“Liturgical mysticism is the crowning of the Christian life”

“Mystical” says Dr. David Fagerberg, “is not a character trait that only some people have … Our royal baptismal priesthood is an exercise of liturgical mysticism.”

David Fagerberg is Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he has been since 2003. His area of expertise is liturgical theology, and he has published several books in that field, including Theologia Prima (2003), On Liturgical Asceticism (2013), and Consecrating the World (2016). His most recent book is Liturgical Mysticism (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019). In that book, Fagerberg looks at the liturgy through a mystic lens, exploring how the Christian liturgical life is crowned and perfected by mysticism.

Fagerberg defines the term at the end of the book’s prologue: “Liturgical mysticism is the Trinitarian mystery, mediated by sacramental liturgy and hypostasized as personal liturgy, to anchor the substance of our lives.” This may be somewhat of a mouthful, but Dr. Fagerberg deftly and thoroughly unpacks this definition in his latest book.

Fagerberg corresponded with Catholic World Report regarding his book, and how liturgy and mysticism collaborate for a full expression of the Christian life, the priesthood, and the “liturgy wars”.

CWR: How did the book come about?

David Fagerberg: Usually doctoral students try to give their thesis a self-important sounding title, but I called mine “What Is Liturgical Theology?” because that was the question I wanted to answer. Its submission to my committee is coming up on exactly 30 years ago, and for those three decades I’ve been adding to my answer, like adding layers to a chocolate truffle. I am convinced that the great tradition, East and West, has a much more profound understanding of liturgy than the understanding most of us carry around in our minds. Once I was standing in line for commencement exercises dressed in cap and gown for the procession, and my faculty colleague behind me said, knowing my interest in liturgy, “You must like this sort of thing.”

“That sort of thing” is not what brought me into the study of liturgy. “That sort of thing” seems to me only the visible part of the iceberg, the one-tenth above the waterline. “That sort of thing” is actually connected to truths and realities and spiritualities and doctrines that are much greater.

So after beginning with liturgy, my scholarly trajectory has been to connect cult and cosmos, sacred and profane, Church and world, ritual liturgy and lived liturgy. This book is connecting our liturgical lives with mysticism.

CWR: What exactly do you mean by “liturgical mysticism”? Most people would put liturgy and mysticism in two different categories.

Fagerberg: That is a point at which I also begin. People not only put them in different categories, but are content to leave them there. Like picking teams for a neighborhood baseball game, one captain gathers things he considers liturgical (formality, public rites, sensible sacraments, ceremony) and the other captain gathers things he considers mystical (the uncontrollable, private experiences, things beyond the senses, the otherworldly). And when you start that way, you conclude that liturgy is for ordinary people and mysticism is for extraordinary saints.

I can hardly dispute that there are extraordinary saints when I am not one. As an ordinary Christian I look up to and admire the mystical heroes of the faith. God chooses special people, by designs of his own, to serve as witnesses and inspirations for the rest of us. But it doesn’t seem that the ordinary liturgical life should be thought of as a dull gray with no dazzling mystical hues whatsoever, or that the extraordinary mystical life should be thought of as lacking contact with the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life.

Jordan Aumann puts it nicely when he describes mysticism as “the crowning achievement of the perfection of charity.” Liturgical mysticism is the crowning of the Christian life.

CWR: You refer to Schmemann’s proposal that “liturgy is the source of, not just an object for, theology.” In what ways is liturgy the source of theology?

Fagerberg: Both Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh were working out the consequences of the old adage lex orandi statuat lex credendi. The law of prayer moving in liturgy is the foundation, the statuat, the source of theology. The kind of theology being spoken about is not secondary academic theology, it is theologia prima. And it is delivered into our hands from God in the liturgy. Liturgy is our trysting place with God. According to the dictionary, a tryst is “an agreement, as between lovers, to meet at a certain time and place.” Exactly! God, our Divine Lover has agreed to meet us on holy ground for communion, and from that encounter with the Father through the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit creates what Archimandrite Vasileios calls “theologian souls.”

In the words of Schmemann, liturgy is the “ontological condition for theology” because theology is made possible by participation in liturgy. In the words of Kavanagh, a person who commits liturgy can be called a theologian, and he calls her Mrs. Murphy.

She has accompanied me across my three decades. First, I claimed in my book Theologia Prima that Mrs. Murphy is a theologian, though not of the academic variety. Second, I claimed in my book On Liturgical Asceticism that Mrs. Murphy is an ascetic, though not of the monastic variety. Now I am claiming in Liturgical Mysticism that Mrs. Murphy is a mystic, though of the ordinary and not extraordinary variety.

CWR: You write that “The priesthood exercised in the liturgy is not our own, it is Christ’s priesthood shared with us in two modes, common and ministerial.” How can this exercise of the priesthood be an exercise of liturgical mysticism?

Fagerberg: Christ stands at the center point of liturgical circulation from heaven to earth, and back again. And mediation is the defining characteristic of a priest.

My definition of liturgy is: “the perichoresis of the Trinity kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.” That is, the Trinity’s circulation of love turns itself inside out, and in humility the Son and Spirit work the Father’s good pleasure for all creation, which is to invite our ascent to participate in the very life of God. This cannot be forced, it must be done with our cooperation.

This means liturgy is not our own feat, and neither is the theology arising from it our own exploit, nor is the spirituality that overtakes us our achievement. “Mystical” is not a character trait that only some people have, like blonde hair, a placid temperament, or a talent for playing the trombone. The Church is communion of the Holy Spirit, and when the mystic is in communion with the Church, then his or her liturgical theology is by definition mystical. Our royal baptismal priesthood is an exercise of liturgical mysticism.

