Today I went over to the Transfiguration Center in West Milton, Ohio, for a talk by Father Tim Schehr on the psalms. Father Schehr teaches Scripture at Mount Saint Mary Seminary of the West and generously gives talks on the Bible all around the diocese. If you see him scheduled--go! (He will be back, next Saturday, in West Milton, for part two.)
Perhaps I will write another post about his observations on the psalms, which I found very helpful, but I wanted to write down some thoughts that sprung out of this session, concerning the liturgy and the Mass.
The occasion of my reflections was a conversation, over lunch, with a gentleman attending the talk, who is almost completely deaf. He relies on an electronic device that, if paired with a proper transmitter, enables him to hear. As it happened, even though he had both devices, when he set the transmitter near me, it didn't seem to work; so, naturally, he did most of the talking--he didn't hear everything I was saying and I didn't want to shout, whereas I understood him just fine (Deo gratias).
We talked about church acoustics and sound systems; he is very interested in how well people can hear the Word of God at Mass; and he has many observations about how poorly that seemingly simple purpose is served. Meanwhile, as he's talking about amplification, I'm thinking somewhat the opposite direction: about the drawbacks of emphasizing amplification as opposed to a church being designed so that it's "alive"--sound carries without additional amplification. That, in turn, raised the question about spoken v. sung word, and who is really speaking to whom.
Well, our conversation touched on that briefly, but then it was time to return to another talk. But I continued to mull this over, especially as I drove home. I'll post my reflections here, but perhaps not in the most artful way:
Q. What is the Mass, in its essence? A. The Mass is essentially offering, gift, oblation. Ergo, all the other things that are included in the Mass, are not the purpose of the Mass, but serve its purpose. Example: we have readings, songs, movement, preaching, and more, in Mass, but these are not the main thing. They serve as part of a great offering.
Q. Who is the principal actor in the Mass? A. God the Trinity, of course; but if we mean, who is the principal earthly actor, then it is the priest: if Mass is essentially offering, he is the one who offers. And when you understand the true nature of the priesthood, then he is both a human actor, but also, mirabile dictu a divine actor, insofar as Christ acts in and through the priest, wretch that he is! The priest is a mediator, a "go between": he represents the people to God and God to his people--at all times in the person of Christ.
These lead to this observation about the "dialogue" or the communication that occurs at Mass. It is not mainly horizontal--people to people--but almost entirely vertical: between God and humanity, heaven and earth. Any "horizontal" communication occurs along the way.
Well, these observations may seem obvious, and yet can we not see how many things can happen at Mass that diverge--or tempt one to diverge--from where we ought to be going?
For example: given the above, what is our fundamental orientation in Mass? It is clearly of humanity toward God. (Hint: this illustrates why the question of where the priest stands and faces at the altar is so very important, and why so many are concerned that the "versus populum" orientation--i.e., the priest facing the people across the altar--is so problematic. For all its advantages, in making his actions at the altar more visible, and being engaging, it also risks expressing a "closed circle." Many think this is a "settled" question, but on the contrary, in years to come, we will see this question revisited, and folks who think they've seen the last of priests and people facing the same direction should prepare themselves to see it again.)
Also, this raises the question about how we emphasize comprehension. I'm not saying comprehension--understanding--are meaningless; I'm asking, how does this, as a good to be served, fit into the overall scheme of things? Or, say it another way: what sort of understanding are we aiming at? I can understand something on the level of abstract reasoning; or I can "get it in my gut." Or I can simply respond to something because it attracts me.
A priest gave a talk at the seminary; I can't recall the overall topic, but along the way, he talked about a conversation he had with students at the Catholic college where he'd been president for a few years. He was explaining why he'd put the kibosh on co-ed dorms, and the students protested, and he was addressing the issues involved.
He said something like this: there are so many levels on which men and women interact, come to know each other, and become intimate. They are different and all important. One of them--so very powerful--is sexuality. It is so attractive, so powerful, for good reason; so we like it and we are drawn to it, again for good reason. This sexual interaction is not bad! It's good; but it has to have its right place, and be entered into in right relation to all the others. But here was the key point: granted that men and women interact on all the different levels, does it make sense to collapse them all together, and have it all focus on the one dimension, the sexual? (Which is, of course, what happens so very often, because this aspect is so powerful and intense?) The priest's point was that he was trying to help the students avoid that pitfall; and he said they hated to admit that he had a point.
Well, I would apply a similar lesson to how we encounter the Mass.
Likewise, we experience the Divine, at Mass, on so many levels. But one that is so attractive, at least to so many of us, is the cognitive--the level of grasping intellectual content, words, ideas, and analyzing and digesting them. But a similar caveat applies here: should we not be wary of collapsing all the different levels together? Because this one very powerful dimension may overwhelm the others, and we miss out of them.
Of course, I'm not saying I don't care if the gentleman, with whom I had a pleasant lunch, hears and understands at Mass; I care very much. Rather, all this is an extended consideration of precisely what that "understanding"--"hearing" really is. What are we "hearing"? Is it simply a cognitive word--a word spoken to be grasped intellectually? Or, is it a sound? A melody? A poem, a rhythm--things that are heard and understood in other ways?
Obviously this all connects to the hot-button discussions we have around liturgy: whether we like or don't like the style or mood of the music; whether we understand what we're hearing, or even saying, because of the style of English, or even more, because it's Latin.
Again, it's not a matter of not caring if people like their experience of Mass, or understand what they hear or speak; but rather, what sort of understanding is called for, and ultimately, what sort of "response" is called for from us. On one level, we care if we and others "like" the Mass; but on another level, doesn't that seem inane? Or put it another way: what sort of "liking" are we talking about. Do I "like" the Paschal Mystery (God became man with the Cross and resurrection in view, that he might transform us by the Spirit to be one with the Trinity in a new form of divine-human life)? Well, I think we'd all feel rather awkward saying we "liked" the Crucifixion; and in other ways, we feel odd even asking the question, "do I like this"--isn't that the wrong question? But, if we must put it that way, well then, a thundering yes: "I like it!"
I'm not sure how to conclude this, these are merely reflections. But I have to confess, as I thought about all this, I was challenged as a preacher. Insofar as the Mass is essentially offering, then the Liturgy of the Word can only make sense as a movement toward that, rather than an end in itself; the same would be true of every spoken word in the Mass--including the homily.
It is far easier, as a preacher, to give a homily that focuses on the Scriptures, or our lives, or the Faith, or on God, etc., but ends up being a kind of "terminal" event, as opposed to what it must be, a transition. We are not at Mass primarily to hear a homily; the homily is important, but it must be a bridge; or, perhaps, an invitation to cross the bridge. The image that came to mind was from Ezekiel 37: the prophet among dry bones, commanded by YHWH "to speak a word that will rouse them."
I say that, as I prepare momentarily to head over to church, first for confessions, then for Mass; and my homily is all prepared: I will be explaining how SCRIP works, as a way to raise money for the school and parish. This is driven by practical necessities. We need a SCRIP program, and I need to get people on board, and that requires explaining it at a time everyone will hear...but what will I say that will rouse people to enter into the heart of the Mass? How do I do both? Sometimes homilies seem very earth-bound, but then so are we.
Well, time to go. Discuss amongst yourselves.