Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Liturgy is Useless, Not Pointless

I had the occasion recently to chat with a former student whose family I've come to know rather well over the years. Our conversation ranged over a number of topics and eventually I asked him about the campus ministry program at his university. His vague and somewhat stuttering response prompted me to ask, "Well, do you ever go to Mass on campus?" His response was disappointing but not surprising, "No, not really. I just don't get anything out of going any more."

I've written before that I think it one of the salutary features of the Mass to be boring. From morning to night, I am bombarded by a constant stream of texts, Tweets, Facebook messages, phone calls, and emails. I turn to edit an article and find myself moving the cursor to my web browser and reading an article; I decide I want to pray for fifteen minutes and discover that I waste the time looking for a perfect piece of music to accompany my meditation. I go for an evening stroll, deciding to leave my phone at home, only to feel some anxiety (1) that someone might call me and I'm not there to take the call and (2) I won't have any way of knowing if this walk took me past the 10,000 steps I hear I'm supposed to walk each day.

In this last year of priesthood, I will admit that I've come to love the Eucharist even more because I have learned that the liturgy is fundamentally useless. That is to say, the hour that we spend praying together does not advance us one quantitative step in this life. The hour or so that could have been spent answering emails, making phone calls, exercising, or reading is turned over completely and, at the end of it, I have nothing to show for it. By the measure of this world, the liturgy can well be reckoned totally pointless: an un-billable, non-serviceable hour of the week in which one accomplishes nothing. Indeed, I imagine that three minutes on the treadmill would burn more calories than what is metabolized by kneeling, genuflecting, and shuffling up to receive Communion.

Paradoxically, it is the brilliant uselessness of the liturgy that is its point. The Mass is a sign of contradiction in a workaday world, carving out space in our managed-and-measured schedules wherein we are allowed to center ourselves. Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, expresses this beautifully when she notes that contemplation is attention which is not just the planning of particular good actions but an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue. 
The point of the liturgy is not to "get" something but to allow oneself to begin, again and again, to become someone: a person who finds her or his center in what Christ has done, is doing, and desires to do in our lives. To admit that Mass is useless, that it doesn't add a single gobbet of accomplishment to our quantifiable life, is to credit it mightily. For, by de-centering my attention from the self to the Eucharist, I can think less of "who I am right now" and begin to contemplate "who I am being called to be."

From the moment Mass begins "In the name of the Father..." until we are bidden to "Go in peace," a space is created wherein we can encounter the One who desires to be the center of our lives. The entire liturgy can be thought of as a way for us to "look right away from self" toward the Holy One. But this is maddeningly difficult to do and, often, provokes something of an allergic reaction among Catholics.

Just consider how many of us do, or have done, the following:

  • When the opening hymn stretches to a fourth or fifth verse, we close the books (if we even opened them!) and mutter under our breaths about "getting this over with." 
  • When the presider waits longer-than-usual to begin prayers, forcing us to sit in a silence that seems so foreign to us.
  • While the lector is reading, we are checking to see if anyone has emailed us in the last ten minutes.
  • During the homily, when we don't feel represented or addressed directly, we try to make reservations for brunch or read the bulletin.
  • Feel a sense of indignation when the priest chooses Eucharistic prayers that are a little bit longer than we should like, making us kneel for an extra two minutes (some of the alternative prayers are absolutely beautiful). As we hear "Take this, all of you, and eat" we are more concerned with the length of the line at the donut shop. 
  • We shamble up to Communion and shoot right out the door, counting now our Sunday obligation accomplished. 
What is the common denominator to all of these? The self remains at the center. It's no wonder people find Mass boring: when my greatest concern is me and my desires, anything that does not flow directly toward me or stroke my (admittedly fragile) ego is discounted. 

