Liturgy as an Act of Leisure

Perspectives from Guardini, Pieper, and Ratzinger

We frequently hear that the liturgy is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, a quote from the Vatican II document, Lumen gentium. We often do not get the whole context for this small part of the quote. In a slightly different translation, “Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the font and apex of the whole Christian life, they {the faithful} offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It” (LG 11). Thus, not only is the sacred liturgy a source of grace for the faithful, and the “summit” for which they long, but it is also the means by which they offer sacrifice to God. They offer both Christ, who is the Divine Victim, and themselves, to God the Father in Heaven. Even though liturgy is the public action of the Church, and perhaps the most recognizably Catholic action, Catholics and non-Catholics alike can struggle with its meaning and purpose. Why do Catholics have liturgy? What is the purpose behind liturgy? The fact is that, as we shall discover in studying Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, and Joseph Ratzinger, the liturgy has no purpose—the liturgy is fundamentally an act of leisure with no utilitarian end; the liturgy is exclusively for the right worship of God for his own sake.

At first, this may seem like a shocking statement. How can it be that liturgy has no purpose? Is it not true that the purpose of liturgy is to worship God? Nevertheless, we shall show that the liturgy is an act of leisure, and indeed, the highest act of leisure, according to Josef Pieper. As a brief outline, I shall use Romano Guardini to offer a basis for understanding what it means that liturgy is an act of leisure. Second, I shall look to Josef Pieper to offer some clearer distinctions between leisure and work. I shall also look at his claim that liturgy is the highest act of leisure. Finally, this discussion will lead us into Joseph Ratzinger’s theology about the liturgy.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968)
Romano Guardini, an Italian-born German theologian, wrote his little book The Spirit of the Liturgy in 1918, in the midst of the First World War. As Alcuin Reid, OSB, explains, “The importance of this work cannot be underestimated: its principles underpinned much of the activity of the Liturgical Movement.”1 This Movement, according to Reid, “sought to return liturgical piety to its rightful place in the life of the Church.”2 Thus, Guardini discusses various topics, including the public liturgy as something distinct from private devotion, the universal nature of the sacred liturgy, and the focus of liturgy on the Person of Jesus Christ. Of this work, Joseph Ratzinger would later say, “It helped us to rediscover the liturgy in all its beauty, hidden wealth, and time-transcending grandeur, to see it as the animating center of the Church, the very center of Christian life.”3 We can see Guardini’s great reverence for the liturgy in his following words:

The individual—provided that he actually desires to take part in the celebration of the liturgy—must realize that it is as a member of the Church that he, and the Church within him, acts and prays; he must know that in this higher unity he is at one with the rest of the faithful, and he must desire to be so.”4

Guardini asks our very question regarding the liturgy: “What is the use of it all?”5 He offers the following popular conception that the Consecration is the essential and, thereby, the only necessary part of the liturgy:

The essential part of Holy Mass—the action of Sacrifice and the divine Banquet—could be so easily consummated. Why, then, the need for the solemn institution of the priestly office? The necessary consecration could be so simply accomplished in so few words, and the sacraments so straight-forwardly administered—what is the reason of all the prayers and ceremonies? The liturgy tends to strike people of this turn of mind as—to use the words which are really most appropriate—trifling and theatrical.6

In other words, why are there so many “extra” actions as part of the liturgy? If the liturgy is about offering the Divine Victim to God, then the only necessary part is the Consecration itself, in which the priest, acting in persona Christi, re-presents the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar. Why is there music, ordinaries, actions such as kneeling, and variable prayers based on the feast or season? Are not all these actions for show—are they not superfluous to what really matters?

Guardini says that this attitude is “principally connected with the question of purpose.”7 He defines this purpose as the “organizing principle which subordinates actions or objects to other actions or objects, so that the one is directed towards the other, and one exists for the sake of the other.”8 Purpose, then, is connected to utility: this action or object exists only for the sake of the other actions or objects. It has little to do with spiritual value, for it is merely a “thoroughfare”9 for something else. As Guardini further explains, “It is a scientific principle that an end should be attained with the minimum expenditure of energy, time, and material.”10 Thus, if the liturgy is considered to have “purpose” under this definition, we would say that its actions should be minimal, and only the necessary actions should occur (i.e., the action of the Consecration is the only necessary action).

