Justice, Evil, and Worship – Remembering Virgil Michel, OSB

June 26 marks the birthday of one of the great pioneers of liturgical reform in North America: Virgil Michel, OSB (he was born in 1890— happy 126th, Virgil!).  He made a great many contributions to the liturgical movement throughout his career, but arguably the most significant was the connection he relentlessly drew between liturgy and social justice.  What Christians do around the altar, for him, is organically entwined with how Christians live in, respond to, and shape their wider social contexts.

Virgil Michel, OSB. Happy looking guy, no?  Source: http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/monastic-life/history/

In a world where injustice seems to take root and grow given even the most fleeting opportunity,  the work of Virgil Michel bears remembering. Christians (actually pretty much everyone) are ceaselessly faced with images and instances of evil, and our lived faith demands a response.  However, by “response” I do not mean simply plodding through some exercises of theodicy until one is either sufficiently mollified or just too discouraged with the messiness of existence to continue.  I mean, and Virgil Michel meant, actually responding.

What lurks in the background of connecting liturgy to justice is the ever-present problem of evil.  How can a good and powerful God exist alongside the rampant evil in the world?  Some other authors here at Daily Theology have touched on this issue, and to their wisdom I’d like to add another point of discussion: a Christian response to evil is not argument or explanation (as Marc Vincent Rugani pointed out); it is more properly accompaniment, action, and resistance.  And let’s keep Virgil Michel in the picture here—worship (at its best) can be a powerful step in each of these three responses.

To be clear, there may be a number of reasons Christians would want to explain away the problem of evil, or find some argument for how injustice makes sense or is a sad necessity in this world God has created.  For example, if evil is a problem like a math or physics problem, it can be held at arm’s length, studied from some illusory objectivity, and then ignored when one turns one’s attention to other matters.  It can be solved and/or left alone.  This tends to be the approach of many of my students when we work through the problem of evil in class; since we’re doing theology, they seem to think, we must be headed toward some clever punchline or elegant defense that makes sense of the wrongs of the world.

That isn’t where we end up.

As we move through arguments of theodicy, students regularly express frustration (or even exasperation) with what they see as unsatisfactory ways of justifying God’s existence in the face of evil.  Where is the answer?!  This is a big problem!  However, I think the answer the students are often seeking isn’t one that explains evil—they want one that fixes it.  In a world so familiar with evil and injustice, explanation just does not satisfy. 

Definitely not Virgil Michel. This handsome fellow is Leibnitz, who came up with the term theodicy. Although I’m definitely jealous of his hairdo, I think he still largely missed the point.

So what else is there?  I suggested accompaniment, action, and resistance, and I’d like to outline the organic role liturgy can play in animating those responses.  For example, a Christian response to injustice cannot be one of disinterested study or indifference (as Meg Stapleton Smith argues).  To witness injustice is to enter into the story of that event or system. To be a Christian witness is to place oneself on the side of the oppressed, to accompany those who have been wronged.  Enter the Eucharistic liturgy.  The Eucharist points toward this binding together of Christians with those who experience evil; to commune with Christ and the community gathered around the altar is to begin to accompany “the least of these.”

Of course simply eating and drinking at the altar does not on its own magically make Christians into exemplars of mercy.  This requires action, a free, grace-fueled move to helping one’s neighbors, embodying in lived experience the sacramental accompaniment expressed at the liturgy. 

Such action can be tiring (even exhausting or demoralizing at times) and this reality leads to the final piece I’d like to touch on: resistance.  The Eucharist can be thought of as food for the journey, manna from heaven that can assist Christians in “becoming what we receive” (to paraphrase Augustine).  To resist injustice is also to resist the despair that threatens to accompany it, and this is part of the gift of liturgical practice.  Christians continually come together to express unity in faith, but also unity in mission toward the kingdom of God, in which evil and injustice have no place.  Resistance in the face of injustice leads Christians back to the response of accompaniment, again and again being incorporated into the body of Christ, whose presence in the world must act toward justice and love, and resist the power of evil.

It’s not easy, and Virgil Michel understood that.  As he said to a group of Christians who were particularly discouraged in their work for social justice, “You need the mass.  You must persevere by all means.  You have a vocation.  Study the Mass, live the Mass.  Between two Masses you can bear everything.”1

1Qtd. in Kieth F. Pecklers, The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 116.