acknowledgment of Casel’s theory was in Pope Pius XII’s groundbreaking 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei. The encyclical endorses the same type of “mystical realism” that Casel proposed:51 “While the sacred liturgy calls to mind the mysteries of Jesus Christ, it strives to make all believers take their part in them so that the divine Head of the mystical Body may live in all the members with the fullness of His holiness.”52 But at the same time, there seems to be some veiled criticism of the details of Odo Casel’s approach. “These mysteries are ever present and active not in a vague and uncertain way as some modern writers hold [effutire, to blabber or prattle], but in the way that Catholic doctrine teaches us.”53 The monks of Maria Laach interpreted the encyclical as a vindication of Casel, while his detractors interpreted it as a condemnation. To make matters more confusing, both sides have some support. The then-secretary of the Holy Office, Cardinal Marchetti Selvaggiani, in a letter dated December 11, 1948, said that Mediator Dei rejected mystery theology, especially its theory of the festal mystery.54 On the other hand, Antonio Bernareggi, a bishop-theologian close to Pius XII, said that the encyclical did not reject Casel’s approach, but rather sought a more careful elucidation of the relationship between the historical and liturgical aspects of the mystery.55
The influence of mystery theology was also taken up in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council. Casel’s approach is unmistakably evident, especially in Chapter 1, which treats of the nature of liturgical worship.56 Christ sent the apostles particularly so that, “they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves.”57 By baptism, “men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him.”58 In the Eucharist, “the victory and triumph of his death are again made present.”59 In recalling the mysteries of Christ’s life throughout the liturgical year, “the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace.”60 While these texts certainly breathe a Caselian spirit, they nevertheless do not necessitate a full acceptance of his theory.61 .
What, then, can we take away from Casel’s mystery theology? In trying to answer this question, it is helpful to distinguish the concerns of mystery theology from its metaphysics. 62 As we have seen, the metaphysics of mystery theology, as well as the interpretation of the sources upon which it is based are problematic. Nevertheless, Casel’s concerns and outlook are valid even today. No less a figure than Joseph Ratzinger has said that that although the mode of presence of the mysteries may remain problematic liturgically and theologically,63 nevertheless the basic orientation of Casel’s thought may be “the most fruitful theological idea of the twentieth century.”64 Casel’s basic point is that salvation is not merely a matter of receiving “graces,” however transformative these may be, but of being conformed to the image of Christ, dead, risen, and glorified.65 This happens in the sacramental worship of the Church, which makes such salvation, being taken up into the “plan of the mystery,” really an event for one of her members.66
Casel’s approach to liturgical practice could be one of the best ways to challenge the constructivism, pragmatism, and anthropocentrism which plagues modern liturgy.67 Contemporary sacramental practice tends to see the sacraments not as “divinely effective sacred signs,” but rather as “anthropologically effective symbols” which we use to understand our experiences in the light of the Christian story and grow in human values.68 Casel, on the other hand emphasizes that the Church’s sacramental life is the sphere where God acts, drawing us up into His world through His Christ, thereby giving us something more than we could ever hope for or imagine. What the Church really has to offer the world is her authentic mysticism, which is liturgical mysticism, “the mysticism of the ordinary worship of the church, carried out and regulated by its priests; a mysticism, therefore, of sacred action, Spirit-informed, the property of the congregation led by proper authority, where the Lord himself shares its work with his bride and leads her to the eternal Father.”69 Such a view would also challenge the suffocating moralism and didacticism which creeps into both “traditional” and “progressive” liturgy alike.
In terms of actual liturgical praxis, adopting Casel’s mindset could go a long way toward healing the breach between tradition and authentic pastoral adaptation of liturgical forms. It can also go a long way towards restoring a balanced notion of liturgical participation. Because of his “ontological” approach to the liturgy, Casel gives the term “participation” the sense that it has in the writings of the Platonists and St. Thomas, and subordinating to this the notion of participation as exterior activity.
The contrast between the Caselian and “anthropocentric” approaches to liturgy is the real divide in liturgical debates today. In fact debates on a whole host of liturgical issues (music, architecture, the orientation of the priest, the language of worship) are so interminable precisely because various parties are working from incommensurable premises. A liturgical pragmatist, a liturgical constructivist, and a “liturgical mystic” will fight bitterly precisely because they cannot come to a principled compromise, for they share no common principles. On the other hand, Casel’s liturgical “ontology” could supply a rich common ground, which would not end all debate and disagreement, but would provide a framework in which a mutually acceptable compromise could be more easily reached.
When we realize how much of a treasure the authentic mysticism of the Church is, we begin to realize how cramped and paltry the vision of many so-called “pastoral” liturgists is. An approach to the liturgy that is fundamentally Caselian is the Church’s only real shot at supplying authentic meaning to the lives of people battered by secularism and modern nihilism.
But what happened at the dawn of history has repeated itself. Then, too at the moment when man believed that he had obtained godhead by his own power, that he could recognize by the light of his own understanding what was good and evil, that he had come of age and needed no parental care, in that moment he ‘saw that he was naked’. . . By imagining he is the ruler of this world, he is forced more and more to do its will; soulless machine and dead money master him, and demand blood offerings, the sale of his heart and mind: a pitiful end to the great age of individualism which had seemed to have begun with so much attraction and promise for the future. . . Today the world outside Christianity and the church is looking for mystery; it is building a new kind of rite in which man worships himself. But through all of this the world will never reach God.70
The reason why Casel’s basic approach (if not its metaphysics and sourcing) has been so attractive to so many is that it turns Christianity into a transformative way of life. Casel wrote to a friend that, “It is not only study but the fact of fully sharing the life of Christ in mysterio which is the final source of all knowledge.”71 This knowledge is a deeply personal knowledge that resonates in the hearts of each of the elect. It is the knowledge of Christ and the power of His resurrection. It is the knowledge of the one who says “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).