What is this “Personal Relationship with Jesus” Business?

Twice in the past month men I know, good solid Catholic men who run circles around me in the holiness business, have mentioned in passing that they’re not so sure about this “Personal Relationship with Jesus” stuff.  Larry Peterson did it here, and Tom McDonald did it here.  Both articles are worth reading on their own merits.  These are not wishy-washy lukewarm Catholics.  These are men who have counted the cost of discipleship and have stepped up to pay it.

Both articles ran on Aleteia (which site I recommend — loads of good stuff), where Judy Landrieu Klein answered the question back in April with an unequivocal Yes: A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is indeed an authentically Catholic concept.

Because the question is still being asked, I’d like to answer it as well.

File:Christ the Pantocrator by Jovan Zograf (1384).jpg
By Metropolitan Jovan Zograf [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What kind of relationship do you have with a person?

To be human is to have a relationship of some nature with three divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  One God, three Persons in God.

You might have an antagonistic relationship, a numb relationship, or a sorely neglected relationship, but you’ve got something.  To be Catholic is to acknowledge, even if you don’t realize you’re doing so, that God isn’t some vague cosmic force or a misty feeling or a set of good thoughts.  God is Personal, period.  You literally cannot be baptized without acknowledging the Personhood of God.

Persons, even when it’s a Divine Person and a human person, are made to have relationships with one another.  The question I think many Catholics struggle with is partly linguistic and partly practical: What should we call our relationship with God, and what should it be like?

Do Protestants own all the words?

Catholics used to be people who borrowed words shamelessly.  Need a word to describe what a “Church” is?  Hey, look, there’s a Greek word that we could use to get us started, grab it and run!  Large swathes of the Catechism are littered with words that Catholics picked up off the sidewalk and put to work in ways those words weren’t previously used.

Like the Greeks and Romans and even those pagans who lent us the word “Lent,” American Protestants have a few useful expressions of their own. The concept of a Meat-and-Three restaurant, not to mention Macaroni is a vegetable! come to mind, but we’ll stick to theology for today.  A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is a phrase used heavily by American Evangelicals, sometimes beautifully and sometimes in ways that make you suddenly remember there was another county you needed to be in right now.

But they are words that, when used rightly, do in fact sum up Catholic spirituality.  They are words that we now find helpful, in this era when many Catholics do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. They are words that counteract the pseudo-spirituality that infects the Catholic Church and reduces the reality of the Incarnation to supposedly-edifying legend.

Where do I find this in Catholicism?

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

May I recommend you purchase a copy of the old four-volume edition of Butler’s Lives of Saints?  The writings and lives of the martyrs and mystics are soaked through with the intensely personal nature of a well-formed relationship with God.

When we speak of knowing, loving, and serving God, we aren’t speaking of rendering obeisance to some distant overlord who wants us to pay tribute.  We are speaking of Someone who knows us entirely inside and out, and who wants to be known by us.  Someone who chose to suffer grievously that we might again be able to walk in the garden together.

The concept of a “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is specifically about owning the Incarnation.  Our Lord didn’t appear in the Heavens on His Throne and zap the world clean from a dignified distance.  He took on human flesh that we might eat with Him, and care for Him, and lay His body in a grave.  God seeks intimacy with us.

This is Catholicism.

Can poetic prayer be personal prayer?

It can be hard to say out loud the things we feel most deeply.

One of the hallmarks of the Catholic liturgy is that the Church gives us the words to express what we would say to God if only we knew how.

When we purchase a greeting card at the grocery store, we don’t have too much trouble with this concept.  We look through the racks until we find the right words for the occasion, the words that best fit the relationship between ourselves and the recipient and the event at hand.  Yes! That one says what I’d like to say!  When we receive a card, we are moved by the sentiments if we know they come from a loved one who is genuine in sharing the humor or well-wishes or tenderness of the ideas in the card.

(And likewise: Nothing is more off-putting than receiving a card from someone who most certainly does not share the sentiment printed on the cardstock.)

But we live in an age with very little poetry, and which often mocks the beauty of previous generations’ rhyme and meter and melody.  We can accept the idea that we might be truly expressing ourselves in the greeting card or when we sing along to a pop song on the radio, but somehow many of us have been deceived into believing that we our unworthy of higher art. We’ve been persuaded that too-beautiful words aren’t capable of being our words.

The Incarnation is Everything

The law of prayer is the law of belief, and if we pray the Our Father or the Glory Be convinced that somehow these are words too high for us, too mighty for us, we’ll come to disbelieve the Incarnation.

We’ll persuade ourselves that Bless us O Lord is the herald’s shout to Jesus on His Celestial Throne Who Can’t Be Bothered To Get Any Closer, not the simple few lines of people wishing to pause before eating to say a word of personal thanks to a Person who literally dwelt within our very bodies the last time we received Holy Communion.