But when I enter into the liturgy in the right spirit, it is a tremendous event of being rocked back on my heels, of being sometimes nudged, sometimes thrown, off-center. I turn my gaze away from myself and open my ears and heart. In the Psalm I hear soothing counsel for my sad soul; in the Gospel I hear the Word who gives me strength; in the opening hymn my heart is untethered and allowed to soar upward with the music to touch, for but a moment, the Holy One we praise. During the Eucharistic prayer, I turn my eyes from myself toward the altar and contemplate that God, the Creator of the Universe, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God whose Spirit gathers us into the Body of Christ, this God is working the greatest of miracles in making present here-and-now the point of my life: Jesus Christ. Inspired by Word and strengthened in Sacrament, I am given a chance to rise again with the Risen One and sent forward to be the Good News I have heard. 

By de-centering me, by not being focused upon my petty whims and wishes, the liturgy focuses me anew on Who most matters in my life. For love of the Christ who loves me, who gives himself to me, I continue as a sinful disciple. Over time and with great grace, the practice of the liturgy tutors us to see things as they are in themselves, not as they are for us. For me, all that is given is useless to my whims, and this is the point: what is, is gift, given freely to be shared and celebrated as we turn our eyes toward the Point of our lives and approach with joy and thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Creeping from Great Silence

Since the end of April, I have been a full-time reader in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams. Many times have I wanted to return to the blog but, with each stir of desire, a more disciplined voice called back: Ryan, keep reading! So I obeyed.

Apart from one posted homily and a few videos, I've been diligent in my studies. The hard work, I hope, will pay off in 27 days when I sit for my exams. I've read an awful lot these months and I hope to show to my examiners that my time has been well spent.

For those who read this, I did rejoin Twitter: @WhistlePriest is my handle, or name, or whatever it is called. Feel free to follow me there. I can't say that I spend much time on social media or that I'll Tweet much, but if you follow the Tin Whistle videos this may be a help to you.

God willing, in a month, I'll be without the stress of comps upon me and will be able to resume writing again!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Grateful for Boredom

I am very well acquainted with the ceilings of many churches. This is not, mind you, because I'm especially devout and cast my eyes heavenward in prayer. No, it's because I have developed a habit of rolling my eyes when I find things tedious or disagreeable. And, truth be told, I have often attended liturgies where my eye muscles get quite the workout as peculiar musical selections, long-winded homilies, and bizarre innovations set the eye-roll in perpetual motion.

We've all been there when the homilist, now on the sixth of his "three points I want to make," teases with a finally or in conclusion...only to go on for another ten minutes. The central point of the homily gets swallowed up in a sea of words and even if one is impressed by the homilist's abilities as a speaker, one is left struggling to remember what the point of the homily actually was. And so my eyes roll and I hear in the back of my mind the echo of my father's warning, "Ryan, whatever else you do, don't hold the people of God hostage!"

Or think on those presiders who take great liberties with liturgical prayers. While I am in some sense sympathetic to wanting to make language inclusive, I have to own the reality that the prayers of the liturgy do not belong to me. It is not my place to tweak or modify prayers. I've spent enough time in the academy to be sensitized to gender-inclusive and I do find it grating on my ear when the Church's prayers unnecessarily use exclusively masculine pronouns when other words would work just as well. 

Regardless my personal preferences, it is not my place to change the wording of the prayers. In fact, I take it as an insidious expression of clericalism to change prayers in an effort "to make them relevant" to the congregation. Clericalism? Indeed: the presider claims a form of privilege to change things that do not belong to him, deciding as he wills what will and will not be said. Imagine how chaotic it would be were the entire congregation to begin to innovate during the Creed or the Lord's Prayer, swapping out words or lines willy-nilly. It'd be a fractious cacophony professing not a common faith but only a collection of personal manifestos. Yet a certain sort of presider thinks it his prerogative to "add" or "subtract" at will.

I was in another city a few weeks back for an Irish music event and I attended an evening Mass at a local parish. After three days with good friends, I was grateful to have time to pray and was excited for the Eucharist. Yet from the moment the liturgy began, I was totally ill-at-ease because I didn't know what was next to come. The presider informed any "visitors or newcomers" that "we do things differently here." So there was no Gloria because they, as a community, had decided (1) they didn't like the new version and (2) it took too long to recite or pray. The readings and Gospel went off without too many difficulties, but when the homily came...the wheels came off.

