Spiritual Ruts

One tactic I have employed this summer in my study of Latin is an age-old teaching maxim of the Jesuits: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. I go over vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions until I feel like I can do them in my sleep. Heck, I woke up at 3:00 am this morning and my first thought was, "Surgo, Surgere, Surrexi, Surrectum - to get up, to arise." I then looked at the clock, chastised myself for being a nerd, and when back to sleep.

I think it is helpful to engage in "review and drill" exercises because they develop deep rusts in our memories. Verb conjugations or noun declensions, if a language is to be mastered, need to become second-nature. In our regular conversations seldom do we actively think about how we use regular verbs; we are in such linguistic ruts that our language sort of carries itself without us having to think about it. This breaks down, however, when we need to say something delicately and feel the need to "choose our words" carefully in order to communicate, with precision, what we want to say. In those moments, we leap out of the ruts of our usual speaking and tread on new ground.

I think this is something that I very much appreciate about the celebration of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church. It's one huge rut! Apart from musical selections and the homily, the whole thing is very well scripted. Cradle Catholics, think on what it is you take for granted: you walk in and dip your hand into the holy water, making the sign of the cross. You select a pew, preferably apart from everyone else (this won't last: by the Gospel, the whole church will be filled), and genuflect. You slide into the pew and start thumbing through the bulletin or the missalette. We know when to stand, sit, kneel during the liturgy; we know when to go up, bow before receiving the Eucharist, and then kneel prayerfully after communion (or how to make it look like you're kneeling by pushing your chest forward and resting your backside on the edge of your pew). After the final blessing (you're not allowed to leave until after the priest passes by!) you know to run to your car and make a mad dash out of the parking lot so that you can get to brunch before the line gets too long.

We are creatures of habit and, fortunately, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church is one that has been formed over many years. We are accustomed to it -- which explains, in large part, the neuralgic response to the impending changes to the liturgy. We can speak more of this later.

I mention this because very often people complain that Mass is boring and predictable. I often want to say, "Hell Yes it is!" I think we need the ritual, the regularity, the 'rut' in order to get about to the real business of the Eucharist: thanking God for what has been giving, what is being given, and asking for continued strength, courage, love, and guidance. The  ruts are there to guide us, not to entertain us.

Years ago, I played a computer game called "Oregon Trail" (I was the Banker from Boston, more often than not). At some point, I was out West and my attention was called by a guide to deep furrows in the earth that had been carved by countless numbers of wagons having taken the "Oregon Trail." One of the benefits to these ruts is that they provided a stable and secure path for the horses to follow: whether delirious with fever or hunger, the horses could follow the ruts as they led to the final destination. The work and effort of countless generations had provided a pattern, a path, for those still to come to follow.

Each of us is an heir to the tradition and we, too, can be guided by the ruts of liturgy. Rather than complaining that we're not out finding new and exciting paths, perhaps it would be helpful for us to appreciate the paths we are in and use the stability and guidance to go deeper into what we are doing and what we are meant to do: praise God and seek always God's greater glory.
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