Saturday, June 22, 2013

Liturgically Engaged

There's no denying that within the Catholic Church as a whole (and even within some Orthodox Churches) there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the liturgy, particularly the Eucharistic Liturgy (a.k.a. the Mass/Divine Liturgy/Qurbono). In some cases this dissatisfaction, I find, may be ill-founded. Caught up in the trappings of the Liturgy many people complain about choirs that simply can't carry a tune in a bucket, priests whose homilies aren't "good enough" (usually meaning the priest doesn't talk about what they want him to talk about or what they think he ought to talk about), lack of real participation and reverence, etc. Many Roman Catholics see these problems and point to the reforms of Pope Paul VI as the root cause.

In other cases the general dissatisfaction has been based on more legitimate concerns. With the advent of a more widespread use of the vernacular languages in the West we have run into the problem of translation. There is no doubt that there have been a plethora of poor translations of any liturgical Rite. Problems have stemmed from ridiculous paraphrases that are more of the translator's interpretation of the text than an actual translation. We also have been plagued with such silliness as "politically correct" translations and even gender neutral translations. The Romans, Ruthenians, Maronites, and even, to some degree, Ukrainians, Romanians, and Greeks here in the U.S. have had their fair share of struggles with translations.

Poor or banal music seems to be a plague unique to the Roman West, although the Maronites, still clinging to certain of their Latinizations, still have a tendency to borrow the worst of Western hymns for liturgical use (e.g. a couple of Sundays ago my local Maronite parish sang "Gift of Finest Wheat" as a Communion Hymn [insert gagging sound here]). But poorly and improperly trained choirs and cantors are no stranger in the Christian East as well.

But the biggest problem that I've found in our work towards liturgical renewal is not with translations, or banal hymnography, or poor homilies, or anything like that. The biggest problem that I've found is lack of participation, or lack of engagement. Let me explain what I mean and don't mean by this. I certainly don't mean a lack of participation in the sense that everyone comes to the Liturgy and sings all the hymns, says all their parts, performs all the actions assigned to them, etc. These things are certainly important, but in themselves they do not constitute full and active/actual participation. As with all prayer, the heart must be engaged. If the heart is not there, then we can perform the outer trappings of participation until we drop over from exhaustion and hyperventilation, but we are not actually participating.

What I mean by active participation is the "interiorization" of the prayers and movements of the Liturgy so that the Liturgy itself becomes fully our prayer. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger mentions this in his wonderful short book entitled Feast of Faith. The prayer of the Church must become our prayer. We learn prayer from our Mother, the Church. By learning to pray from Her eventually Her words become our words, and Her actions our actions. This is how we enter into the offering of the Church, which is the Body of Christ and hence the offering of Christ Himself to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a retreat given to Ukrainian Catholic seminarians in Washington, D.C., Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. makes a very practical suggestion that I believe could be of benefit to all of us. In order to interiorize the prayer of the Liturgy, we need to perform a Lectio Divina of the Liturgy as a whole, particularly the Eucharistic Liturgy. Lectio Divina as a slow, meditative, and prayerful reading of a spiritual text: i.e. the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers and Saints, or the Liturgy. This prayerful reading is meant to draw us into the heart of the text and ultimately into contemplation, loving communion with the Trinity.

There is actually a systematic form of Lectio Divina. Perhaps it would be best not to describe it as "systematic" so much as a tried-and-true method that has been passed down through the ages. According to the classic text on Lectio Divina, the Ladder of Monks by Guigo II, there are four stages to Lectio: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The first two steps occur almost simultaneously. One reads the text slowly, noticing key words such as action words (verbs) and descriptive words (adjectives), and also taking note of scenes and sayings. From this reading we are left with questions. What does x word mean here? Why would they use that word instead of another? How has that word been used throughout the history and tradition of my particular Church and the universal Church as a whole? Obviously this second "step," meditation, requires a little bit of study. Now, one does not have to get a doctorate in biblical, spiritual, and/or liturgical theology in order to move on from this step of Lectio. We must maintain a spirit of ongoing meditation, education, questioning, searching, seeking answers. Today we have so many resources at our fingertips that there really is no excuse for us not to fully engage meditation on our liturgical and Scriptural texts. There is so much material available for free on the internet that to ignore such a vast resource is plain ridiculous.

Lest our Lectio of the liturgical texts become too cognitive, we must remember that from meditation we have to move on to prayer. Prayer here can take two forms: our private prayer at home, and our actual participation in the liturgical prayer of the Church. In our private prayer at home we take our questions to God, we thank Him for illuminating the texts of the Liturgy for us in a whole new way, we ask that he deepen our understanding (and hence our participation) in the liturgical reality that is played out before us with the celebration of every single Sacrament, and we praise Him for His great plan of salvation that is laid out before us and that we enter into through the liturgical life of the Church. Then it's time for us to actually go to Church in order to enter into that life!

The last step of our Lectio is contemplation. This is a step that cannot be forced, but is a sheer gift of grace. We must simply predispose ourselves to receive this gift, and then wait for it to be given. God draws us up into His inner life. Through the liturgy He allows us glimpses of what is to come. Now, I'm no saint, and I'm certainly not an expert in Lectio or contemplation, but I do know what it's like to be drawn into contemplation because of one word or one action that jumps out at you during the Liturgy. I've been reduced to tears simply because of a word or phrase at the Liturgy. All else disappeared and I lost track of what was happening simply because God allowed this flood of light to fill my soul. It doesn't happen often to me, but it has happened. It's happened to me at the Roman Mass (even prior to the new revised translation), it's happened to me at Byzantine Divine Liturgies (Ruthenian, Ukrainian, and Melkite), it's happened to me at the Maronite Qurbono, and it's happened to me simply by paying attention to the prayers said or sung at the celebration of the Sacraments. I wept at my wedding because of the sheer power of the words being prayed. I've wept at my childrens' initiation into the Church. I've wept simply by listening to the words of the Anaphora/Canon of the Eucharist. These prayers, whether they are traditional, slightly revised, or even newly written, are filled with a great beauty that comes from 2000 years of the Church living the Gospel message of salvation. We ought to listen carefully. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom repeats a call to action that would behoove us to remember: "Wisdom! Be attentive!." Are you paying attention? Are you listening? Are you engaged? Once you are you will certainly be consumed by heaven!

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