Guardini then considers the difference between meaning and purpose. He writes that purpose indicates that its reason for existence is outside itself. Everything exists for purpose not because of its own value, but because it has value outside itself. He then introduces the concept of meaning. Of this concept, he says:

Objects which have no purpose, in the strict sense of the term, have a meaning. This meaning is not realized by their extraneous effect, or by the contribution which they make to the stability or the modification of another object, but their significance consists in being what they are. Measured by the strict sense of the word, they are purposeless, but still full of meaning.11

Thus, an object that has meaning does not exist merely for the sake of some other object’s existence. If an object is full of meaning, then it does not exist for a strict purpose. Guardini then asks an important question:

Now what is the meaning of that which exists? That it should exist and should be the image of God, the Everlasting. And what is the meaning of that which is alive? That it should live, bring forth its essence, and bloom as a natural manifestation of the living God.”12

As such, there is no utilitarian purpose for why living things exist. They merely exist for the sake of glorifying God.

How does all of this apply to the sacred liturgy? Guardini mentions two aspects of the Church’s life: Canon Law and liturgy. He says that Canon Law is part of the Church’s teachings for a purpose (although it should be noted that this does not mitigate its sacredness), for it is meant to provide a structure for the Church’s government. The liturgy is, on the other hand, “in a special sense free from purpose.”13 To explain, Guardini contrasts the liturgy with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. These exercises have purpose, for they are “directed towards the production of a certain spiritual and didactic result.”14 The liturgy is not designed for this kind of purpose. He writes:

The liturgy wishes to teach, but not by means of an artificial system of aim-conscious educational influences; it simply creates an entire spiritual world in which the soul can live according to the requirements of its nature.”15

Clearly, Guardini is not saying that the externals of the liturgy are unimportant, and it is not simply a “spiritual bubble” of good feelings and sentimental prayers. Rather, the liturgy should not, and cannot, be used for didactic purposes, for “it is an end in itself.”16

Of the liturgy having no purpose, Guardini offers the following words:

When the liturgy is rightly regarded, it cannot be said to have a purpose, because it does not exist for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of God. In the liturgy, man is no longer concerned with himself; his gaze is directed towards God. In it, man is not so much intended to edify himself as to contemplate God’s majesty. The liturgy means that the soul exists in God’s presence, originates in Him, lives in a world of divine realities, truths, mysteries, and symbols, and really lives its true, characteristic, and fruitful life.17

While it could be said that liturgy is for man, in that he needs a means to worship God, and God has no need of man’s worship to be who he is, it is not for man in himself. Liturgy is not meant to be adapted to man’s needs in a particular time or place. Rather, liturgy is meant to be an action that turns man’s whole attention to God, and brings him outside himself.

Guardini offers two metaphors for understanding how this could be true for the liturgy: child’s play and the creation of the artist. He says that the playing of a child has no purpose, for “it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence.”18 In a similar way, liturgy “has no purpose, but it is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight—not to create, but to exist—such is the essence of the liturgy.”19 Quoting the Sacred Scriptures, “I was with Him, forming all things, and was delighted every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world.”20 Some may object, saying that the liturgy has prescribed rules and directions. Guardini responds, “The fact that the liturgy gives a thousand strict and careful directions on the quality of the language, gestures, colors, garments, and instruments which it employs, can only be understood by those who are able to take art and play seriously.”21 He points to the fact that a child, in his play, is very serious about the rules, for children are continually making rules for their games, so that everything is just as it should be. Thus:

The liturgy does the same thing. It, too, with endless care, with all the seriousness of the child, and the strict conscientiousness of the great artist, has toiled to express in a thousand forms the sacred, God-given life of the soul to no other purpose than that the soul may therein have its existence and live its life. The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game, which the soul plays before God.22

This is the reason behind the “additional” prayers and actions of the liturgy outside the Consecration. All these prayers are meant to give glory to God, and to be for his sake. There is no purpose to these actions other than to worship God. There are “rules,” but they are not for a specific, utilitarian end. There are rubrics, but they are merely the foundation of the worshipper’s play before God—the kind of play that is founded in a deep love for God.

What does this look like? Guardini says that the following is the “didactic aim” of the liturgy: to teach the soul “not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life.”23 These words will be our concluding words from Guardini:

The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking “why?” and “wherefore?”24

This is the purposelessness of the liturgy: the soul is meant to “waste time” before the Lord, it must abandon itself completely to him in the act of the liturgy, for the liturgy is for God’s sake, not his own.