This heresy is at the heart of our liturgical wars: It is it only “authentic” prayer if it’s folksy? Or is God so august that we must never approach the throne of grace with anything but fear and trembling?  It’s a false dichotomy.  In the liturgy I’m a child learning to say grown-up words.  God the Father wants to rear me for His Heavenly Kingdom; God the Holy Spirit breathes supernatural life into my feeble attempts at prayer; and the God the Son is both there at table for me to lay my head upon His breast and raised to the great high throne in majesty.

My relationship with Jesus is personal because Jesus is a Person.  I grow in that relationship the more completely I embrace the entirety of what Christ is. God humbled, God crucified, God glorified.  All of it.

 

File:Coter Pruszcz Polyptych.jpg
Colijn de Coter (fl. 1493-1506) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Related: Don’t miss Judy Landrieu Klein’s recent post: “Is God good all the time? Or only when we feel blessed?”

 

Today’s topic is important enough that I’ll be cross-posting it at Patheos as well.  Share from whichever venue you prefer.  Per my standard policy on blog posts, parish and diocesan publications have permission to reprint at no charge, please provide a link back to the original in your attribution.

Chastity in a Box? (with a Glimpse at YOU from Ascension Press)

Continuing with Book Week.  Box #2 raises a question that doesn’t get asked often enough: What part do chastity-education programs play in teaching teens (and grown-ups) about the right use of their bodies?

My thoughts follow, but first you should show know what was in the box:

YOU from Ascension Press.  I reviewed AP’s Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition some years ago, and liked it immensely.  A first glance at YOU is similarly positive.  It’s a much bigger and deeper program, and from everything I’m seeing among teens in the circles I run in (church-school-sports), YOU looks like a solid answer to a very serious need.

As I flipped through the books the other night, several things caught my eye:

  • The advice for how to teach teens is dead-on.
  • The parent booklet gets right to first things first.  It’s like they know they only have a paragraph to win us parents over.
  • The curriculum, as will the best Theology of the Body presentations, starts with the bigger picture, lays the essential groundwork on the dignity of the human person, and leads from there into a positive message about the goodness and appeal of chastity.
  • YOU is working off ideas that have been tested with teens over and again and found to work.  (Not surprising, given who the authors are.)

It’ll be a while before I get a chance to read the leader’s guide and parent guide (leader’s guide contains the full text of the student book) cover to cover, as well as watch the whole DVD series.  Thus I wanted to flag this series now, because I’ve got a very positive impression at first glance, and if you’re planning programs for your parish you might want to request your own review set rather than waiting on someone else’s opinion.

Where do ready-made chastity programs fit into the big picture?

If you phoned me this afternoon (please don’t) and asked me what I recommended for taking your generic typical-American-parish from zero to full-steam-ahead on teaching teens chastity, here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Start with a good parent-centered introduction to chastity, such as Family Honor’s Leading and Loving program.  There are lots of options for meeting formats, but (using L&L as an example) I strongly recommend investing the time and energy into spreading the program out over six weekly sessions rather than doing a single big-weekend event.  This gives you time for parents to get to know each other, to have time to talk with the leaders in detail, and to begin to form a small group atmosphere.  It lets parish leadership begin to identify the parents who are in the best position to help other parents.  It also gives lots of time for listening, and thus for learning where parents in your parish are coming from and what questions or difficulties they are having.

–> Make sure you’ve got the depth of back-up resources to assist parents with their concerns.  At a minimum: NFP instruction, good pastoral help with thorny marital irregularities, some resources for dealing with pornography, and access to support for parishioners grappling with same-sex attraction (personally or via a friend or family member’s situation) such as Courage. It’s no fair telling people they need to radically change their lives, then wishing them good luck and washing your hands.

2. When parents are ready to start sharing the message of chastity with their teens, do a parent-teen joint program.  There are any number of options, and many of them (Family Honor is an exception) assume parents won’t be present. Don’t go there.  You need the parents totally involved and on board.  Your six hours in front of an eighth grader are nothing compared to the influence of the parents.  Even if the program you select doesn’t call for parental presence, adapt it to make it a parent-teen program.

3. Keep working discipleship on all the parts of the Catholic faith.  Salvation isn’t about sex-ed alone.

Hint: Check out the Jesus is Lord program, which works for college students too.  Just sayin’.

4. Programs like YOU will have the most impact if you roll them out after you have a critical mass of parents who are actively seeking to foster chastity in the home, and a critical mass of parishioners and parish leaders who are disciples.

