Vol. XIX, No. 4
by Thomas Howard
To be Catholic is to have a profoundly eucharistic notion of what the activity of worship is. To be sure, worship may go up to the Most High in various fashions: Saint Francis’s gladsome biddings to sun and moon and fire and water to praise God; the gigantic music of J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass; the spontaneous exclamation “Praise Jesus!”; the waving of charismatics’ arms; the stillness in the choir of an abbey church; Southern Baptists singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; or the murmur arising from the simultaneous prayers offered by Pentecostalists kneeling at their pews.
To be Christian at all is to recognize, and extol, this great panoply of adoration with which all creation decks itself. It is to hear the praises of God in the soughing of the west wind, the soft fall of surf on pebbles, and the song of the winter wren, the hermit thrush, or the white-throated sparrow and even in the scream of jays and the cackle of crows.
But the still point at the center of it all, for a Catholic, is the Eucharist. The Mass. For it is here that the entire chorus is gathered and brought to a point, the point, that is, at which we (men and women, uniquely made “in the image of God”) stand before the Most High as speaking for the whole creation. It is in our explicit, conscious, intelligent, and voluntary offering of the oblation of worship that the sea, the wind, and the thrushes find the exactness adumbrated in their own offerings. Catholics believe that God gave to Adam and Eve, in some deeply mysterious sense, the “vicariate,” so to speak, over the creation: that they were to “stand for” the rest of creation before God and to speak, actually, to God for all creatures, with the godlike articulateness with which we alone are crowned. All of this implies that we are to be kind and good stewards of this creation and not plunder or rifle or rape.
But of course that is exactly what we have done, plunging the whole world into tragedy and ruin, by our own perfidious act when we stretched out our hands in Eden to seize a prerogative not vouchsafed to us, who are creatures. This act wrecked all and opened the gates of hell, from which sin, sorrow, and death rushed upon us.
The chorus of worship was suddenly drowned in sadness. This sadness is what we hear in the sighs of the oppressed and the poor, the whimpering of wounded animals and birds, the groans of the sick, and the cries from the depths of our own disfranchised hearts. Kyrie eleison. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis! we cry.
What is that? Lord, have mercy. O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us!
How did we come to this from Eden? Alas, our own disobedience was our undoing, and the undoing of the whole creation. We, not the wind and sea and birds, are the villains. They have received their ruin from us. So it had to be one of us who restored the fabric. But who? Adam? No, he was the culprit and, in him, I. Then who will go for us? Who is worthy?
Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.
Ah. The Savior. The Second Adam. The Lamb of God, offering Himself to the Father in our behalf, in a sacrifice that redeems Adam and Eve, and you and me, and the whole creation stricken with our sin. The only way for the great chorus of adoration to be restored is through this offering. All praise flows now through this mystery — the mystery of the self-offering of the Son of God, unfurled at the table in the Upper Room and played out at Golgotha the next day.
There is no disjuncture in the Catholic mind between sacrifice and praise. They are not two separate activities, as though sacrifice were the grim part and praise the happy part. No. All true praise arises from sacrifice of some sort from the “offering up” of what I have, “I” being the wind or the sea or the thrush or the man. It is I, bringing what I can offer and presenting it to the Giver. If He has given me a song, as He has the hermit thrush, then that is what I bring. If He has given me proud waves and foam and roaring, then that is what I bring. If He has given me might and wisdom and love, then that is what I, the seraph, offer.
But if He has made me in His own image, crowned me with a dignity belonging alone to the race of man, and put into my hands the awful mystery of free will, then the offering I bring is a unique one.
But what is this offering to be? The words of my mouth, to be sure. The works of my hands, to be sure. But all of that must be caught up and ratified in the offering — the “sacrifice” — of myself. Self-offering. Self-donation. There is where the mystery of true praise lies.
By this time we seem to find ourselves in a region where sacrifice and praise and love itself run together (for is not love the name given to total self-donation in behalf of the other?).
To be Catholic is to believe that this region is, lo and behold, the Kingdom of Heaven; and that the Church is the “sacrament” of that Kingdom here on earth for as long as history lasts; and that the Church’s quintessentially characteristic activity for as long as history lasts is to offer herself, day by day, in union with the One Offering that could save us, to the Father, from whom all self-donation proceeds. For the Father is One God with the Son and Holy Spirit, and in these Three, who are One, we discover the fountainhead of all self-donation, which spills over in its plenitude and sparkles all across the whole creation.