While Guardini establishes the purposelessness of the liturgy fairly well, it is not entirely clear what this “purposelessness” is. What does it really mean to “waste time” for God’s sake? How is the liturgy not work, but play before the Lord? To understand these concepts more deeply, we shall look to Josef Pieper, who defines this “purposelessness” as leisure.

Josef Pieper (1904-1997)
“{Pieper} recognizes that when everything human is defined in terms of utility or pleasure, the enterprise of knowing what we are loses its centrality in our lives,”25 James V. Schall explains in the foreword to Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Schall also writes:

Man has the power to know all that is … This is the importance of the philosophic life. It is for its own sake; yea, it is even ‘useless’ because it is not for something else other than its own delight in knowing the truth.26

Pieper, also German, wrote these essays in the aftermath of another great war, the Second World War. Thus, he wrote in a time when the dignity of human nature and the human person was greatly misunderstood and, in fact, rejected. As such, Pieper’s goal is to look at what is truly human, and what it means to be human. His main purpose is to answer what we are made for, and why we are here on earth. There we will find the answer of leisure, and from that, liturgy. In the author’s preface, we find his thesis:

Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.27

Pieper begins with the distinction between work and leisure. He acknowledges that the post-war time is an odd and, perhaps, inappropriate time to be writing about leisure, for so many are working to rebuild houses, businesses, and lives. However, this cannot diminish the fact that “one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure,” which is derived from the Latin word for “school.”28 While Max Weber’s modern notion that we “live to work” is a maxim for almost everyone’s lives (even now in our time), this would have been completely foreign to the Greeks, who would have said, “We are unleisurely in order to have leisure.”29 Our modern understanding of work is so opposed to the ancient understanding of leisure and humanity that, according to Pieper, we are seeing “great subterranean changes in our scale of values.”30

Pieper distinguishes between two kinds of understanding: ratio and intellectus. While ratio is the difficult work involved with coming to knowledge, intellectus is “the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye … [it is] the contemplative vision … the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.”31 Because it is contemplative, intellectus is not work. There is no labor involved with the understanding of intellectus, for it is the ability of the soul to look at, and wonder at, knowledge. Thus, the modern problem lies in believing that our knowledge is strictly about work. This Kantian view, in Pieper’s summary, says that, “if to know is to work, then knowledge is the fruit of our own unaided effort and activity; then knowledge includes nothing which is not due to the effort of man, and there is nothing gratuitous about it, nothing ‘inspired,’ nothing ‘given’ about it.”32 Philosophy, therefore, only has “worth” if it is a “herculean labor.”33 And in the modern mind, knowledge is only good if it required hard work, even though St. Thomas Aquinas says that the essence of virtue is not dependent on the difficulty in doing it, but rather, in the good of doing it.34

If the search for knowledge is not strictly about ratio, then what is the point of knowledge? “The question is: whether the world, defined as the world of work, is exhaustively defined … can a full human existence be contained within an exclusively workaday existence?”35 Pieper’s answer is a resounding “no,” for, as Aquinas explains, there are some who must devote their lives to contemplation, for their own good, and for the community. This contemplation is the life of leisure, which is not, as he explains, the life of acedia, a kind of spiritual sloth.36 Pieper offers many ways to describe leisure:

Leisure is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul … Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear.37

Leisure is the act of the man who is open to the world, who is willing to receive what is before him. He is willing to wait in silence, to hear the wisdom of his predecessors, and accept it. He is not the man who is continually working, frantically moving from one task to the next to the next. He is contemplative, and he is attentive. Certainly, he understands the work necessary for knowledge, but he also primarily understands that this knowledge is a gift.

How, then, does this understanding of leisure relate to our discussion of liturgy? If man is meant to contemplate knowledge, then the highest act of contemplation is the liturgy, in which man contemplates the knowledge of God. Pieper argues that “the festival is the origin of leisure.”38 This means that leisure is a celebration: “In leisure, man, too, celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of Creation.”39 This higher order of leisure is not merely meant to be a break from work. Leisure is meant to bring man to an understanding of the world as a whole, and Wholeness, which is the object of his longing. Thus, we arrive at the point we have been working toward. “

The power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving, existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work.”40

Thus, leisure is meant to bring man outside of himself, to something that is beyond the human—in a word, to the divine. The act of leisure is meant to lead man to God.

