Keeping the et in the res et sacramentum

This is the first part of a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16.


I want to begin with a note of despair. I promise not to linger too long over it. But if there is any hope to come, we must have a clear sense of where we are. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Victorian Jesuit, put it like this:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


The poem doesn’t end there, of course, and neither will I. But what for Hopkins is a lament about the natural world and industry, the loss of connection between created things, stands for me as a more general lament about the state of cultural and aesthetic experience. In other words, I read this and I think about my English students. Their feet are shod, and they cannot feel the soil. They cannot see what lies beneath the surface of things, for all is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” which is to say smeared by the tyranny of Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, the anti-intellectual, anti-agrarian, anti-ecclesial egotism that pervades our experience of the world in this 21st century.

This paper is about liturgy. But it is also about the failure of liturgy. It is about the failure of liturgy to make us good. I hasten to say that I do not imagine that the purpose of liturgy is to make us good. But I do assume, as has the mainstream Western tradition, that beauty, truth, and goodness, having their unity in the divine nature, should ultimately lead to one another. And much of our history has been marked by the assumption that if we surround ourselves in beauty — high culture, in other words — if we make beauty, if we produce things that inspire us to higher things, we will be led to higher things in truth. And what is more “high culture,” in both a spiritual and etymological sense, than a solemn high Mass? It is not uncommon, among traditionalist commentators, especially those discontented by the various reforms of the 1970s, to assert, almost as an axiomatic principle, that the aesthetic degradation of the liturgy in the last 50 years is the reason the Church is in decline.

Yet part of the crisis of culture in the 20th century is precisely the shattering of that ideal link between the beautiful and the good. As George Steiner points out, many an officer in the Nazi death camps spent his mornings listening to Bach and reading Goethe.[1] For a long time I have been haunted by this image from Steiner, as I think we all ought to be. But, for Steiner, this severed cord between beauty and goodness is part of a larger cultural trajectory in which the great works of art and literature have become unintelligible to us: “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist. … Never has there been a more hectic prodigality of specialized erudition — in literary studies, in musicology, in art history, in criticism, and in that most Byzantine of genres, the criticism and theory of criticism. Never have the metalanguages of the custodians flourished more, or with more arrogant jargon, around the silence of live meaning.”[2] We cannot read anything anymore without footnotes, without annotations. Steiner marvels at an annotated edition of Keats that has to explain that Venus is “a pagan goddess of love.” That was in 1970. Now I would have to annotate the annotation, because my students would not know what the phrase “pagan goddess” means. I dare not ask them their definition of love.

And this is not meant as a screed against my students, most of whom are wonderful, funny, kind human beings. They are products of their time, as are we all. My point is simply descriptive: Beauty, whether visual or poetic or ceremonial, always relies on a set of complex relationships between ideas. When I read a poem with my students, I can explain to them every detail of language and imagery, and they still may not find it beautiful. I would like to think this is not just because I am a bad teacher, although I may be. Because it is never just about what the poem means. It is always also about what its meaning means, and how those meanings connect with other meanings. There is a reason that most of us learn to appreciate art over time: because the appreciation of beauty is only possible in the ongoing and overlapping experience of the beautiful. Had I come to the Advent before having been trained in Renaissance polyphony in North Carolina and Milwaukee, I would have been bored rather than enchanted. The more you know, the more you can know about what you know and how what you know relates to other things that you know. That is just how human minds work.

And that has always been how liturgy works. Like poetry and music, but much more than poetry and music, liturgy does not “mean” things in a simple way. One of the more unfortunate residual effects of the 20th century’s various liturgical movements is this idea that the liturgy should be “meaningful.” I usually hear this from people on the more progressive end of the spectrum. We shouldn’t do that archaic ritual because it isn’t “meaningful.” We should adapt the language here because it needs to be more “meaningful.” While I respect the pastoral motivations for these concerns about meaningfulness, I find them deeply misguided, and somewhat ironic, historically. Just as liberal Catholics decided to rediscover meaning and human dignity, mainstream Western intellectual culture decided to finally be done with it. In most of the academic humanities today, at least, the idea that something like liturgy can be inherently “meaningful” in a pastoral sense is laughable, representing a naïve optimism about the universality of human experience.

