Stories throughout Scripture remind us that the works of the faithful continue to bear fruit long after those faithful pass into the next life. In 1933, when he wrote Liturgy and Personality, Dietrich von Hildebrand had not physically seen the totality of today’s attack on the family, the Church, and the human person. Yet, nearly a century ago, he wrote a healing prescription for the wounds we all bear.
That prescription is reverent, utterly selfless immersion in the liturgy. In Liturgy and Personality, Hildebrand highlights the formation that proper participation in the liturgy (primarily the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours) evokes in a person. In short, it forms each human being into a true personality.
Hildebrand’s definition of a true personality may not be what we would first assume. It is not the person with the largest following, the most cheerful greeting, or the loudest voice. It is the one who most easily recognizes objective values such as Truth, goodness, and beauty and responds appropriately and with plenitude to each of these values. We find the highest examples of true personality, regardless of their level of innate talent, charisma, or genius, in the saints.
Hildebrand was, himself, a true personality, and it was reverent, daily participation in the Tridentine Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours that shaped him and enabled him to write Liturgy and Personality in just 23 days. The greatest evidence of Hildebrand’s just and complete response to values may be the fact that he was sentenced to death by the Nazis in the 1930s for his clear and public work to oppose them.
A primary message of Liturgy and Personality is that we participate in the liturgy not because of what we will receive through it—even spiritual formation. (For me, a 2002 revert to Catholicism, this was a real and welcome revelation.) We participate in each liturgy with total reverence and humility, immersing ourselves completely in the worship and adoration of God, without attachment to any effect for ourselves, because that is his due. We owe Him this—not because of what He’s done for us, but simply because He’s God. We participate in Mass seeking only to honor Him as He deserves.
When Hildebrand has taught this clearly, he moves on to the next point: although we don’t go to Mass because we need God’s gifts, we go knowing that we do—that we can do nothing and can be nothing without Him. When we assist at Mass frequently and approach it this way—humbly, reverently, and without seeking anything for ourselves—the liturgy, because it immerses us in God’s presence, forms each human person into what He created him to be: a true personality. As the author says it, “Every aspect and dimension of the Church’s formal prayer serves to order the worshipper rightly to the supreme value.”
Hildebrand doesn’t explicitly state a connection to the famous St. Catherine of Siena quote, but if we combined her thoughts with his, they might say, “If you are what you were created to be, you would set the world on fire…and if you approach the liturgy properly, you will become everything you were created to be.”
This realization alone is enough to set us on a higher road, but the rest of the book is equally rich. Hildebrand goes on to discuss the general de-formation of personalities that results from a lax or self-centered approach to the liturgy. One result of such an approach is the unfortunate fading away of an appreciation for the natural timing of good things and of the willingness to allow God’s hand to unfurl the steps in progress along the way. Our tendency to rush everything forward at breakneck speed today replaces God’s timing with our own. As a result, we forfeit the miraculous elements He would have revealed in the process, and we fail to develop discretio, our ability to sense the best time and place for a word or action. Discretio is a critical element of the true personality, and proper, frequent participation in sublime liturgy forms discretio in a personality as nothing else can.
Degradation of the elements of personality Hildebrand describes is at the root of much human suffering today. Weaknesses in these elements break families, lead us to despair, destroy unity, and lessen our ability to appreciate the works of God. Allowing Liturgy and Personality to shape our approach to worship is the beginning of a profound conversion to good.
Composed of much more than the words on its pages, this work conveys a spirit of utter reverence rarely matched in modern-day writings. Bits of liturgical Latin (immediately followed by translation) clearly communicate the truth that references to God should be set apart from the everyday. Liturgy and Personality is, quite simply, an immersion in Truth, goodness, and beauty; a clear correction of the misguidance afflicting modern-day man; and a catalyst for perfection in those who take its message to heart.
The reissue of Liturgy and Personality is available from Hildebrand Press, the newly established publishing division of the Hildebrand Project, which will present the works of Dietrich von Hildebrand and give voice to contemporary authors who carry on the tradition of Hildebrand, Karol Wojtyla, and others thinkers who have enriched the Western and Christian understanding of the human person.