CWR: Do you think approaching the liturgy through the lens of mysticism (rather than keeping the two separate and compartmentalized) can help the divisions in the so-called “liturgy wars”? In other words, can this approach help those with different liturgical sensibilities see the value in other valid liturgical practices?

Fagerberg: I’ve never thought of the question, and it was certainly not on my mind while I was writing the book. The question that tends to occupy my mind is “what’s going on here?” instead of “what is one to do, and how?” But let me think: could a book on liturgical mysticism contribute anything of a useful nature?

People have a foggy definition of mystery and mysticism – I certainly did. Perhaps some of this fog can burn off under the sun of a more theological definition arising from the context of liturgy and ecclesiality. My thesaurus gives me these meanings for mystery: enigma, puzzle, riddle, problem, secret. So is my liturgy improved if it is more enigmatic, puzzling, riddle-filled, problematic, secretive? When people say they wish their liturgy “had more mystery,” what do they mean?

All parties would agree that Christ is the premier liturgist. We are only his apprentices in training. And Christ’s Paschal mystery flows, crystal clear, from the throne of God and of the lamb. What my book proposes is that this liturgical river pools up in two places. First it is celebrated visibly in the sacramental liturgy, and second it overflows that setting to settle into the invisible liturgy of our heart. These two liturgies should corroborate. Therefore, concern for rubrics and reverence in the visible liturgy should be directed toward the heart. And concern for full, conscious, and active invisible liturgy should appreciate the guardianship exercised by the rubrics.

CWR: In the writing of this book, did you come to any new insights that changed your theological approach to the liturgy? Or to mysticism?

Fagerberg: Following my mentors Schmemann and Kavanagh I have treated lex orandi as foundational to belief, theology, doctrine. And this book does not change that approach. It did offer me an initial challenge, however. The easy way out would have been to place them side by side: consider liturgical features of mysticism, and mystical features of liturgy. But I wanted to figure out how liturgy could be the foundation (statuat) for mysticism, as it is for theology, and it is for asceticism. That took some figuring. If liturgical theology asks “What happens in liturgy?” then liturgical mysticism asks “What happens to us in liturgy?”

The Greek word hypostasis means that which stands below, the hidden part of any object, the underlying reality of the thing. Hypo (under) + stasis (stand). And it was used sometimes to describe the silt that settled at the bottom of a wine cask. It is the Greek word for “person.” Christ has a divine nature and a human nature in one hypostasis (person). The Trinity is one essence, but with three persons (hypostases).

Where does the river of liturgy go? Down to the bottom. It is heavy water. So it turned out that liturgical mysticism is liturgy flooding a person. And thus I arrived at my definition: Liturgical Mysticism is the Trinitarian mystery, mediated by sacramental liturgy and hypostasized as personal liturgy, to anchor the substance of our lives.

CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Fagerberg: Defending Mrs. Murphy as a primary theologian, and as an ascetic, was not meant to take anything away from secondary theologians or professed religious. It was meant to add to her job description, not to take anything away from theirs. The same thing applies here. As a practicing liturgist, Mrs. Murphy adds to her curriculum vitae “mystic.”

I’m afraid that too many Catholics think they are “just a layperson” by default – by default of not being a cleric, not being a monk, and in this case not being an ecstatic. Thus too many conclude the layperson is in the audience, not on stage, because he or she has not left the profane world by sacrament of sacred orders, has not left the urban world by professed vows in the desert, and has not left the mundane world in a rapture. But the liturgical life of the baptized layperson includes dimensions of all three. My interest is to get the average, vanilla Catholic layperson to realize the challenge and scale of his or her baptism. In Schmemann’s code words, it means treating liturgy as leitourgia.

Liturgy is a work of God, though it is an activity of human beings. Any number of human sciences could approach a human activity. To approach the character and work of God would require something other than a human science. It would require dogma. And that is my next book, coming soon from Ignatius Press: Liturgical Dogmatics.

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About Paul Senz 121 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.


  1. The liturgy is the public worship that the Church gives to God. A Catholic mystic worships the Most Holy Trinity not only in church but all day long. One of the characteristics of a mystic is precisely the continual loving presence of God.

    I’m interested in this type of life, perhaps because I am one. I leave that in God’s hands.

    So, I wrote a piece of detailed information for priests who are spiritual directors of mystics. To make it clear, I’m not a priest. I passed this information to hundreds of priests in different countries and had many positive comments.

    If any reader of yours is interested on this spiritual guidance for mystics, they can download the following link in English:


  2. On the strength of this review I have ordered the book. Can’t wait for it to arrive.
    The review struck a major chord with me – it is clearly of great importance in understanding the liturgy.

  3. This book sounds most interesting. Something that struck a cord with me is what Pope Benedict XVl said about the Mass, “The priest does NOT need the Mass. The people do NOT need the Mass. God the Father NEEDS the Mass”. While meditating on the Pope’s words it is the factual Truth that he points out. The Mass is the re-enactment of Jesus sacrifice to the Father. When Christ offered His sacrifice He was not offering His sacrifice to US, but solely to the Father for our salvation. The Mass is the most mystical thing that we have. There is a lot that needs to be done in order to restore the “sense of the sacred” as St. John Paul ll asked for.

  4. Has anyone else noticed how this article goes on to such lengths without ever mentioning the word “Christ”? Or sacrifice? Or the Virgin Mother of God? It seems to me that the author begins with a largely preconceived notion of the laity at mass. I wonder if he has personally observed the faithful in prayer. He might better look at the Catholic Church’s definition of mystery, (As in New Advent and do a little reading from the International Catholic University’s resources.

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