The presider gave an entire homily about "these new priests" who were more interested in "lace and liturgy" than in "being" Church. As a new - if not, at 36, especially young - priest, I was appalled. It was a homily born of this guy's own insecurities and its conceit was to galvanize the congregation by creating opposing camps: we enlightened Catholics, those benighted souls. Sown that day were seeds of distrust and antagonism between generations...all in the name of the Gospel which, but for an oblique reference, was not drawn upon at all. 

That homily lasted almost 20 minutes. The Gloria was subtracted because it took too the space was filled with a homily written as it was given. It didn't speak to the heart, it attempted to establish camps and erect barriers. As I've often said, I'm not an ecclesial cheerleader and I am scandalized by the Church's decadence, corruption, and silliness. But homilies that only drive wedges, rather than build bridges, serve not the mission of the Church but offer opportunities for narcissism and preening. 

When we finally arrived at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I knew I had to buckle my seatbelt. It became clear to me that this was the presider's show. For the sake of expedience, I suspect, Eucharistic Prayer II was chosen. I know it basically by heart so I attempted to pray along with him. It should begin:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord, 
The Fount of all holiness.

What we got, however, was something like:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
Because you make us Holy. You make us a holy people
your people
a people gathered at your table as sisters and brothers,
and you are the fount of all holiness.

Well, you can see that (1) innovation does not breed expedience because it is a lot longer and (2) the theology undergirding it is absolutely atrocious. God's not holy because he makes us holy, as if our growth in grace were directly proportional to an increase in God's holiness. 

It only got worse. Throughout, my eyes were doing full revolutions as I found myself totally distracted. Maybe it bespeaks my own intolerance for liturgical adaption, but I actually felt violated because the prayer of the Church had been substituted with a presbyteral performance. 

As the congregation joined hands and prayed, "Our Father, Our Mother, who art in heaven..." I had the dawning realization that this was not a liberal or conservative issue. Lord knows, I've seen priests so fixated on rubrics that no sense of Eucharistic joy or delight was conveyed. But in this moment, I realized that the regularity I had come to expect from the ritual had been cast aside and it was hard for me to find my footing. I found myself longing for liturgical boredom, for the predictability of the liturgical rhythms that enable me to lose myself in the Church's prayer.

I hate to sound like a crank, but I'm expressing what I take to be a fiduciary responsibility as a presider: DO NO HARM. If I go to McDonald's and ask for a hamburger, not only should I expect a hamburger but I should be incensed if I'm given a grilled chicken sandwich because the employee deemed it "right and just." I think it is only fair that someone should approach the liturgy with the expectation that the "menu" will not change, that we will find an environment where we may recharge and reconnect with the Lord. Any McDonald's that consistently served its customers according to the employees' will would eventually lose its franchise license. Analogously, I fail to see how Catholic churches, where deliberate innovation and abuse takes place, differ from congregationalist churches where local custom trumps universal practice.  

To be honest, I'm grateful for liturgical boredom because, as I grow inwardly restive, I feel my heart moving toward the One for whom I long, the One who desires to give Himself to me. Often in my life I can get so busy that I ignore this deep hunger that I need to "get bored" in order to know how much I need the Eucharist. I don't go to Mass to be entertained. I go because I need gradually to open my heart to hear God's Word and to receive the Eucharist, to ask for pardon, for strength, for healing, and to express my gratitude for all the graces in my life. I'm grateful for the boredom that results from predictability because, it in the settled pattern of prayer, I experience the unsettling desire to receive the Lord and to find strength to continue the adventure of discipleship. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Third Scrutiny of the Elect)