The place, or the act, rather, where all of this is made present to us mortals is the Mass. The Mass is the event in which we see most exactly, most clearly, and most plenteously the entire mystery of self-donation. God “gave” Himself to us in creation, when He crowned us with His own image. He gave Himself to us in all of His patience and forbearance with us through the aeons between Eden and Nazareth — in sending us Moses and the prophets and the law — even in supplying to us the very lambs and goats we needed for our offerings to Him. But at Nazareth, then at Bethlehem, and then at Cana and Bethsaida and Capernaum, and finally at Jerusalem, He disclosed the true nature of this self-giving: in Jesus, His only begotten Son, who became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross, He gave Himself to the uttermost.
The mystery staggers us. It cannot be penetrated. It is inexhaustible. This is why no Catholic is troubled by what may look to outsiders as the unremitting repetition of the Mass: millions of Masses, everywhere, century after century, over and over and over. Is it not a treadmill? What about “vain repetition” such as marks heathendom and against which our Lord Himself warns us?
The Mass is very far from being the mere repetition of something. Rather, in its action it takes us mortals across the threshold that lies between time and eternity and locates us in that Presence where there is no time and, hence, no repetition. In this Presence (it is called eternity), that which is true appears in its perfection. There is neither before nor after. (We might try the word “perpetuity” here, except that, like all human vocabulary, it too fails in these precincts, tied as it is to the notion of “on and on and on.”) There is only Actuality, we might say. That which “was” ever true “is always” true: we even have to acknowledge with quotation marks our awareness that the verb to be itself is insufficient for the mystery.
This difficulty of locating just where in time we are in the Mass suggests at least one aspect of the mystery that cloaks Calvary and the Incarnation itself. Jesus Christ was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” and yet this was not played out in our earthly time “until” He suffered sub Pontio Pilato. But Christians, of all people, insist upon the reality of time, with its before and after. We are not transcendentalists, or even Platonists, who suspect that the terms of our mortal existence are somehow illusionary. Time is a component of the creation and, hence, real. Solid, we might even venture. This is why that prepositional phrase sub Pontio Pilato is so crucial in the Creed. The events that constitute the Gospel do not exist in some floating mode, attached only very ambiguously to our own real history. (To read many twentieth-century theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, one would be led to suppose that the events to which the kerygma — the preaching — of the early Church testified cannot quite be located on the same screen with the battles of Marathon, Malplaquet, or Omaha Beach.) No, says the Catholic Church: Jesus Christ, the “Second Adam,” the Savior, God with us, was crucified by the Romans, and this miserable miscarriage of justice, which can be dated and located, was at the same time the eternal self-oblation of the Son to the Father in behalf of us sinners (including me and the Romans).
It is a mystery. Indeed, says the Church — and it is this very mystery into which we are drawn in the Mass. When Catholics go to church they are doing something they did yesterday, or last week, and doing it “again.” But the “again” applies only to them, not to the mystery that is always taking place in the heavenly Mysteries, where our Great High Priest offers Himself at the heavenly altar (the whole epistle of the Hebrews is about this).
The Mass unites us with this offering. It is we who go and come. It is we who experience it as “again and again.” The mystery is present. It is “always” present (we have to reach for an adverb of time), and to go to Mass is to return to the center. It is to corral the clutter of ourselves and our time and our distractions and perplexities and joys and sufferings and to bring them to the still point of the turning world.
To this extent, the Mass is very much like the events of the Gospel itself. That is, in those events we saw eternal mysteries appearing veiled under the inauspicious terms, not only of our world, but of the most unlikely crannies of our world. Nazareth: the ultimate small town. A stable: dung and straw for the child born to the purple. Crucifixion: the worst that our malice could arrange. And yet in all of these the eye of faith sees glory. It finds at these points what T.S. Eliot called “the point of intersection of the timeless with time.”
Likewise with the Mass. To all intents and purposes, it is 8:00 am on Tuesday, June 13, A.D. 304, or A.D. 1995, in Lyons or Peoria. But we have stepped, the way the shepherds did, into the precincts of the eternal. No straw, no dung, no braying ass, that does not belong here. Belong here? Surely the mystery is to be perceived in spite of all that noisome stuff?
No. Belongs here. This is where, and how, the Most High prepared and set the scene for His advent. Let the straw stay; let the straw be acclaimed even, since in it all straw is touched with the dignity of proffering something to the Most High. If the asses are what they truly are, made by this Most High then their very dung testifies to the odd and cyclic harmony that characterizes this creation. The Incarnate One will not draw fastidious skirts away from this that marks His beloved asses. No: He will be found, quite helpless, right here.
For this reason Catholics are not primarily concerned with the elegance of the setting for the Mass. Oh, God be thanked (they will admit) for great architecture, which is itself our mortal offering ad maiorem Dei gloriam. What could be more appropriate than the purity of the basilica, the immense height of the gothic, the ebullience of the baroque, or the modesty of Spanish adobe? Let us deck the holy place thus. Yes. But we all know that God did not shun a stable for farm beasts. Hence He may be found, in His sacramental presence, in all sorts of structures, from the Gesu in Rome to a prefabricated, jerry-built hall on Long Island. Whether it is marble, ceramic tile, linoleum, or straw underfoot is a matter of only the smallest significance (it is not significant at all to Him: it is we who care and who do well, in fact, to offer the best that we can to Him: if we can manage ceramic tile, so be it: if mud is the best we have, so be it).
And it is thus with everything with which we deck the Mass. Vestments: burlap or polyester will do as well as damask, if that is what we can manage. Decor: caramel and pink and mint green are possible colors for the plaster, as well as white. God will not carp. Music: chant and the polyphony of Allegri would seem to stand at a remote pole from some of the candied ditties heard now and again at a Mass. But a strange alchemy goes to work on the strains of our mortal music as it ascends to the Throne, and if it has been offered with humility, integrity, and whole- heartedness, it will be received by the One on the Throne as pure and just.
There is a separate topic in all of this, namely, the extent to which we mortals are, or are not, obliged somehow to welcome instruction in these matters and to test our local, tribal “taste” by the wisdom of history and the Church. We might discover, for example, that Gregorian chant, while it may not at all appeal to us at first, does have a unique capacity to bear us aloft, in a way not quite true of our favorite ditties. Or again, if we are humble enough to inquire into architectural matters, we may find our hasty local inclinations chastened and instructed by history and by the Church’s strange and rich interaction with history. But none of this alters in the smallest degree the reality of what Catholics seek when they come to church.
“What Catholics seek when they come to church.” That has, of course, been the topic occupying us. But it may be worth pressing home a point that often troubles observers of Catholic worship and that certainly rises in the consciousness of Christians coming to the Mass having been nurtured in denominations where hearty fellowship and humming activity are the hallmarks of Sunday morning at church. It can be the case (not always: thousands of Catholic parishes are as convivial as the most tumultuous evangelical parish) — it can be the case, however, that one comes to Mass from the happy precincts of Evangelicalism, say, and goes away at the end with great sadness. “But I miss the fellowship!” he might say. “I didn’t sense the eager atmosphere of glad attention and participation I knew in my former church.”
This response from a newcomer touches on a matter very near the center of the mystery brooding over Christian worship. When a Roman Catholic “goes to church,” he sees himself as joining himself to something that is already going on. He sets aside both the hurly-burly of his domestic or professional situation and any preoccupation he may have with such patently excellent concerns as fellowship or chat or even a certain vitality in the air. He has been summoned to the unum necessarium. He here takes his place — literally, he believes — with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who incessabili laud and magnify the Holy Name of the Most High, as the Te Deum puts it. This is the Mass, he says to himself. This is the eucharistic mystery, in which there is presented, and enacted, everything that has flowed from the heart of the Father in our creation and redemption. There is no possible exhausting of this. Hence in this liturgy — this “work of the people” — I return to this center, descrying ever anew the amplitude of the Divine Love incarnate for us men and for our salvation in Jesus Christ, whose Table we now approach.
To speak of things in this way is to speak truthfully of what is (or should be) in the mind of every Catholic as he comes to church. But it is to leave unsaid a major aspect of what is at work here, namely, that our Catholic comes, not only to join himself to the heavenly worship, but also to join himself to fellow believers who have also come.
