Letter to Harold “Hoot” and Annie Gibson cont. part 21
IT’S ME, O LORD, STANDING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER
You have doubtlessly heard the saying that growing old is not for the timid. As I plunge into senescence (old age-hood) I can never remember whom I’ve told what. I’m sure you have heard me tell this story. One Sunday, many years ago, when I was still young and the Tridentine Mass was a rare thing, I felt much in the need of prayer. I had heard there was a Tridentine High Mass downtown and I thought that was just what I needed, the Mass of my youth with a glorious choir and clouds of incense. So, having finished my last Sunday Mass at 12:15, and driving in my accustomed manner (bat out of somewhere not good), I arrived 10 minutes late for the 12:30 PM Solemn High Mass at the Basilica of St. Antica. It was not High, nor was it Solemn! Some old fossil was mumbling into a wall in a language I could have understood, had I been able to hear him! No choirs, no incense, no stirring sermon. Just a quick Mass on a hot afternoon.
I said to the Lord, “I am not having a very good experience of prayer, here, don’t ya know!”
And the little inner voice that is sometimes the Holy Spirit said, “Oh, you came for an experience? I thought you came to worship Me.”
Touché! At which point, I started to worship, at which point I had an experience. I realized that the old priest at the altar was not responsible for my experience, and that I, as a congregant, was not required to have an experience. I was there to bow before the Lord and to offer Him my life. Those 20 minutes changed my life.
Some “liturgists” or “celebrants” or “presiders” or whatever we are calling them this month, think that their job is to provide an experience. Asked, they would deny this, but it is nonetheless true. We roll our eyes and sneer at “bad liturgy.” What, pray tell, is bad liturgy? Is it a Mass lacking the latest fashion, be it liturgical dance, or incense in Mexican bean pots? A Mass, perhaps, at which the music is poorly performed, or the lighting is off or the acoustics are bad? Is it a bad liturgy in which the celebrant is cross-eyed, or has a distracting mannerism and does not harmonize with the edifice? I remember a blushing bride who refused to allow a Vietnamese priest to celebrate her wedding Mass. She thought his heavy accent would ruin the wedding video. It mattered not that he was a living saint who had suffered in a concentration camp for his faith. It would have been bad liturgy. She was not interested in a Sacrament. She was interested in an inspiring photo-op.
God ceased to be worshiped when Luther decided that Mass is not a sacrifice, and taught that it was only a consolation and instruction. Instruction and consolation quickly become entertainment. The goal of the presider then becomes to create an experience. For us moderns, only experience is real. It’s only real if I feel it, thus the most important thing I can do at church is to feel something, and the most important thing I can do as a pastor is to help my parishioners to “really feel it.” The great irony is that my attempt to create an experience militates against authentic experience. It is something manufactured. It is a poison that blocks and excludes nourishment. That’s how poison works. It takes the place of something the organism needs. Carbon monoxide substitutes for oxygen. When the real thing comes along, the body rejects it because the need has been filled. The body suffocates without ever feeling short of breath.
To be human is to worship. The ability to worship more than anything else sets us apart form all other beings. To know how small we are and that an infinite Creator loves us and made us for Himself. To worship is to bow down, to prostrate oneself in both Greek and Hebrew (shachah and proskynein respectively). Why bow down? To bow down, to prostrate oneself makes one absolutely vulnerable. The police know this. “Get out of the car, lie flat on the ground and put your hands where can I see them.” (That is not worship per se, because at that moment I doubt that the officer loves us, no matter how friendly he or she may be.) That is what’s behind all the folding and raising of hands, kneeling, genuflecting etc. It is about smallness and vulnerability.
Luther exchanged the congregant for God as the object of worship when he taught that Mass is not a sacrifice. Worship became entertainment, and exceptional Americans, who kneel to no one, took up the idea with enthusiasm and have foisted it on the whole world. Where worship ends, humanity dies, and we see a culture dying.
I have no objection to Mass facing the people, it’s just that it only works for a very holy priest and a very holy congregation. It is so tempting to play to the audience when being stared at by a thousand eyes. Most priests reading this must be insulted that I even imply that this might be true of them.
"But , Father, (and I include myself) if it is true that your religion is what you do when no one else is looking, is your celebration of the Mass an act of faith, or just an act? You may think that all your emoting is aimed at the Lord, but is that the way you say Mass when you are all by yourself, if you bother to say Mass when you are all by yourself?"
Mass facing the congregation, as I said is just fine for a very holy priest. It is also a swell place for a raging narcissist. (Though I have met some narcissists who do just fine with the glitz and glitter of the old Mass). Let us remember that the word hypocrite is just the common Greek word for stage actor. I suppose that my whole theme can be summed up simply. Stop the show and return to the sacrifice.
"So, Rev. Know it all, what would you do to make everything alright?"
That will have to wait for next week.
NEXT WEEK: CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?