One of the best things about maintaining a blog is that every now and again, someone stumbles upon what you've written and something you've said touches a nerve or strikes an inner chord. This week I had the good fortune of beginning a thoughtful conversation with a young man who has agreed to allow me to use his question as the beginning of this post. He writes:
One of the problems that I have with faith has to do with prayer actually, and I was wondering your opinion. When I go to mass on Sundays, I feel like I am just sitting through a recited hour of prayer . When people say the creed and when they say the Our Father, there doesn't seem to be any emotion or any meaning behind what they are saying. It all seems like a routine where we say what we are told to say, and that we are not really saying what we believe, but we are just repeating what others say that they believe and that we are not actually saying it for ourselves...I am not saying in any way that church is obsolete, but I just struggle with the fact that even when I realize that I am just repeating words that I have memorized, and even though I do mean them, they are still so impersonal and it does not seem like what I think church should be like.
Let me offer a somewhat elliptical response. When I teach music, the last thing I say, the great words of encouragement I impart, the kernel of knowledge that I pass along in order to help the student grow as a musician is this: PRACTICE! The best teacher cannot make much headway in any subject if the pupil is stubborn and refuses to move. It is only when the music (or the jump shot for basketball , or the pitch for baseball, or the surgical technique) becomes so utterly ingrained in you, so much a part of your nature that you don't have to think about it, only then are you able to move from "Playing a tune" to "being an Irish musician" or shooting a basketball to "being a basketball player."
I think in a lot of ways our liturgical prayers are like this. They become so ingrained, so much a part of our experience, that they can seem impersonal. I don't want to rail against the people in the pews, so I ask each of us this question: What do I bring to the prayers that I recite? Each week (or day) when I gather for the Eucharist, what in my heart do I bring before the Lord? What do I have to offer? Am I there because I have to be, or because it is "it is right to give God thanks and praise"?
Liturgical prayer inserts us into a chorus singing the ever-ancient, ever-new song of God-with-us. When we bring ourselves as we are - bitter, joyful, sad, nervous, angry, unsure - and surrender ourselves over to prayer, then we claim our role in this choral work. I think it is very possible to go to Mass and "not get anything out of it" because Mass is not a Pez dispenser of grace. If you have any sense, you just don't walk in expecting to "get some God" and have some splendid vision of the Holy One. Instead, the Eucharist is like a good investment: you put in your blood, your sweat, and your tears. You invest yourself totally, offering all that you have and call your own, and you place it before the Lord on the altar. The beauty of this investment is that the Lord accepts whatever you have to offer...even what you think of little value, the Lord wants you to offer. Over time, and it takes a very long time, you'll notice that your weekly commitment, your daily offering, is slowly being transformed. Bringing yourself to the Lord leads to your own transubstantiation, a change of your own substance, leading you out of "going to" mass and into "a being for" the Eucharist.
I have gone on far too long! Part of adult faith moves us from an image of mass-as-Pez or mass-as-slot machine where if we're lucky and play the right game, we'll hit the jackpot. Our liturgical prayers are like deposit slips on which we write our heart's needs and desires, consecrating them with our hope in God and entrusting them into Christ's pierced heart. My honest sense is that people experience mass as redundant because they have become redundant; they see it as something they "show up to" rather than an event they participate in. They are spectators, not the spiritual gladiators we are called to be, warriors fighting and seeking rest and healing each week at the Lord's table.
(Could I use any more images or metaphors?)
In short, to my young friend I would urge you to make the words personal by letting them flow from your heart. Do not be afraid to scandalize God...the crucifixion took care of that. Make the prayers your prayers, load them up with your desires and fears and joys and sorrows. Let the prayers you know so well allow you to know God ever anew. Let each moment of the Eucharist call us into deeper friendship with the Lord who offers his very body and blood as our sustenance. Invest not idle words, but your entire life, into the heart of our Lord and give it time...the dividends are out of sight!