I’m not saying there is no fruit that comes from grabbing a random teenager who’s fully immersed in the wider culture and subjecting the child to a few weeks of Catholic teaching.  Good things can happen.  But the reality is that an hour of your life in alien country rarely makes you want to join the aliens, if you were heretofore perfectly happy back home in Depravityville.  More likely, you’ll go home thinking you met a bunch of crazy people and thank goodness you’ve escaped.

Making disciples is work.  YOU looks like it’s got loads of potential as a help in that work, which is why I mention it now.  But making disciples is long, slow, constant work.  There are no short cuts.

Related:  Registration for the Theology of the Body Congress (9/23-25/2016) is still open.

YOU by Ascension Press - Catholic Teen Chastity
Image courtesy of Ascension Press.

Six Things I Needed to Hear – In the Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion

So this is what it’s like to be a devotional-writer:

I got home from Portland in the middle of the night East Coast time, wide awake because {Coffee + Jet Lag}.  But look! Things came in the mail for me!  No need to be bored.

Box #1 was a stack of these: The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion. It’s a collection of reusable devotionals for every day of the year, contributed by such a massive collection of Catholic writers that I think they were hard-pressed to find non-co-authors left for the endorsements.  (But they did find a few.)

So I got a beer and flipped through to find my entries, just to see what they looked like and all that.  One gets self-absorbed late at night.  There’s not an index-by-author, so I had to do a combination of trying to remember what days I wrote on and just flipping through.  Three lessons I learned:

1. Goodness gracious I can’t believe who else is in there!  A lot of the co-authors are people I know from the Catholic writing community, some of them famous, some of them up-and-coming.  At the risk of sounding cliche, when you’ve actually met and worked with so many interesting and talented and devoted Catholics? It’s a tremendous honor to be sharing a book with them.

(My favorite part of being involved with the Catholic Writers Guild?  Finding out who the new talent is before the rest of the world gets in on the secret.)

2. Editors are your friend.  When I wrote this post at Patheos, I was in the middle of overhauling a couple of my submissions for this book.  So let’s cut to the chase: We are all very, very glad that my first attempts at the feasts of St. Mary Magdalene and of the Immaculate Conception did not make it into the book.  The revised versions are far better.

3.  I have a predictable soul.  I think I found all my entries (Six? Did I count right?), and there was a consistent theme: The same things I was writing about a year ago are the things I needed to hear just this week.

–> Shout out to my brother-in-law: Why yes, I did get to be the person who wrote on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.  I was stoked. But reader, if you want to know what I’ve been particularly thinking about the past two days, take a look at what I had to say on the feast of St. Rita.

Contents of Box #2 to be revealed in the next post.

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Cover art courtesy of CatholicMom.com and Ave Maria Press.

God’s One Weird Trick

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I learned three things from lectoring yesterday at my niece’s wedding, and a fourth I don’t want to forget.

The first is that the same old readings are never the same and never old.  First and second readings were the two most popular Catholic wedding choices going, Genesis and Corinthians.  You’ve heard them so many times you think you know them by heart (though you probably don’t).

But this time, standing before this couple, certain words pop out and resound and suddenly make sense in a way that almost feels like they were waiting all these millennia for the right two people to come along and make you say, “Aha! So that’s what this reading is about!”

It’s always like this when you pray the Scriptures, because you aren’t reading some old story, you are stepping into an interaction between the eternal and the pressing present.

Second: If you can only pray one prayer, try the Litany of Humility.  I’m not convinced it’s even necessary to pray the thing all that often, because it’s that powerful of a prayer.  Something that struck me as I was reading through the “Love is . .  .” series in Corinthians 13 is that all the different aspects of love are fruits of humility.  Thus the litany is a two-fer: You can quash your miserable ego and accidentally find yourself becoming a loving person into the bargain.

Try it.  You’ll hate it.  Until you don’t.

Thirdly, about that liturgy!  The Catholic liturgy is extraordinarily dense, and thus exquisitely suited for use by we the extraordinarily dense.  I could not help but notice how little anything at all depended on we the people present doing the work, other than that we show up and do it.  I don’t mean that it’s anything-goes for the humans: When we cooperate with God, making the effort to know what we’re doing and do it as well as we’re able, the liturgy is better.  It’s always better when you work with God rather than against or apart from Him.

I think because I was up there reading (which I only really do at family weddings and funerals), I was more conscious than usual of the part we humans bring to the Mass, and this allowed me to see how much we humans aren’t the ones bringing it.  God does the work, we cooperate.  The Catholic liturgy is in this way completely opposite of anything else.

And the fourth thing that’s so hard to get through thick human skulls:

Love never fails.

(1 Corinthians 13:8, for your  memory-verse purposes.)

That’s the one weird trick.

