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. 

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