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Why worship is so good for us: Father Cantalamessa explains


Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa - published on 04/05/19

4th Sermon for Lent 2019: Friedrich Nietzsche was completely off track when he defined the biblical God as “this honour-craving Oriental in heaven.”

This year is the eighth centenary of the meeting between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt al-Kamil in 1219. I mention it in this setting because of a detail regarding the theme of our meditations on the living God.After returning from his trip to the East in 1219, St. Francis wrote a letter addressed to “The Rulers of the People.” In it he said, among other things,

See to it that God is held in great reverence among your subjects; every evening, at a signal given by a herald or in some other way, praise and thanks should be given to the Lord God almighty by all the people. If you refuse to see to this, you can be sure that you will be held to account for it at the day of judgement before Jesus Christ, your Lord and God. [1]

It is widely held that the saint drew the idea for this exhortation from what he had observed during his journey in the East, where he had heard the evening call to prayer by the muezzins from the minarets. This is a good example not only of dialogue between various religions but also of mutual enrichment. Along these same lines, a missionary who worked for years in an African country wrote this: “We are called to respond to a fundamental need of human beings, to their profound need for God, to their thirst for the Absolute, and to teach them the ways of God, to teach them how to pray. This is why Muslims here make so many proselytes: they immediately teach them in a simple way to worship God.”

We Christians have a different picture of God—a God who is infinite love more than he is infinite power—but this should not make us forget the primary duty of worship. To the challenge of the Samaritan woman who says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (Jn 4:20), Jesus answers with the words that are the magna carta of Christian worship:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:21-24)

The New Testament was the first to elevate the word “worship” to a dignity that it did not have before. In the Old Testament, worship, other than of God, is sometimes directed to an angel (see Num 22:31) or to a king (see 1 Sam 24:8). In the New Testament, on the contrary, every time someone is tempted to worship someone besides God and the person of Christ, even if it is an angel, the immediate reaction is “You must not do that! Worship God.” [2] This is what Jesus in the desert peremptorily reminds the tempter who asked him to worship him: “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Mt 4:10).

The Church has received this teaching and made worship the act par excellence of the cult of latria, distinct from that of dulia, which is reserved for the saints, and from hyperdulia, which is reserved for the Blessed Virgin. Worship is thus the unique religious act that cannot be offered to anyone else in the whole universe, not even to the Madonna but only to God. This is its dignity and its unique power.

At the beginning, worship (proskunesis) indicated the physical gesture of prostrating oneself face down before someone as a sign of reverence and submission. This physical expression is still referred to in the Gospels and in Revelation. In those accounts the person before whom one prostrates oneself on earth is Jesus Christ, and in the heavenly liturgy before the sacrificed Lamb or the Omnipotent One. Only in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman and in 1 Corinthians 14:25 does the word “worship” appear to be detached from its external significance, and it indicates an interior disposition of the soul to God. This is the sense in which we say of the Holy Spirit in the creed that he “is adored and glorified” equally with the Father and the Son.

To indicate the external posture that corresponds to worship, we prefer the gesture of bending the knee, the genuflection. This gesture is also reserved only for God and Christ. We can be on our knees before an image of the Blessed Virgin, but we do not genuflect before her as we do before the Blessed Sacrament or the Crucified One.

What “to Worship” Means

We are less interested, however, in the significance and the development of this word than we are in knowing in what worship consists and how we can practice it. Worship may be prepared for by lengthy reflection, but it culminates in a vivid impression, and like every impression, it does not last long. It is like a flash of light in the night, but it is a special light: not so much the light of truth as the light of reality. It is the perception of the greatness, the majesty, and the beauty of God together with his goodness and his presence that take our breath away. It is a kind of sinking into the bottomless and unbounded ocean of the majesty of God. To worship, according to the saying of St. Angela of Foligno, is “to recollect oneself in unity and [plunge] our whole soul in the divine infinity.” [3]

An expression of worship that is more efficacious than any words is silence. By itself silence points to a reality that far surpasses any words. This message resounds forcefully in the Bible: “Let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Hab 2:20), and “Be silent before the Lord God!” (Zeph 1:7). According to one of the Desert Fathers, when “the senses are enveloped in endless silence and with the help of silence our memories fade,” then all that remains is to worship.

Job performs an act of worship when, finding himself face to face with the Omnipotent at the end of his trial, he exclaims, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4). It is in this sense that the verse from a psalm later taken up by the liturgy says in the Hebrew text, “To you, silence is praise,” “Tibi silentium laus!” (see Ps 65:2, Masoretic text). To worship, according to the beautiful expression of St. Gregory Nazianzus, means to lift up to God “a hymn of silence.” [4] Just as when one climbs a high mountain, little by little the air becomes more rarified, so too as one draws nearer to God, little by little speech must become briefer until in the end a person becomes completely mute and unites himself or herself in silence to the one who is ineffable. [5]

If you really want to say something to “quiet” the mind and prevent it from wandering around on other topics, you should do it with the shortest expression that exists, “Amen, yes.” To worship is in fact to consent. It is letting God be God. It is saying yes to God as God and to oneself as a creature of God. This is how Jesus is defined in Revelation, as “the Amen,” the yes personified (see Rev 3:14), or one can repeat ceaselessly with the Seraphim, “Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh,” “Holy, holy, holy.”

