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!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame