Peace in the universe through peace with God, the union of above and below—that is how we can describe the essential intention of worship in all the world’s religions. But this basic definition of the attributes of worship is marked concretely by an awareness of man’s fall and estrangement. Of necessity it takes place as a struggle for atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation. The awareness of guilt weighs down on mankind. Worship is the attempt to be found at every stage of world history to bring back the world and one’s own life into right order.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 35
Reflection – At the end of her wonderful little book The Loser Letters, Mary Eberstadt, in the voice of her narrator A.F.C. (A Former Christian, although by the end of the book… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you…), points out the unsolvable problem for materialist atheism and its evolutionary reductionism of human experience. Namely, why do we feel guilty? What is the evolutionary advantage of remorse, of contrition, of sadness for past sins?
In a strictly materialist universe governed by rigid criteria of evolutionary advantage, survival of the fittest and all that (understood, not in its proper scientific sense, but with a sort of quasi-psychological/ethical/sociological fuzziness), remorse and contrition are enigmas, truly. What benefit do they confer, and how, in a strictly materialistic universe, can human beings find relief for these strong experiences which cause us so much suffering?
The consciousness of sin, of having done some terrible thing wrong which we cannot quite make right, is one of the deeply imbedded indicators in humanity that there is a Bigger Reality surrounding us, to whom we are accountable. That our relationship to this Bigger Reality is somehow key to whole project of happiness, peace, joy, love. And that there is something in us that has badly messed up this relationship.
And so, worship. And in worship, sacrifice, atonement, expiation. This is, as Ratzinger points out, a theme running broadly throughout the whole religious experience of the human race. It is a deeply human experience, and its increasing absence is not a sign of progress but of de-humanization.
To lose a sense of guilt, to consciously suppress, deny, rationalize, the sense every human carries of ‘something wrong in me’ is not the action of an enlightened free person. It is an act of fear, rather—fear that we may need to do something about that, may need to change, may need to turn to God and put ourselves under His authority. That this bigger reality surrounding us not only is the key to our happiness and joy, but that it (He) may make demands on us that may not be easy for us to fulfill. And so we choose to turn aside, to deny this powerful experience of guilt, or wrong.
But what a choice! To suppress our guilt is to then effectively place ourselves outside that ‘something bigger than me,’ the openness to which is the very condition of an authentic human life, as we have been exploring for some days now on this blog. But I think that's why we do it - guilt is a painful reality, and we flee from pain. But the price we pay for that flight from pain is a high one indeed. To choose to be sub-human, rather than choosing to be human, and in need of mercy.No, worship, and in worship the free coming before God in need of forgiveness, of cleansing, of expiation, is the very heart of human life in the fallen world. But in Christ, this mystery which runs through all religions is made so joyous, so lavish, so simple. He is our expiation, his love and his gift are the cleansing of our sins. Our sole act is to enter into his life through faith in him, so that he can work in us the great work of re-creation and redemption that is his will for us. And this is the true fullness of human life – to enter into Christ’s life and because of that, to be able to love as he loves, to live in the heart of the mystery of love and gift as he lives there. Human life—worship, obedience, love.