We thus arrive at the conclusion to this discussion: “The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship.”41 It is for this reason that we rest from our work on Sundays, in order to make time for worship—to make time for leisure. Because sacrifice is at the heart of worship, “it means a voluntary offering freely given. It definitely does not involve utility; it is, in fact, absolutely antithetic to utility.”42 Thus, we see how man is meant to “waste time” for God’s sake in the liturgy, in his worship. In the liturgy, man both surrenders himself to God, and he offers the Divine Victim to him; there is a two-sided sacrifice in the liturgy, as we saw described in Lumen gentium. In this way, the leisure of liturgy is a gift, for man is completely giving himself to something that is beyond him; and liturgy, because it is leisure, is done for its own sake, not for man’s sake.

For Pieper, as can be gathered from the title, leisure is the basis of culture. If leisure is disconnected from God, it becomes “laziness and work inhuman.”43 Indeed, we have seen this in our modern world: not only do we disrespect leisure and glorify work, but we also do not see worship of God as the highest form of leisure. Modern man finds more delight in individualistic social media than worship of God for his “leisure.”

Furthermore, in our modern times, much as in Guardini’s day, we have such a misunderstanding of worship that we could hardly consider it leisure. Thus, the final step in this discussion is to discuss what right worship is in relation to leisure, and for that, we shall turn to Joseph Ratzinger.

Joseph Ratzinger (b. 1927)
Joseph Ratzinger, the third and final German we shall study, was greatly influenced by Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, so much so that he gave the same title to his own work. In his preface, Ratzinger compares the liturgy to a fresco. The Liturgical Movement of Guardini’s age, and the Second Vatican Council, opened wide an understanding of the liturgy, and, “for a moment, its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions, as well as by various restorations and reconstructions.”44 This is Ratzinger’s main point for writing: “In fact, it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences.”[45, Ibid.] While Ratzinger did not write his work during any major war with physical bloodshed, he did write it in the midst of a battle for a culture, a battle anticipated by Pieper. He wrote in the midst of a war over the reality and existence of God, universal human nature, and objective morality. Thus, Ratzinger’s work is a fitting response to our modern times, in which we, even many Christians, have rejected God. It is Ratzinger’s intention, therefore, to bring us back to God through right worship, through participating in the right act of the highest form of leisure.

Ratzinger opens his book with referencing Guardini’s analogy of “play” for understanding the liturgy. He writes: “Children’s play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity.”45 In a similar way, “Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life … Liturgy would be the rediscovery within us of true childhood, of openness to a greatness still to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life.”46 Thus, once again, we see that liturgy is not superficial or utilitarian, for it is meant to draw man outside himself toward the divine. Nevertheless, Ratzinger wishes to suggest that there is something missing from this understanding of liturgy, for “the idea of a life to come appears only as a vague postulate.”47 He then proceeds to offer a new approach to this understanding of liturgy.

Ratzinger discusses the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, which, as he explains, had two goals. We are all aware of the first goal of reaching the Promised Land. The second goal of the flight was so that the Israelites might serve God—in other words, that they might offer the right kind of worship to him. As Ratzinger explains:

God has a right to a response from man, to man himself, and where that right of God totally disappears, the order of law among men is dissolved, because there is no cornerstone to keep the whole structure together.48

Thus, it is owed to God by justice that man worships him rightly. We have seen this already in Pieper, who argues that culture is based on this ability to worship God. A proper understanding of man, therefore, must come from this basis in worship. As Ratzinger explains, “Man becomes glory for God, puts God, so to speak, into the light (and that is what worship is), when he lives by looking toward God.”49 Man cannot deny the reality of God; this would be a mistaken view of reality and even man’s own being. Thus, according to Ratzinger, as seen in Pieper:

Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours.50

Thus, no society can deny the need for a cult; no society can deny the need for worshipping God (as we have attempted in our own age). Because liturgy is the highest form of leisure, man’s participation in that makes him truly human. He is perfecting himself and bringing himself closer to the divine, which is his ultimate goal. He is not caught up in the “workaday” world, as Pieper would call it, but rather, he is focused on the Eternal City.