I see the enduring concern over “meaning” as a progressive version of the traditionalist naïveté about the link between the beautiful and the good. In other words, these two ideological approaches to liturgy can in practice be the same: nostalgic at best, off-putting at worst. And this is where we find ourselves. Putting aside other differences, this surely suggests the two primary approaches to the liturgy among what remains of Anglican ritualism: in the first instance, a strong faith in the transformative power of the liturgy when done faithfully; in the second, a commitment to liturgy’s evolving ability to be relevant to actual human experience. But, in the end, no number of creative folk Masses, no number of Palestrina Masses, no number of contemporary improvised street liturgies or faithfully rendered medieval processions will reliably do what we want them to do. To the extent that they provide glory to God, they are enough. But neither nostalgia nor innovation can account for the way that human memory works. How, in other words, can we enter the real world of the Church’s sacraments without either, on the one hand, dumbing them down to such an extent that they affirm the world rather than transform it, or, on the other, requiring extensive remedial training in the history of Judeo-Christian, Western-intellectual culture?


I cannot claim to have any clear answer to this question in systematic terms. All the same, my intention, in the remainder of this paper, is to delve into the past with an eye to the future.

The medieval commentary tradition offers a fruitful way of thinking about what liturgy is and what it is for. At the heart of that tradition is the theology of res et sacramentum, which presents, I will argue, a key link between the theoretical and the pastoral — in other words, between the idealized beauty of liturgy for its own sake and the idealized practicality of liturgy’s personal meaning.

Let me first introduce what I mean by the tradition of medieval liturgical commentary. The fathers have no shortage of commentary on the sacraments — think of Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, Ambrose of Milan’s On the mysteries, and many other works by the Cappadocians, St. Augustine, and others.[3] Part of what changes, though, in the Middle Ages is the liturgy, at least as it is visibly practiced. It is no secret that the practice of the liturgy developed. Though there are certainly very ancient parts, like the Roman canon or the Good Friday prayers, the development of the Roman Rite and the various other Western regional variations was more stable and more, well, old by the time we get to, say, the time of Amalar of Metz, who began writing about the liturgy in the first part of the ninth century.

In the very start of his work, Amalar describes his motives: “I … was once moved by a desire to know the purpose behind the order of our Mass, which we celebrate in accordance with established custom. I was struck even more by the diversity of our celebrations—how sometimes one epistle is read, sometimes two, and other such matters that also relate to the other offices.”[4] He then gives a very detailed exposition of all the Church’s ceremonies, accompanied by allegorical explanations. These explanations strike most modern observers as fanciful at best, delusional at worst. One professional liturgist in 1959 disparages the tradition of “arbitrary and naïve medieval liturgical pansymbolism” that is “full of hypersymbolistic fancies” and lacking a sufficient concern for “reporting the mind of the Church.”[5] (Don’t worry, I’ll gives you some good examples of these interpretive horrors in a moment.) Compared to his predecessors, Amalar is no longer satisfied simply interpreting Scripture when it comes to the sacraments. He has before him a rich liturgical tradition, at this point several hundred years old, which has by all accounts come down to him directly from the apostolic Church. And so he very boldly engages with this tradition, not just as a source of occasional anecdotes or verbal allusions, like you often have seen in the Fathers, but as an authoritative source in itself. For Amalar and his disciples, we can apply the same methodology of spiritual interpretation that we use for the Scriptures. In other words, we can speak not just of the literal meaning, but also of the tropological, the allegorical, the anagogical. The liturgy has a multiplicity of signs and senses that touch on past, present, and future Christian existence.

While Amalar’s commentary was the most famous early example of the genre, my current work focuses on an anonymous 12th-century commentary, the Speculum de mysteriis ecclesiae, or “Mirror on the mysteries of the Church,” which comes out of the abbey of St. Victor in Paris. St. Victor is famous for being the training ground of most of the great theologians of the 12th century, and its value came primarily from its situation neither in the world of the emerging university schools nor in the world of the increasingly separated monasteries. If we were to paint in caricature (and, let’s be clear, this really is a caricature), we would say that scholars cared about knowledge but monks cared about love. But the canons regular of St. Victor, having a foot in both worlds, so to speak, cared about both, and thought very particularly about how to hold both together.