Worship therefore requires people to bow down and be silent. But is such an act worthy of human beings? Doesn’t it humiliate them, derogating their dignity? In fact, is it truly worthy of God? Does God really need his creatures to prostrate themselves on the ground before him and keep silent? Is God possibly like one of those oriental sovereigns who contrived worship for themselves? We cannot deny it: worship also involves for a human being an aspect of radical self-abasement, making oneself small, a surrender and a submission of oneself. Worship always involves an aspect of sacrifice, an offering up of something. Precisely because of this it attests that God is God and that nothing and no one has the right to exist before him except by his grace. In worship we offer up and sacrifice our “I,” our own glory, our self-sufficiency. But ours is a false and inconsistent glory, so it is freeing for a person to be rid of it.

In worshiping, one “frees truth from being the prisoner of injustice” (see Rom 1:18). A person becomes “authentic” in the most profound sense of that word. In worship one already anticipates the return of all things to God. One abandons oneself to the meaning and flow of being. Just as water finds its peaceful course in flowing toward the sea and the bird finds its joy in being carried by the wind, so too the worshiper finds peace and joy in worshiping. Worship of God then is not so much a duty, an obligation, as it is a privilege and even a need. Human beings need something majestic to love and worship! We have been created for this.

It is, therefore, not God who has a need to be worshiped but people who have a need to worship. One preface of the Mass says, “Although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation through Christ our Lord.” [6] Friedrich Nietzsche was completely off track when he defined the biblical God as “this honour-craving Oriental in heaven.” [7]

Of course worship must be freely given. What renders worship worthy of God and at the same time worthy of human beings is freedom, understood not only negatively as the absence of constraint but also positively as a joyful impulse, as a spontaneous gift of creatures that thereby expresses their joy in not being God and in being able to have a God above them to worship, admire, and celebrate.

Eucharistic Adoration

The Catholic Church has a special kind of worship called Eucharistic adoration. Every great spiritual branch of Christianity has had its own particular charism that constitutes its contribution to the richness of the whole Church. For Protestants it is the veneration of the Word of God; for the Orthodox, it is icons; for Catholics, it is the worship of the Eucharist. Each of these three ways achieves the same overall aim of contemplating Christ in his mystery.

The veneration and adoration of the Eucharist outside of Mass is a relatively recent fruit of Christian piety. It began to develop in the West starting in the eleventh century as a reaction to the heresy of Berengar of Tours who denied the “real” presence and recognized only a symbolic presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. From this date on, however, we could say there has not been a saint in whose life we do not notice the determinative influence of Eucharistic piety. It has been the source of immense spiritual energy, a kind of hearth that is always lit in the midst of the house of God, by which all the great sons and daughters of the Church have warmed themselves. Generations and generations of faithful Catholics have sensed a tremor at the presence of God as they sing the “Adoro te devote” before the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

What I say about the adoration and contemplation of the Eucharist could be applied almost entirely to the contemplation of icons. The difference is that in the first case we have the  real presence of Christ and in the second only an intentional presence. Both are based on the certainty that the risen Christ is alive and makes himself present through sacramental signs and through faith.

Remaining calm and silent before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, for a long time if possible, we can perceive his desires for us. We lay down our projects to make room for those of Christ; the light of God penetrates the heart little by little and heals it. Something happens that reminds us of what happens to trees in the spring. Green leaves sprout from the branches; they absorb certain elements from the atmosphere that, due to the action of sunlight, become “attached” and transformed into nutrients for the plant. Without such green leaves, the plant could not grow and bear fruit and would not contribute to generating the oxygen that we ourselves breathe.

We need to be like those green leaves! They are a symbol of the Eucharistic souls who, in contemplating the “Sun of justice,” who is Christ, “attach” to themselves the nutrient who is the Holy Spirit himself to the benefit of the whole great tree, which is the Church. The apostle Paul says this in other words when he writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

The poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, contemplating the rising of the sun one morning after the darkness of the night, has written a poem of two very brief verses: “M’illumino / d’immenso”: [8] “I illuminate myself / with immensity.” These are words that could be repeated by someone in contemplation before the Eucharist. Only God knows how many hidden graces have come down upon the Church through these worshiping people.

Eucharistic adoration is also a form of evangelization, and among the most effective. Many parishes and communities that have added it to their daily or weekly programs have experienced that. Seeing a church in the center of a city at night that is open and lit up with people in silent adoration before the Host has prompted more than one passerby to stop in, look around, and leave exclaiming, “God is here!”—just like the non-believers did when they set foot inside one of the early Christian assemblies (see 1 Cor 14:25).

