Sometimes I wonder how Catholics did it back in the day. Today’s American Catholic is not particularly ascetic. I’m certainly not. Just a few generations ago, Catholics refrained from eating meat year-round on Fridays. They attended more holy days of obligation than we do. Their daily routines and practices probably grew out of more liturgical concerns than do mine—maybe consistent prayers before meals, or making the sign of the cross when hearing a siren or seeing an ambulance.
Maybe “asceticism” isn’t the best word for what I’m trying to describe; maybe “liturgical” is. Because when I speak of “ascetic expectations” I have in mind practices or behaviors that derive their rationale from their relation to the sacred actions or seasons through which the Church’s life reaches us daily. We need liturgical rhythms in our lives: For the world is liturgical, and we miss out on it if we don’t embrace it liturgically. I am saddened by how I proceed throughout my days and weeks according to the rhythms of the world, rather than the liturgical rhythms of the Church. I’m the worse off for it.
I don’t feel funny wishing people “Happy Easter” weeks after the bunny departs. Ditto for the Octave of Christmas—and the tree stays up until Epiphany. It’s easier for me to dwell within the liturgical heart of the Church on these culturally and ecclesially more momentous occasions.
It’s much more difficult to conduct myself according to things like saint’s feast days and solemnities that truly are irrelevant to public life or devoid of memorable public symbols. (Sorry, Ash Wednesday and St. Blaise). For nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve relished Fridays as a cause of celebration because school is over for the week. While Sundays are always marked by Mass-going, they also usher in the dread of early rising and more school the next day. Friday night is the time to socialize and relax. Sunday is the time to buckle down and work, making up for lost time.
I never thought this was a problem. Not until I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours did I begin to notice this gap and take minimal steps to address it. It’s more than a bit disconcerting to climb into bed after a fun Friday party and pray, “Friend and neighbor you have taken away. My one companion is darkness.” It’s more than a bit chastising to wake up on Saturday morning, full of excitement for the free day ahead, and read, “So I swore in my anger, ‘they shall not enter into my rest.’” How joyfully can one celebrate the mystery of the Presentation of the Lord on a gloomy February Monday morning, as we did a few months ago? With whom can we exchange happy new year’s toasts each late November?
Praying the Hours inaugurates us more deeply into the heart of the mysteries that stand at the foundation of our faith, and encourages us to "rhythm" our days and weeks and schedules liturgically. Sacrosanctum Concilium explains, “Within the cycle of a year … [the Church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.” I like this phrase, “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ.” The Church doesn’t so much envelop our daily lives with liturgical meaning as it develops that meaning into and through our days.
I try, now, though so far with little success, to orient my instinctive reactions to days of the week or weeks of the month or seasons of the year more toward the liturgical calendar and away from secular calibration. I try to reflect on the sorrowful mysteries even amid the excitement of an impending Friday night. I try to work more on Saturdays so that I can stay away from the computer on Sundays, or maybe plan to socialize on Saturday evening so that I can dedicate my Friday night to something other than a major social event. I try to greet solemnities with the same general excitement that the Fourth of July elicits in me.
And not because “secular” rhythms are evil by virtue of being secular, though it’s true that they can distract from and even compete with their liturgical counterparts—as in how one generally views Fridays. Josef Pieper, in In Search for the Sacred, calls “absurd and simplistic” the claim that because some parts of the world are “profane” they therefore are not themselves sacred in a certain sense. I don’t sacralize my routines and rhythms by disorienting them from “profane” realities like TGIF celebrations and Sunday football; those realities can be folded into a liturgically oriented outlook. But the Church teaches me in the Catechism to view all Fridays as “intense moments of the Church's penitential practice,” and recommends “voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving” as fitting expressions of penitence. Our culture hardly encourages this: I indulge myself more and spend more money on myself on Fridays than any other day of the week.
Along with encouraging my future children to plumb the riches of Calvin and Hobbes, I hope to teach them to “rhythm liturgically” as much as they can amid a distracting world. I hope that they enjoy their Friday celebrations all the more for understanding the day to be an occasion for penance and somber remembrance as well—and maybe see Saturday as the chief night to socialize. I hope that their Sundays will be days of rest and rejoicing, rather than work, grumpiness, and anxiety, as they all too often were, and still are, for me.
Ultimately, I want to communicate to them that living liturgically is just plain more interesting than not doing so. Maybe I’ll bombard them with Chestertonian wisdom about feasting and fasting. Extravagant Fridays and rushed Sundays are not just inverses of tempered Fridays and joyful Sundays; the two ways of living are often rooted in different, nearly opposed, habits of character. The rhythms of liturgical living introduce greater heights and darker depths than any alternatives, because so does the divine-and-human drama that the liturgical calendar is intended to develop in our lives.
Louis Bouyer spoke of participation in the cosmic liturgical life as “an infinitely generous heart, beating with an unceasing diastole and systole.” I like this phrase as well, for its suggestion of rhythms. Whether through praying the Liturgy of the Hours or through other similar methods, living liturgically inaugurates cultivation of this “infinitely generous heart.” All the better for almsgiving on Fridays.