Worship is not a solitary activity. (It may be, of course: Antony in his cell in Egypt, or I as I walk my dog, or the old woman kneeling at the shrine over there.) Worship is most characteristically a corporate thing. It is what the whole creation does, of course, with stars and winds and marmosets all bringing their peculiar oblations. And it is what the great company, to which we, the Church, have been united in Christ, does. In the Latin Mass this company is spelled out for the ears of the faithful in the first eucharistic prayer: the Virgin Mary, Genetrix Dei, and then the blessed apostles and martyrs, Petri et Pauli … Lini, Cleti, Clementis … Cosmae et Damiani … and all the saints, with all the angelic hosts. And this company is not primarily chatting and greeting each other. The whole throng faces in one direction, like the congregation in the abbey when the monarch is crowned, or the multitude at Golgotha where that Man is being crucified. Our “togetherness” does not at this point take the form of demonstrative friendliness to each other. Rather, we are united, each to each, at a level infinitely deeper than chat. We face, and adore together, the Mysterium Tremendium.
We have fugitive glimpses of what it is like in Scripture. Isaiah had a fleeting view of it and was undone. Saint John the Divine found himself at a point when “there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour.” Who will so much as shift his feet here?
It is this vision that arches over the Mass. The faithful have come together here, as is dignum et justum. But the quality of being together has now been mantled with a mantle heavier than conviviality. This mantle, we might venture, partakes of the same flesh the Savior wore in His Incarnation. We are His Body.
What can this mean? It is mystery, not to be dissipated by helpful talk of “body” suggesting mere togetherness, as in a metaphor. We have risen above the reach of metaphor here, to the realm of sacrament, where metaphor finally drops away, and meaning touches the actuality that the metaphor hints. In these precincts bread is (not recalls) the Sacred Body. Wine is (not signifies) the Precious Blood. The congregatio is the body of which Jesus Christ is the Head. Oh, to be sure, like the bread that still lies there with all the modest properties of a baked wafer of wheat, we are still Tom, Dick, and Harry. But we are Tom, Dick, and Harry born anew and constituting the Body of Christ in a way not to be fully grasped until we finally break through this veil of time.
It is awe-ful. But it is true. Hence, when a Catholic comes to church, he does well to remind himself of this and to dispose himself accordingly. And for the new Catholic, wistful over all the happy tokens of togetherness he knew in his former church, it is a daunting but joyous summons “farther up and farther in,” where congregatio takes on immense weight and splendor.1
1 What, then, are we to gather from the restlessness, scuffling, crying of babies, and coming and going that mark many a Catholic Mass? Has everyone lost sight utterly of the sacred mysterious that loom here?
No doubt many have done just that. We mortals are a scatterbrained lot, and even when the Messiah is feeding us miraculously by Galilee, we are likely to be found blowing our noses, chasing after our tots, nipping into the bushes to relieve ourselves, or struggling to help our neighbor adjust his coat. We do not do well when it comes to occasions. Unimportant, and even frivolous, matters distract us.
The Most High is aware of this. He made us. Hence He is infinitely patient with our efforts, intermittent and halfhearted though they may be, to present ourselves before Him. The reality at work in the occasion remains: the Infant God is still there in the manger, notwithstanding the braying of asses to the contrary. The loaves and fishes are still purveyed. The Mass still goes on.
For the man or woman who wishes most earnestly to remain collected and focused in the presence of the mysteries, things may be trying indeed. But grace, and the self-discipline that cooperates with grace, can assist us here.
Probably Saint Francis was as happily lost in the liturgy with great tumult and disorder all about as he was in the cool hush when only the brothers were celebrating. Very few of us can even imagine this peaceful state of mind. Distraction, irritation, and even fury beleaguer us. But we are summoned, alas, to answer for ourselves here. If no practical arrangements can be made to alleviate the chaotic situation, and the pastor seems as oblivious to it all as do the other communicants, then indeed one has one’s work cut out, so to speak. The way of Charity opens before us.
What does Charity do in such havoc? I myself would have to be a wholly different person to be able to remain collected and devout here, I protest. Ah, that is what I am summoned to: to become a wholly different person, finally. But at this point the writer must take his own place at the very tag end of the pupils queuing up for this most difficult lesson.
Thomas Howard, a prolific author and noted expert on C.S. Lewis, taught English at Gordon College, an Evangelical school, before he entered the Catholic Church in 1985. From 1985-99 he was professor of English at St. John’s Seminary College of the archdiocese of Boston. The foregoing article is a chapter from On Being Catholic, his first major book following his entry into the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 1997). The penetrating insights in this book are meditative and inspirational, and are as relevant today as when they were first written. Chapter 5, “Eucharist,” appears here with permission. Among his many other works are Lead, Kindly Light, and The Night is Far Spent (Ignatius Press).