But, as Ratzinger explains, knowing that liturgy is necessary for man’s existence is not enough. He thus explains an important nuance to Guardini’s own work:

Man himself cannot simply ‘make’ worship. If God does not reveal himself, man is clutching empty space.”51

As such, the liturgy necessary for man’s existence cannot come from himself. As Guardini and Pieper explained, liturgy as leisure is not focused on man, but on God, which means that it must be given to man from God. Liturgy, therefore, cannot “spring from imagination, our own creativity … Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another, who reveals himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.”52 To give an example, Ratzinger discusses the worship of the golden calf in the Old Testament. The people rejected the revealed God for their own image of him. Ratzinger points to two important mistakes that the Israelites made, which are often made in our own liturgical actions. The first is that they (and we) no longer wished God to be mysterious.

They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world.”53

Man wants God to be at his level (not in an Incarnational sense), so he can understand him and, thus, use him “when he is needed.”54 Second, “the worship of the golden calf is a self-generated cult … Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation.”55 Rather than being a festival for God and about God, it is a festival about man. The festival is no longer for God’s sake, but for man’s sake. Thus, man has fallen into apostasy, according to Ratzinger, for he would rather worship himself in the liturgy than worship God, and this is the greatest problem of our own times. Ratzinger’s point, therefore, is to call man back to the right worship of God, worship that is entirely focused on the divine, and not on man. Only then will it be a true act of leisure.

In order to understand how liturgy is an act of leisure, we have looked to three Germans who were responding to their own unique times, but in a universal way that applies to all of us. In initiating the conversation concerning liturgy as an act of leisure, Guardini wanted us to see that the worship man gives to God is not meant for a specific purpose; rather, it is meant to orient him outside himself to the divine. Liturgy is meant to be a “waste of time,” which, as we saw with Pieper, is not the modern kind of wasting time. While modern man seeks to work constantly and places great emphasis on the difficulty of work, Pieper indicates that this is an improper interpretation of the ancient concepts of work and leisure. The highest human act is contemplation, for it leads man beyond himself, and this is leisure. Indeed, the highest act of leading man beyond himself is liturgy, because it leads him to contemplate the divine. Ratzinger then furthers this discussion by saying that, while it is necessary for man to worship God to be fully human, there is a proper understanding of what liturgy is, for it must be focused on God, and not on man. Therefore, we can see more fully how the liturgy is meant to be the “source and summit” of the Christian life. Liturgy is an act of leisure that brings man out of himself so that he might be renewed for his daily activities, but it is also the highest act for which he longs. For man to be truly human, then, it is necessary for him to participate in the highest act of leisure, which is the sacred liturgy.

  1. Alcuin Reid, OSB, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 92.
  2. Ibid., p. 73.
  3. Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 7.
  4. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (New York: Aeterna Press, 2015), p. 15.
  5. Ibid., p. 33.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., p. 34.
  11. Ibid., p. 34-35.
  12. Ibid., p. 35
  13. Ibid., p. 36.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 37.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 38.
  19. Ibid., p. 39.
  20. Ibid., p. 37.
  21. Ibid., p. 39.
  22. Ibid., p. 40.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. James V. Schall, foreword from Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 11.
  26. Ibid., p. 10.
  27. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru, p. 15.
  28. Ibid., p. 19.
  29. Ibid., p. 20.
  30. Ibid., p. 23.
  31. Ibid., p. 28.
  32. Ibid., p. 30.
  33. Ibid., p. 31.
  34. Ibid., p. 33.
  35. Ibid., p. 39.
  36. Ibid., p. 43.
  37. Ibid., p. 46.
  38. Ibid., p. 49.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid., p. 51.
  41. Ibid., p. 65.
  42. Ibid., p. 68.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Joseph Ratzinger, p. 8.
  45. Ratzinger, p. 14.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid., p. 15.
  48. Ibid., p. 19.
  49. Ibid., p. 20.
  50. Ibid., p. 21.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid., p. 22.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid., p. 23.
  55. Ibid.
Veronica A. Arntz About Veronica A. Arntz

Veronica Arntz graduated (’16) from Wyoming Catholic College (Lander, WY) with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, which included courses in humanities, philosophy, theology, and Latin, among others, using the Great Books of Western thought. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from the Augustine Institute (Denver, CO). She has published articles with Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Truth and Charity Forum, Catholic Exchange, and St. Austin Review, among others.