Review: The Liturgical Year

Joan Chittister, Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2009.

The Liturgical Year is part of the The Ancient Practices Series from Thomas Nelson. The books in this series explore different aspects of Christian practice including fasting, the book of hours, and pilgrimage. In the foreward, Phyllis Tickle describes the significance of reflecting on the liturgical year as one of the seven ancient practices:

It is the liturgical year that most consistently houses, and unendingly transmits to us, the full scope and play of our Christian-ness. It is the liturgical year that gears our rhythms and courses to that of the church everywhere in all times, present and past, and all places, here and otherwise. (xx)

The author, Joan Chittister,  is a Benedictine Sister with a PhD in Speech-Communication Theory. She serves as Executive Director of Benetvision, a research and resource center for contemporary spirituality. Chittister explains that the liturgical year, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent and carrying through until the following November, sets out to “attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ” (6).  It seems appropriate timing to consider this book as this coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent and thus the beginning of the Christian year according to the Liturgical calendar. Chittester argues that:

In the liturgy, then, is the standard of what it means to live a Christian life both as the church and as individuals. The seasons and cycles and solemnities put before us in the liturgical year are more than representations of time past; they are an unending sign – a veritable sacrament of life. It is through them that the Christ-life becomes present in our own lives here and now. (11)

The book is focused in part around exploring the history of each liturgical season but also around the idea that “in the liturgical year we walk with Jesus through all the details of His life–and He walks with us in ours” (16). This is a book that explores the spiritual life that can be found in “on-purpose emotion” and crafted experiences.

The book states that it is intended to be for a diverse audience; nonetheless, this book expects at least a rudimentary understanding of what constitutes liturgy. It is also written from a distinctly Roman Catholic perspective, with a description of the cycle of saints (sanctorum) and the Marian feasts. In particular, The Liturgical Year overlooks some of the reasons that have caused many reformed protestants to be dismissive of the observance of the liturgical year (ie: an assertion of ‘faith alone’ as opposed to traditional sacramentalism, as argued by Zwingli, the Puritans and many within the Reformed tradition).  Some may bristle at what seems to be an underlying theology that suggests that it is in observing the liturgical year, its seasons, feasts and liturgies, that one demonstrates him or herself to be Christian (14, 23, 31). But, as another reviewer has hoped, it might be that this kind of popular level book will encourage many to lay aside preconceived notions of what constitutes marking of the liturgical seasons.

So is it just about differently coloured vestments, Saints’ feast days, Missals or prescribed readings from the Lectionary? Or does the Liturgical year reflect something more fundamental to the rhythms of life and spiritual practice? Chittister argues at various points that the liturgical year “reminds us as the church what kind of community we are meant to be”  and that it “implants within each of us individually the reprise of those moments that are the substance of the faith” (13).

Chittister suggests that the Liturgical year provides a kind of measure — a map of sorts — so that one knows where they are: “For Christians, Sundays arrive like moments out of time, bringing in their invisible mist, the sight of another way to be human” (33).

The liturgical year isn’t just about imposing an order to church life but about providing a structure within which one may be free to attend to more pressing spiritual matters without needing to reinvent the wheel each year. Towards the end of the book, Chittister reveals the essence of the Liturgical year and the heart of this book when she says:

Liturgical spirituality is about learning to live an ordinary life extraordinarily well. (179)

This book won’t satisfy those who are seeking specifics for how to mark each part of the liturgical year, but for those who’d like some poetic and theologically grounded accompaniment to their own creative reflections, this might provide a buttress and an encouragement. Moreover, if you are looking for a scholarly work on this subject that is heavily referenced and with a good bibliography, this might not be the book for you.

But, for those who have a rudimentary understanding of the Liturgical year, who’d like to ease into some further theological reflection, and are interested in an introduction to Catholic theological foundations for the liturgical year, this book may be of great interest.

 Do you mark the Liturgical seasons? In what ways?

Image Credit: Author


  • Anna M. Blanch is a regular contributor to Transpositions. She is Australian by birth, and inclination, Anna grew up surrounded by the Australian bush, a large extended family, bush poetry, and sport. Anna is currently writing her PhD in Theology and Literature. She finds photography, enjoying her environment and its fruits, and being in community bring her joy.

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