Thoughts on Catholic Liturgy and Expressive Individualism

By Jadan Anderson, MC ’22.

The rhythm of the Catholic Mass is silent. I remember from my childhood. But after a few rounds of standing and kneeling, calling and responding, listening and reading, and standing and kneeling again you latch onto the beat. You start to feel it first when you fall to the kneelers. Then it’s in the page turns. Then it inhabits the rumble of the congregation’s chants. It’s overwhelming, and you are mildly terrified of sitting down a moment too late or singing the hymn too fast or stumbling over too many words of the Nicene Creed. Your own beat just cannot keep the same time; so, you stifle it. You are part of the mass but struggle to find yourself in it.

This liturgy, the structure through which the congregation is meant to worship, meant to be reminded of the beautiful mystery of their faith, was suffocating. The homilies were monotonous. I felt that if I was here to praise God, I should do so the way I wanted. If I wanted to clap my hands, I should. If I wanted to dance around, I should. If I wanted to stand when everyone else kneeled, I should. But to deviate from the ritual meant to disrupt others and embarrass myself. So, I went through the motions. In doing so, sincerity was lost to tradition’s rigidity, mass lacked integrity, and, despite reciting the psalms and singing the hymns, the rhythm of the Catholic mass remained silent and so did I.

I arrived at Yale eager to replace ritual with all new things. Behind the tropes about college being a time to discover ourselves and craft our future is the implicit assertion that this will all be done away from home, free from the influence or command of liturgical, familial, or even cultural ritual. It’s a major selling point; it’s a promise. With this scope and freedom, discover what you really want, learn who you really are, grow into yourself. While this yearning to know ourselves is innocent and noble–it is the key to honest self-expression, and self-expression is beautiful–the promise falls short.

When in my first year I tried to parse through all that I thought I wanted, I found a mess of tangled up, contradictory hopes and ambitions. I found ephemeral ideas of a future self, some of whose origins were almost unknown to me. Without the grounding knowledge of my own desires, which were more fickle and fragile that I had previously thought, I wasn’t sure where to turn for the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Filled with this unexpected and disappointing doubt, I found myself one night on Park Street in a 10:00 PM service at Saint Thomas More. Mass began. The rhythm had not changed. It was still structured and rigid, silent and pervasive. My beat still didn’t keep time.

 But then it did. Abruptly, the two rhythms became one. Mine was completely the Mass’s and the Mass’s completely mine. What was once suffocating was no longer. I still felt the rhythm surrounding me, in the falling and the chanting and the turning. But it became intuitive, natural, liberating because I trusted that the beat would ground me. The rhythm, always silent, remained silent, and so did I. Yet self-consciousness gave way to a long-awaited sense of self.


The moment those two rhythms become one holds the essence of liturgy. It’s about this essence that Luke pens in his gospel, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”[1] Of all the great paradoxes of the Christian faith–Jesus as fully God and fully human, the Trinity, the resurrection of the dead–this one is no less incredible. You want to find your true self? Die to yourself. Trade in your will for God’s will. Trust that He will return to you a truer and better self than any version concocted out of jealous ambition or misguided filial obligation or even innocent yet short-sighted dreaming. The claim sounds outlandish. Many might say it sounds repulsive.

Identity is one of the things we hold most dear. There exists a universal desire to know oneself and be known to others, and with it, the cry of expressive individualism. For the expressive individualist, fulfillment is achieved “through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity.”[2] That identity is found in the pursuit of that which is desired, so long as the desire is authentically one’s own, as the best manifestation of one’s true self. Expressive individualism maintains that since only the individual knows and can discern her desires, only the individual has the power to define herself.

The Christian also seeks fulfillment through identity. However, she rests knowing that the definition and revelation of true identity comes thankfully not from herself and her desires but from God and only God. This Christian idea is repulsive at first glance because it willingly takes the power of self-definition away from the self. This seems to fly in the face of expressive individualism by opposing mainstream conceptions of authenticity and undermining freedom of choice. And it does, but not in totality. The choice is, to where or to whom we turn to look for ourselves.


The rhythms became one when I chose to participate in the liturgy, to let my worship be formed. As Luke’s passage suggests, you choose to surrender yourself not to your desires but to God’s; for the promise–backed by a God who claims perfect constancy, unlike my inconsistent desires–is that at the end of it all, our true selves will be illuminated.

The rhythms became one when I realized that where the mass’s beat rested, my own could fill in. There exists a “living space of freedom between each commanding beat.”[3] The capacity for expression, for personality, is not forgone. It is highlighted by the steady, external structure, like watercolor seeping just outside of definitive lines, or a riff floating between the notes of a melody.

The rhythms became one when I allowed liturgy to challenge the idea that authenticity is only the work of one pair of hands. Expressive individualism makes knowing oneself an isolated endeavor, prior to relationships with others. The Christian idea is that the expressive individualists have it out of order. You cannot really know yourself before you go to others; you go to the Other in order to know yourself. Authenticity, then, is a relational project, not an insular one. And like any relational project, it requires both the relinquishing of power and the decision to trust. As for the decision of what structure or philosophy or God to trust, that is the reader’s decision. I have come to follow C.S. Lewis’s line of thinking when he writes, “The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become—because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be.”[4]

Looking outside of oneself in search of one’s true self seems counterintuitive. But parallels exist outside of the experience of a Catholic mass. When is the last time you went to a party or to a club? Toad’s Place, perhaps? Do you remember wedging yourself through to a comfortable spot on the dance floor? The rhythm of the music likely complemented the chaos around you. It may have been hard at first to catch the beat. But you do, and before you know it you’ve spent two hours swaying–or jumping–to songs you can’t even remember. Time passed by so quickly. You lost yourself to the beat. But you were at home in the beat. Content in the beat. Yourself in the beat.

A better parallel is dancing with another person. When was the last time you were led in a dance with a partner? Intimately? Not necessarily romantically, just intimately–a dance in which give-and-take ruled your steps, in which you had to resist the impulse to control lest the both of you trip over each other. When you trust the leading partner to lead, provided they are experienced, the dance becomes fluid. Intuitive. Natural. As it should be. Hours, again, are lost to it. And though your control is lost to your partner’s steps, the dance is good. The dance is yours.

[1] Luke 9:24, New American Standard Version.

[2] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

[3] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1985.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Walker & Co., 1987.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.


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