Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Empty Ritual or Breath of Life?

This past weekend Pam and I were in St. Louis for a conference. Early Saturday morning we walked from the conference hotel to the St. Louis cathedral that stands next to the St. Louis arch.

It was a weekday Mass attended by only several dozen of those in the downtown area, probably to work on the weekend. Like most weekday Masses it was short and succinct. And like most succinct observances there would be reason for a non-Catholic visitor to marginalize the service as perfunctory and empty ritual, as if those of us there were automatically going through the motions. Such criticism from non-Catholics (and I was guilty of this as a Protestant years ago) seem justified. Many times I have criticized Catholics for going through the motions without the right disposition of heart. The catechism, indeed, says that without the right disposition of heart, the sacraments lose part of their effect. Christian faith, after all, is not only God's work, but man's work, too. We have free will and we must exercise it to find salvation.

Yet, there is a mysteriousness about life that does not all depend on our disposition or our conscious free will. That "mysteriousness" can be referred to as "natural grace." This is not what the Church refers to as "grace," "supernatural grace," or "habitual grace." These latter terms imply a supernatural quality of goodness that comes to an individual from God that leads toward their salvation. What I mean by natural grace is that goodness of creation and our bodies that leads to life. As I participated in Mass that Saturday morning I was struck by how the Mass, like many other rituals in Catholicism, can be so severely misunderstood. (Perhaps because they are so affective and effective as stalwarts of Christianity the evil one finds ways to put questions in the minds of others of their goodness.) Countering that line of criticism, here are the three things that came to mind as I sat in the oldest U.S. cathedral West of the Mississippi.

1. Ritual, to be effective and life-giving, does not have to be a conscious effort. Although, the more conscious effort we put into it, the more effective and life-giving it will become. During Mass, the allegory that was brought to mind was breathing. We do not think about taking a breath. It is an automatic, unconscious mechanism that if it did not occur we would cease to live. The Mass is like the Church breathing. Although I think that to most priests and participants it is neither automatic nor passe (see point 3). But even if it was passe, grace would still flow through the celebration of the Word ("My Word does not return to be void," says God), and through the prayers, and the remembrance of Christ's death and resurrection in communion. That the Mass is celebrated nearly EVERY day of the year, in EVERY parish across the world, results in millions of "breaths" of Christians each day. The average human takes in a breath about 28,000 times a day. There are over 400,000 priests worldwide that celebrate Mass every day  -- some do so alone, most do so in community with other believers. Whether done without thought (hard to do) or with forethought, that is a lot of breaths that keeps the church alive.

St. Louis Cathedral Inside following Mass
2. But it is impossible to participate in any ritual without willful and intentional forethought and purpose. Walking back to the hotel from the St. Louis Cathedral that morning I began to list all the conscious and willful decisions I had made to get to Mass, assuming (falsely) that I had done nothing but sit empty-minded on the pew during the service. First, when Pam said to me (as I laid in bed), "We could make it to the 7:30 AM Mass at the Cathedral," I immediately got out of bed, saying, "Let's do it." Second, I got dressed. Third, we left the hotel and walked, taking hundreds of purposeful steps. Fourth we came into the Cathedral building, climbed the stairs, opened the door, and genuflected toward the tabernacle. Fifth, we sat in reverence and awe and prayed for God to be with us.  In other words, I could not have even gotten to Mass without a long series of macro and micro decisions to get me there. That is hardly an empty effort, regardless of how passe or quick the Mass celebration was. And then, during Mass, even if my mind was wandering (which it wasn't) it would be hard to stand-up, sit-down, kneel, walk to the priest, take communion, etc. et al without consciously being involved. I suppose one reason we stand-up, sit-down, kneel, walk, verbally respond, and bow, so much in Mass is to be sure we're paying attention. It's hard to sleep through a Mass, as my father-in-law sleeps through most Protestant Church sermons.

3. I was again reminded of the fallacious criticism by non-Catholics (especially evangelicals) that Catholics go through "vain repetitions" in their observance of their faith. That morning I thought, "Should we consider breathing and walking as vain repetitions?"  Catholic critics make the mistake of thinking of "repetitions" as being wrong, when they should concentrate instead on the "vain." Certainly Christ did not fault the widow who badgered the king for his favor. Christ said that if we besiege the thrown of God he will likewise give us what we ask for... even if it's not what we need. But the real fallacy of this protesting criticism is that the criticizer cannot read the individual's mind.  The critic will see and hear me saying a Rosary, and it sounds painfully repetitive. But what is seen and heard is only a small portion of what's occurring in the spiritual realm. What is seen and heard is simply a pacing mechanism that is repeated almost automatically (and that's not all bad) while the mind and spirit contemplate one of the 20 mysteries of Christ. We put ourselves (spiritually and mentally) in a Biblical event and try to imagine what we might learn about one of 20 virtues associated with the mysteries. Likewise during Mass, a skeptic would see me staring forward or downward for most of the Mass and could easily conclude that I was in a canonical state, my mind dulled over and inactive. But just the opposite is true. At least for me. Does the mind wander to non-spiritual things and the business of the day ahead. Sure. But a moment later I have to stand up, and involve all six of my sense in taking communion. That is sure to change a few things.

Yes, the Mass is like breathing. We need to do it everyday.

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