Many of you may be familiar with, or might be regular watchers, of the A&E show Hoarders. The show is a documentary series about people who suffer from compulsive hoarding disorder. Each episode allows us to peer into the chaos of a life taken over by the need to acquire more stuff and a refusal to part with any of it. Very often these are men and women like us, who live in nice apartments and houses. But when the cameras bring us inside, when we see the mountains of garbage and filth filling the hallways, animal droppings and vermin running through the house, we feel both disgust and agitation. It’s difficult to understand how anyone could live under these conditions and we are forced to wonder why it is only now with the cameras rolling that this person is receiving help.
Family members are often interviewed as part of the show. They share memories of how their mother or father once made this house into a home, and they share how hoarding has taken over the loved one’s life. Often, it’s hard to miss their anger, resentment, and deep sorrow. Sometimes they blame themselves, or one another; sometimes when they blame each other we hear in their voices an echo of Mary’s frustration with Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” For the family and friends of the hoarders, too, mourn the loss of their mom or dad, sister or brother, who has become quite literally buried alive. What was once a home filled with life and laughter has, tragically, become a tomb. 
         Yet hope is not extinguished. In each episode, a rescue mission is mounted, first, to assist the hoarder in recognizing the toll their actions have taken on themselves and others. Second, even though it is often scary and painful, the hoarder is empowered to let go of the clutter and allow what was once a tomb to be turned back into a home. As mountains of garbage and debris are taken from the house, as hallways are cleared and bedrooms made livable again, the person is gradually restored to a new life.
         Now, our own houses and apartments may not be filled with garbage and clutter. Our hearts, however, frequently tell quite a different story. Piles of resentment, mounds of anger, and the droppings left by jealousy and lust can clog up and take over our spiritual lives. We can hoard so many things in our heart – dead things, rotten things – that it can seem, sometimes, that our very hearts are suffocating. Saint Paul’s words sting us: have I hoarded so much over the years that I have crowded out the Spirit? If I long for new life, if I can see that my heart buckles beneath the enormous weight of grief and hurt and bitterness, how can I let go of these things that bring death in order to make room for the Spirit of Life?
          Our hope, as it was for Ezekiel, is in the power of God who can raise even dry bones to life. Our hope is in Jesus Christ for whom the death of a dear friend can be transformed into a moment of glory for God. Our hope is in the one who proclaims to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the one who weeps before his friend’s tomb before calling Lazarus from the clutches of death, before restoring him to life. Our hope is that not even death can withstand the presence of Jesus, the one who gives each of us here and now a taste of eternal life.
         There is, I believe, a little bit of Lazarus in all of us. And today, Jesus calls each one of us out of our tombs and restores us to life in God’s Spirit. Whenever and wherever any one of us is liberated from the clutches of death and restored to life, we have an opportunity to testify to God’s transforming love. For some of us, grace will release us from the tomb built of bricks of resentment, bitterness, and anger. For others, grace loosens the chains of addiction or the grip of grief or the grasp of shame. Jesus’ command to come out of the tomb, whenever and wherever it is heard, restores us to life.
         Be warned: this gift comes with a cost. As we emerge from our tombs, as we rejoice in God’s mercy, we are called into action. Like those gathered at the tomb, we must untie those who come after us. We have to help them shed the burial bands, the signs of death, so that they can walk freely. Where the death caused by ageism, sexism, or racism holds people in the tomb: we must unbind them. Wherever hunger or injustice prevents others from living the fullness of life: we must unbind them. Wherever sorrow or alienation, prejudice or hatred, alienates and marginalizes another: we must unbind them because we desire for them to know the joy of being a part of the Body of Christ.

          Today, we celebrate the Third Scrutiny of the Elect, a time of prayer and reflection with and for our sisters and brothers who are preparing to for full incorporation into the Body of Christ. Together we pray for the strength to peer into the tombs of our hearts and to uncover whatever is weak, defective, or sinful. We pray for the courage to recognize how we are in need of God’s love and mercy and we invite that mercy to restore us to life. We pray, finally, that God’s grace strengthen all that is upright and good within us and sustain each one of us in our lives as disciples. As companions of Jesus, our friend who calls us from the tomb, let us continue our Lenten pilgrimage toward the Cross where Jesus conquers death and transforms a sign of torture into a beacon of hope guiding our pilgrim journey and encouraging us to unbind others to walk freely and joyfully with the Lord.

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Sojourn

It often happens that I'll be taking a walk, or getting ready for bed, when suddenly I'm struck with the realization that I've not updated my blog in quite some time. Indeed, it's been over two months. After so many years, and such a very long spiritual journey, it seems a shame to cease blogging but it's equally difficult to find the time to do so. It's hard to expend time and energy on the blog when I need to spend time and energy working on other projects: reading and research, homilies, or grading student papers. 

That said, I'm not quite willing to give up blogging. So this morning, as a truly wonderful Christmas vacation comes to an end, let me bring you up to speed on my journeys. 

On December 16th, I took five days vacation with two friends. We made sort of a pact prior to embarking on our holiday that we would not "flaunt" our journey and we have no photographic evidence to give testimony to our adventures. We have but our memories and some really great stories to tell. 

Photo from Don Doll, SJ - taken this summer
I returned on December 21st and charged headlong into Christmas. There were, of course, the requisite parties and gatherings, visiting with friends and family, and frantic attempts to attend to last-minute shopping. This year I had the added delight of celebrating two Masses on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day. Indeed, the time required of me to prepare to preach truly fed my prayer life and enriched my experience of the season. 

The days following Christmas were chaotic for a host of reasons. If I have time later I'll recount my tale of an aborted attempt to fly to Chicago. It's a good story, somewhat funny, but one that would take too long to narrate now. Though, now that I think of it, I might share another, albeit brief, story.

On New Year's Eve, I received a request to do an anointing of a dying woman. I set out into the cold and drove out to her house. The horror began before I entered the house when I noticed that the porch was "blocked" with a large plywood barricade behind which roamed a legion of cats. Feces covered the porch floor and after I made my way into the house, I was led to the woman in need of anointing. Cats abounded even within the house and the upholstery was covered in what seemed like a good inch of cat fur. Now, as I learned recently, I'm crazy allergic to cats. I also had forgotten to pack my allergy medicine, so I reckon I was particularly susceptible. So there I am, surrounded by a phalanx of cats, and my allergies kick into high gear. My eyes began to water, my throat started to close, and my nose turned into a snot geyser. 

Well, any other family would have realized that I was having a pretty awful allergic reaction. This family took it, however, as a sign of empathy and were touched by my emotional response to this woman's plight. In the history of anointing, I can assure you, this had to have been the fastest and I said a prayer after I departed that if I had forgotten anything at all, the Almighty One would fill in the gaps because staying there any longer would have killed me. 

For the last twelve days, I've been working in my home parish (St Brendan's). Again, wholly uneventful except for the 11:30 Mass when a woman basically keeled over in the middle of my homily. I continued preaching, so as not to draw too much attention to the situation (figuring she had fainted on account of my beautiful words) BUT when they brought the AED machine out to her, I knew I had to cease preaching. Thanks to the heroic efforts of those around her, she made it to the hospital and is currently on the mend.

Lesson: don't ever tell a homilist to "knock 'em dead."

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to preach a Mass for the Year of Mercy at my alma mater, Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland. Drawing on the Gospel of the Man with the Withered Hand, I suggested that mercy begins when we acknowledge that something, or someone, is missing. Mercy is not something one has so much as it is a way of seeing, a way of recognizing who is missing and working to restore those who are absent to place they belong. That, at least, was the gist of it in my mind...what 1500 boys got from it is, well, another story!

So this morning I'm just preparing for a flight to Boston and then, a few hours later, a flight to Milwaukee where I'm playing a feis. Hard to believe that I left Boston on December 16th and now my month-long journey is coming to a close. That said, it's been a brilliant and grace-filled time and I'm very excited to return to my final semester of coursework and to prepare for where the Spirit will lead!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame