This amazement should always fill the Church assembled for the celebration of the Eucharist. But in a special way it should fill the minister of the Eucharist. For it is he who, by the authority given him in the sacrament of priestly ordination, effects the consecration. It is he who says with the power coming to him from Christ in the Upper Room: “This is my body which will be given up for you This is the cup of my blood, poured out for you…”. The priest says these words, or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in his priesthood. — St. John Paul II
I recently taught a course on the liturgy to seminarians. The course explores the theological and spiritual depths of the liturgy to better enable these future celebrants to personally enter more fully into each celebration in a life-transforming way. The hope is that a fuller personal engagement with the mystery of the liturgy will make them more effective mystagogues, i.e. ready to lead the faithful into those same deep mysteries.
One day I invited a priest to come and speak about his own experience of celebrating the Mass. I asked him to give them advice, based on his personal experience, on how to deal with the distractions and obstacles that can prevent them from experiencing a fruitful celebration. Not being a priest, I needed the view of an insider. As I listened to him, I thought of the immense privilege I have to be such a trusted part of this work of forming priests. Mind blowing!
Among many practical points, he shared with the men a struggle I’d never considered before, He called it “teetering between ecstasy and dullness.” There is, he said, as with all things in life that are sacred, the danger of a routine of daily repetition which can lull you into a dull comfort zone. “But,” he continued, “there are these occasional lightning bolt moments that leave you a bit startled. That knock you off balance. While routine can breed contempt, the bolts threaten you with getting lost in the Rite.” They are never predictable, he said, and are mostly about some new awareness of Christ is acting in you. “There are these moments that come along when you are totally overwhelmed by this very real sense that you’ve become Christ’s ‘I’, acting in the first person with Him. Christ and I are one ‘I’ in the Consecration, that totally blows my mind. It’s almost too much to bear. And then there’s other times, when I’m asking the Father to send the Spirit down on the gifts of bread and wine, that I become really aware that I am calling Him down by Christ’s authority. He comes. That’s terrifying.”
The key, he told the seminarians, is not allow these two to become polar opposite experiences, but to allow one to influence the other. Let the dull moments get burnished by the startling ones, and let the startling stay anchored in reality by the dull. “This is the flux of life, brothers, so get used to it. But don’t get used to it. It’s a fulcrum full of tugs and pulls that makes for greatness.”
That’s great advice for the spiritual life of any Christian.
He then shared with us a poem called Harvest and Consecration by Elizabeth Jennings. I’d never read it before. He focused on the last line of the poem, saying it best captured his sense of these tensions. I wrote in my notebook at the end of his lecture,
It’s a rare person who loves finding himself caught in uncomfortable spots, who appreciates that the discomforts of being torn between alternating extremes. These, for me, are what make you feel fully human, and so open to the fully divine. Caught between between binaries, or dyads. Here’s where I love to get caught — between evident and hidden, mysterious and mundane, infinite and finite, visible and invisible, power and weakness, transcendent and imminent, routine stability and mystical detonations. It’s easier to remain exuberant there, I guess. Maybe that’s what’s really needed to carry out St. Paul’s impossible command to “Rejoice always” (Phil 4:4).
So let me share with you the Jennings poem. Incidentally, she wrote it for a priest after they’d spoken together at length about the Mass, to help him augment his sense of how its earthy signs and symbols so wonderfully conveyed divine mystery.
May our hearts never be protected against the unpredictable inroads of God.
After the heaped piles and the cornsheaves waiting
to be collected, gathered into barns,
after all fruits have burst their skins, the sating
season cools and turns,
and then I think of something that you said
of when you held the chalice and the bread.
I spoke of Mass and thought of it as close
to how a season feels which stirs and brings
fire to the hearth, food to the hungry house
and strange, uncovered things —
God in a garden then in sheaves of corn
and the white bread a way to be reborn.
I thought of priest as midwife and as mother
feeling the pain, feeling the pleasure too,
all opposites together,
until you said no one could feel such passion
and still preserve the power of consecration.
And it is true. How cool the gold sheaves lie,
rich without need to ask for more
richness. The seed, the simple thing must die
if only to restore
our faith in fruitful, hidden things. I see
the wine and bread protect our ecstasy.