Some thoughts about the Mass

Keep on the sunny side: I started attending Mass on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. This wasn’t entirely intentional: even after signing up for RCIA, I had a strange compulsion to avoid church, as if even seeing the Eucharist would cause me to turn into a pillar of salt. But eventually the start of both the RCIA classes and the new school year rolled around. And so I might as well get started on the churchgoing, and went to mass the Sunday before my classes started – which was 9/11. But there is a peculiar symmetry to it: 9/11 violently kicked off and set the tone for the frightening decade I grew up in. So it seems appropriate that I inaugurated the next ten years with a glimpse of the healing to come rather than by dwelling on the past.

Wherein I bandy words like ‘interiority’: It was also a bit of a landmark in terms of stepping outside of my own head with the whole Christianity thing. Since I’m a bookish, introverted person who has had little contact with actual Christian communities, my own relation to Christianity for quite a while was purely an interior, Protestant-esque sort of attempting to secure some sort of a personal connection to the divine, with any mediation being done by books. Now, while interiority is always a good thing, relying entirely on it has its problems: your faith becomes a personal philosophy, an idea, and hence to that extent constrained by the limits of your own intellectual resources. It’s difficult to take it beyond yourself. But having an exteriorized ritual like the mass makes it something you can be ‘in’ rather than something you just hold in your mind. It steps beyond being a purely subjective relation towards being an objective thing that is bigger than you. Things that are real are more real, more rich than any of our ideas about them, and things like the Mass help to keep the distinction between our ideas about Christianity and Christianity itself. But, mind you, without dissolving subjectivity/interiority into the objective/exterior.

Liturgy Wars: My entry into the Catechumenate coincided with the implementation of the new English translation of the Mass. This has been, to put it mildly, a point of some contention and controversy. Depending on who you talk to, the new translation either marks the end of some sort of collective, 40 year penance on the part of English speaking Catholics, or is otherwise itself a form of punishment. At the risk of sticking my arrogant, uninformed nose between duelling swords, I will venture a couple of half-formed thoughts about it: the new translation is certainly more formal, and thus clashes against the sort of language that feels natural to us these days. And we have a rightful mistrust of that sort of language, because using it often casts a veneer over corruption and gives a silver lining of glory to things and people who probably don’t deserve it. We find those rambling dedications at the beginning of 16th-18th century books to be excessive and pretentious and would roll our eyes if we found a modern author dedicating his book to his local senator in that fashion.

Nevertheless, the reason for why we feel that such language in politics and everyday life is excessive and perverse is not the language itself, but rather the misuse of it – it’s being directed towards things that don’t deserve it. But that tends to calcify into a mistrust towards the language itself, when really we should be reserving it for the One who really does deserve to be approached as a King. The cynicism and mistrust of authority that keeps the abuse of power at bay in our political and educational institutions etc. shouldn’t be allowed to seep into our worship; rather it should prevent that worship from being turned towards something that is less worthy. Plainness is not an uncovering but rather is itself a necessary covering that we have adopted. If, as C.S. Lewis colourfully put it, going to church is “like taking off our clothes”, then we need not be so prudish in the mass.[1]

[1] Lewis, C.S. “Membership”. The Weight of Glory. New York: HarperCollins, 1976. P. 171. Lewis here makes an analogous point about democracy, to which I am very much indebted in giving shape to my thoughts on the matter.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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