The Speculum is a fascinating book because it enters the liturgical commentary genre from this place of scholastic-monastic tension and activity. Its opening lines reveal its particular character. The author writes to an unnamed patron who requested a treatment of the sacraments and an explanation of their “mystical sweetness.” He hesitates to do this, but “recalling that every good thing shared begins to shine more beautifully when it is shared,” he decides to write. The goal of the book is to make the mysteries of the Church shine more beautifully through the sharing of their “mystical sweetness,” which, he says, “flows with interior nectar.”[6]

I will return to this notion of “sweetness” later on. For now let me give you two examples of what the spiritual interpretation looks like. The first is the Speculum’s description of the church building, which signifies “the Holy Catholic Church, which is constructed in the heavens from living stones.”[7] The architectural metaphor continues:

This is the firmly built house of the Lord. The chief cornerstone, Christ, was sent. Upon this, though not beyond it, is the foundation of apostles and prophets, as it is written: His foundation is in the holy mountains (Psalm 86:1). The walls built above are Jews and gentiles coming to Christ from the four corners of the world. All the stones are polished and squared, that is sanctified, clean as well as secure, which by the most skilled hand are appointed to endure. Of which some are borne and do not bear, as the simple in the Church. Others are borne and bear, as those in the middle. Others only bear and are not borne, except by Christ alone, who is the singular foundation. Indeed, in this building, the more anyone of greater degree elevates, so much the more does the humbler of the building support. One charity joins all in the manner of mortar, so long as the living stones unite with the bond of peace.[8]

As is often the case in the Speculum, the metaphoric image is complex. The towers are the prelates and preachers of the Church, because of their prominence; at the same time such hierarchs function, in terms of the walls, as those who do more bearing than others. The corporate emphasis of this image, with charity bonding “in the manner of mortar,” suggests what a theologian of our day might call “unity in diversity.”

The Church’s mysterious identity is therefore made known more fully in the Church building than it is without it, even though, reflecting traditional usage, the Speculum understands clearly that Church denotes a people, not an architectural structure. It is because the Church builds churches that we can understand the way that she herself is constructed and adorned. The apparent plurality of images and their meanings shows how the investigation of these ecclesial signs opens to us a range of connections and truths not otherwise available, truths that are more valuable, even, because of their complex of symbolism and relation. The author does not simply tell us “This means that,” as if it is an act of translation. He invites us into a world of connections, of history, of intertextual knowledge.

The second example I want to share is the Speculum’s discussion of the first part of the Mass. The text opens with the reminder that the patriarchs and prophets, “hoping and foreknowing” before the Incarnation, “sent ahead longings, works, praises, and prayers.”[9] Hence the introit “expresses the desires of those expecting with foreknowledge,” and its constituent parts — the psalm verse and the Gloria patri — represent, respectively, the works and the praise, while the ninefold Kyrie that follows signifies their prayers, “which they multiplied up to this point, that the grace of the highest Trinity would conform them through the advent of Christ into nine distinct orders of angels.”[10]

One of the common criticisms of liturgical allegory has been that it imposes a false structure over the liturgy’s logic. You can see this in certain simplistic explanations of the entire Mass as a dramatic repetition of the life of Christ. But there is nothing obviously imitative about the Speculum’s gloss on the introit. Certainly the allegorical type has a connection with Christ, but not as a mimetic repetition of Christ’s life. Rather, as the Old Testament saints anticipated Christ, so we who begin the Mass anticipate Christ. The concern here is primarily a deepened understanding of what is happening in the present — the introit and the entrance rite — rather than a simple recollection of the past. The reference to the past, indeed, serves to provide a certain historical continuity that places the eucharistic assembly in the same real world that anticipated the advent of Christ. The introit’s mystical sweetness therefore consists in the ability of a single sung text to draw together multiple ages in the same moment, directed in praise of the same Lord. Far from a fanciful escapism, this allegorical explanation grounds the experience of each entrance rite in the history of humanity’s slow but steady approach to meeting God face to face. The point is not that the introit is “like” some historical event (in fact it is obviously not very much like it at all), but that it expresses the same universal desire that the Church, in her catholicity, embodies in every age.

