Threatening Mass

Cornsheaves. rackcdn.com

Re-post 2014, amplified

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 in Omaha. 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 in my class 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. Although the seminarians where I work full-time may not realize it, my lay colleagues and I feel insanely blessed to each be a small part of their formation. In fact, I recall once in Des Moines, Iowa an particularly intense sense of this. I was leading a day of recollection for the priests of the Des Moines deanery (itself a terrifying prospect for me!) on St. John Vianney as a model for parish priests. At one point in the morning, as I was speaking, I was unexpectedly overcome by a moment of awe that shook me up. I was commenting on this line from Vianney: “Oh how great is the priest! If he realized what he is, he would die.” Just as I began offering my commentary on its meaning, I felt inside these words ambush me, as if they were from Christ: “They are me for you.”

I stumbled over my words for a moment before I was able to continue. Later I wrote in my journal:

“Me for you” locates priestly identity in the heart of the Eucharist, making them a sacrament of His self-gift: “…this is my Body which will be given up for you…this is the Chalice of my Blood…shed for you and for many…”

Okay, back to my Omaha liturgy class…

Among many other practical points, my guest-speaker priest 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 routine; of daily repetition which can breed complacency and contempt. He continued,

But 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 and are mostly about some new awareness of Christ acting in you. Then there are these moments when you are totally overwhelmed by a very real sense you’ve become Christ’s “I”. Acting in the “first person” with and for Him. Christ and I become “one I” at the Consecration. “My Body” — I am almost afraid to say it at times, it’s so intimate. Totally blows my mind. It’s almost too much to bear and threatens my ability to complete my role.

And then there are other times I’m stunned, like when I’m asking the Father to send the Spirit down on the gifts of bread and wine. I’ll become intensely aware that I’m calling Him down by Christ’s authority. He always comes. That’s terrifying.

Then there are other times when I’m tired, distracted, when I just don’t perceive what I’m doing. That’s totally okay, you can’t always be “on,” it’s not all about your personal experiences. But I do notice that often my lack of attentiveness to the mystery I’m involved in is closely connected to my slacking in my personal prayer that day. Or my lack of preparation before Mass, which is sometimes due to pastoral necessity, other times just my laziness.

The key, he told the seminarians, is not allow these two extremes to become polar opposite experiences. And never to seek out the highs or run from the lows. But to allow one to influence the other. Let the dull moments get kindled by the startling ones, and let the startling ones stay anchored in reality by the duller times. “That’s the flux of life, brothers, so get used to it. But don’t get used to it. Priesthood is 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 him or herself caught in uncomfortable spots, who appreciates that the discomforts of being torn between alternating extremes.

I try.

These swings are what make me feel fully human, more open to the fully divine. Caught between opposites. Most of my personal energy comes from the tensions that emerge between obvious and hidden, exciting and boring, boundless and fenced in, seen and unseen, strength and weakness, transcendence and immanence, static and earthquake. It’s where mystery, left long over fire, remains in a permanent state of what Meister Eckhart called in Latin, ebullitio, “boiling over.” It’s easier to remain exuberant there, I guess. Extremes lack mystery. The middle’s where it’s at. Maybe that’s what’s needed to carry out St. Paul’s impossible command to “rejoice always” (Phil 4:4).

Jennings wrote her poem for a priest, to help him augment his sense of how its lowly earthy signs and symbols masterfully convey 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.

Thank you, dear priest-fathers, for your generous self-gift to Christ for us. May He protect your ecstasy…

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