Christian contemplation is never a one-way street. It does not mean gazing at your navel, as they say, in search of your deepest self. It always involves two gazes that encounter each other. A peasant in the parish of Ars was engaged in the best kind of Eucharistic adoration as he spent hours and hours in the church with his gaze fixed on the tabernacle. When the holy Curé of Ars asked him what he was doing all this time in the church, he responded, “Nothing. I look at Him and He looks at me!”

If we sometimes lower or withdraw our gaze, God never lowers or withdraws his gaze. At times Eucharistic contemplation comes down simply to being in Jesus’ company, of sitting beneath his gaze, giving him the joy of contemplating us. Even if we are creatures of no account and sinners, we are nevertheless the fruit of his passion, those for whom he gave his life: “He looks at me!” It means accepting Jesus’ invitation to the apostles at Gethsemane to “remain here, and watch with me” (Mt 26:38).

Eucharistic adoration is thus not impeded per se by the dryness that we can sometimes experience, whether it is because of our self-indulgent ways or because God allows it for our purification. That dryness can actually have meaning if we renounce our own satisfaction in order to please him and say, as Charles de Foucauld used to say to Jesus, “Your happiness is enough for me,” [9] that is, it is enough for me that you are happy. Jesus has all of eternity at his disposal to make us happy; we have only this brief space of time to make him happy, so how can we afford to lose this opportunity that will never again return in eternity?

Contemplating Jesus in the Sacrament on the altar we fulfill the prophecy which was proclaimed at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). Such contemplation is itself also prophetic because it anticipates what we will do forever in the heavenly Jerusalem. It is the most eschatological and prophetic activity that we can accomplish in the Church. At the end of time the Lamb will no longer be sacrificed nor will his flesh continue to be eaten. Consecration and communion will cease, but the contemplation of the Lamb that was slain for us will never cease. This is in fact what the saints are now doing in heaven (see Rev 5:1ff). When we are before the tabernacle we already form a single choir with the Church up above: they are before the altar, and we are behind the altar, so to speak; they experience the vision of the Lamb while we perceive it by faith.

In 1967 began the Catholic Charismatic Renewal which in fifty years has touched and renewed millions of lives and given rise to numerous new things in the Church, both personal and communal. We do not emphasize enough that it is not an “ecclesial movement” in the normal sense of this word; it is a current of grace meant for the whole Church, an “injection of Holy Spirit” that is desperately needed. It is like an electric shock that is meant to be discharged into the mass that is the Church, and once this goal obtained, ready to disappear.

I mention it here because it started precisely with an extraordinary experience of adoration of the living God which has been the theme of this meditation. The group of students at the University of Duquesne in Pittsburg who were participating in a retreat found themselves one evening in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament when suddenly something unusual happened that one of them later described this way:

Fear of the Lord welled up within us; a fearful awe kept us from looking up. He was personally present and we feared being loved too much. We worshiped him, knowing for the first time the meaning of worship. We knew a burning experience of the terrible reality and presence of the Lord that has since caused us to understand at first hand the images of Yahweh on Mt. Sinai as it rumbles and explodes with the fire of his Being, and the experience of Isaiah 6:1-5, and the statement that our God is a consuming fire. This holy fear was somehow the same as love or evoked love as we really beheld him. He was altogether lovely and beautiful, yet we saw no visual image. It was as though the splendorous, brilliant, personal God had come into the room and filled both it and us. [10]

The simultaneous presence of majesty and goodness in God and of fear and love in the creature: the “awe-inspiring and fascinating mystery,” as religious scholars describe it. [11] The woman who has described that moment this way did not know that this was a perfect summary of the traits of the living God of the Bible.

Let us end with a verse of Psalm 95 with which the Liturgy of the Hours, in the Invitatory, makes us begin every new day:

Come, let us bow down and worship,
Bending the knee before the Lord, our maker.
For he is our God and we are his people,
The flock he shepherds.


English Translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] Francis of Assisi, “Letter to the Rulers of the People,” in St Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, 4th ed., ed. Marion H. Habig (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1991), p. 115.

[2] Rev 19:10; 22:9; see Acts 10:25-26; 14:13ff)\.

[3] See St. Angela of Foligno, The Book of Blessed Angela (Instructions), Part 3, in Angela of Foligno: The CompleteWorks, trans. Paul Lachance (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1993), p. 243.  

[4] St. Gregory Nazianzus, Carmi, 29 (PG 37, p. 507).

[5] See Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystical Theology,” 3, in On the Divine Names and Mystical Theology, ed. Clarence E. Rolt (London: SPCK, 1920), pp. 197-198; see PG 3, 1033.

[6] Roman Missal, Common Preface IV.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom),trans. Thomas Common (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006), p. 94.

[8] Giuseppe Ungaretti, Vita d’un uomo: 106 poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1988), p. 72.

[9] Charles de Foucauld, Easter, 1891, Charles de Foucauld: Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), p. 111.

[10] In Patti Gallagher Mansfield, As by a New Pentecost. Beginning of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Amor Deus Publishing, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, p. 131.

[11] See, for example, Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey (London: Oxford University Press), 1967, esp. chapters 4 and 6.

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