The torchbearers and the thurifer enter first, by which “we understand the saints who preceded the New Testament”; then the subdeacon carrying the gospel text, and the deacon who will proclaim the Gospel, both representing the saints of the New Testament.[11] The candlesticks go before the gospel text, because they commemorate the law and the prophets that “beautifully” went before the law of grace. The thurible represents the heart of man burning with charity and giving off the odor of good works, and it goes before the torches and the ministers, showing that “the meaning of the incense is the shared things of the saints of both testaments.”[12] Unlike Amalar or other commentators, the Speculum author has not here or elsewhere suggested his intention of unveiling a presumed original intent behind liturgical rites. The rite is there, and this is what he makes of it: a complex interaction between old and new. Indeed, the thurible is an interesting case, because it represents two things: the good works of charity in the Christian soul, and the commonality between Testaments, insofar as these precede the law of grace represented by the evangelical text and the new priesthood.

The movement to the altar, we are told, represents (in the deacon and subdeacon) the apostolic preparation for the Lord, and the altar is Jerusalem, from which the early Church preached the gospel.[13] The sotto voce proclamation of the Gloria, reminiscent of the quiet night-time birth of the Messiah, gives way to the chorus, like the angelic host that first sang that hymn in Luke’s gospel, “when God declares the shadow of the law to be no more.”[14] The dramatic focus up to this point in the rite, on the ascent to the altar and the singing of the angelic hymn, suggest the movement from one place to another. The assembly is present, through memory, in Bethlehem of Judea. But the observance of the nativity has its own allegorical significance, as the Speculum suggests elsewhere,[15] and so it is hardly right to see this comment on the Eucharist as another devotional exercise focusing on the birth of Christ. As before, it is implied that what the Church does in ascending the altar for Eucharist is as important as the greeting of the Christ child at his nativity. The recollection of history is not meant to explain or describe what the liturgical action means so much as it is to show why it matters. This is the story (the Incarnation) in which this story (the Mass) takes place. It is the same story. We are there and they are here, and uniting it all is the one Christ. The liturgy is not “about” history, if by that we mean allegorical history is its true, ultimate, or only reasoning. Rather, the liturgy exists in the Church’s historical situation because history is, in the Christian view, liturgical, expressing God’s providential ordering of time for his glory and the salvation of souls. We need not separate the two concepts; indeed, the Speculum encourages a conflation of past and present within the signifying world of the Church’s mysteries.

This paper concludes on Friday.


[1] George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, pp. 77-78.

[2] Ibid., pp. 105-106.

[3] As we move into the Middle Ages, much of this sacramental theology remains at the center of the Church’s meditation on the liturgy; the eucharistic controversies of the Middle Ages — most famously the case of Berengar of Tours in the 11th century — were often acute developments in different strands of patristic thinking. See Excursus on the Historical Development of Eucharistic Theology in J.A. Wayne Hellman, OFM, Timothy R. LeCroy, and Luke Davis Townsend’s translation of the Bonaventure’s Sentences Commentary (Franciscian Publications), before Book IV, Distinction 8. For example, Ambrose taught what might be called more a “real presence” model of actual eucharisitc transformation, while Augustine emphasized more the corporate, unifying character of the Eucharist as its primary end. Berengar saw himself defending Augustine over Ambrose by asserting that the Eucharist was simply a sign.

[4] Amalar, Preface, p. 19.

[5] Vaggagini, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy (1959), pp. 43 and 46.

[6] PL 177, 335A

[7] 335B

[8] 335B-C

[9] 356D

[10] 356D-357A

[11] 357B

[12] 357C

[13] 357C-D

[14] 358B-C

[15] See 348D in the chapter on the Church year.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, and a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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Amber Noel
5 years ago

Dear Sam, thank you for this! Just a little note: I hope Hopkins also stirs in you a sense of compassion for your Instagram-addicted flock? They are young, and have a hard time believing they are only loved, except insofar as they are beautiful and useful. I’m glad you’re there to help them see (and experience) something else.