We try all the other things.  We go on and on and on about how we have to do all the other things, because the one thing needed just won’t cut it, quit being so pie-in-the-sky.

But of course, there is pie in the sky, which changes everything.  The Persons putting on that party know their business.  We dense ones have all these other methods for chasing after human happiness, and it turns out there’s just that one thing that always works.  Never fails.

So my feast of St. Lawrence* resolution is to try the one thing.

 

*Why yes, in keeping with the feast day, it was in fact a barbecue reception.

 

Popular Wedding Readings

Infographic courtesy of Together for Life

Wedding ring photo courtesy S.Mitch at French Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Can You Be Too Tired to Pray?

I noticed for the first time, just this morning looking at the readings, that the Transfiguration was something of a warm-up for Gethsemane:

Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake,  they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.

(From Luke 9, via the USCCB daily readings.)

Fittingly, when I made that observation I was laying in bed with the iBreviary resting on the mattress next to my face, just barely awake enough to pray.  I might be saint-material yet.  I’ve got the “before” thing going on, anyway.

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Photo via Wikimedia, CC 2.0.  This week finds me in greater metro Portland, OR for my niece’s wedding.  We went to the coast, where there were no seals, but I have been doing my best baby-seal imitation in my sister’s backyard since I got back.  Little icons of the apostles, that’s what we baby seals are.

Catholic Childhood Memories: Beating the Deacon in Effigy

Birthday Child, holding back-issue of diocesan newspaper: Can I cut this up?

Me: Um, what is it?

Birthday Child: It has our deacon on it.

Me: What are you planning to do with it?

Birthday Child: I’m making a piñata.

Me: So are you planning to tell our deacon that you’re cutting up his picture so your friends can come over and beat it with sticks?

 

No, really, we like this guy. She just wanted colorful bits of newsprint. I promise.

TLM vs. Novus Ordo

If my best choice for a reverent, God-centered Mass were the Extraordinary Form, I’d be a traditionalist.  Devin Rose has up a piece called “The Rise of the New Traditionalists,” and I think it’s fairly representative of what I’ve seen and heard in regular life.  As I wrote over at this blog’s discussion group:

Here’s my life: On the internet, someone is always pointing me to some guy who needs a rabies shot and also colors himself a traditionalist. In real life, my traditionalist friends are some of the sanest people I know.

Then again, people with sanity problems usually get tired of me, fast. So there’s a definite selection-bias in real life.

Clergy, I imagine, tend to have the opposite problem: I think there’s a crazy-magnet hidden in the Roman collar.

As it happens, I live in a diocese where you can get nearly any rite you want if you’re willing drive a bit, but also one where a good Novus Ordo isn’t so hard to find.  That, combined with a guarded suspicion of the Venemous Traditionalists Who Are This Close to Schism, And That’s If You’re Lucky, probably dampens the enthusiasm for already-busy pastors of souls to take on one more thing, extraordinary-form version.

For that reason, one argument from Devin Rose’s post bothers me.  He writes:

Other Catholics suggest to forget about the TLM and instead focus on reforming the Ordinary Form. Make it more reverent, they say. Get sacred music in there. Throw in some ad orientem. That sort of thing.

I’m sympathetic to this suggestion, and I know of a group of people quietly working behind the scenes to accomplish this noble goal. (Interestingly, they are also new traditionalists, not Catholics who self-identify as traditionalists). I think it should be attempted, but also I know how deeply rooted many non-reverent practices are, so much so that they have attained quasi-traditional status. It will take a long time.

The reason it bothers me is this: The Novus Ordo doesn’t have to bad in order for the Extraordinary Form to be good.

Running Away or Running Towards?

Imagine a marriage proposal that went like this: “Honey, I want you to know that I don’t think I’d be able to get along with our bishop if I went into the diocesan priesthood, and I’m too old to join the one religious order I particularly like, and the other orders around here are either too disorganized, or focused on a charism that doesn’t interest me, or gosh, well, we all know what those Dominicans were doing last summer, let’s not go there, but I really can’t move to another diocese because my mom hasn’t died yet and she’d miss me — so I think we should get married.  All my other options stink, and that leaves you.”

You’d better be joking and she’d better know it.   Though God can work wonders in the Sacrament of Matrimony, starting with a bad foundation shows no respect for your intended spouse and for the solemnity of your union.  Even if you did pass through a stage of discerning a religious vocation before realizing you were called elsewhere, marriage is not meant to be the refuge of the desperate.

Likewise, we can’t say we’ve truly embraced a particular aspect of the spiritual life until we are in fact running towards what is good rather than merely fleeing what is bad.

The Extraordinary Form Has Merit in Its Own Right

When someone shares their story of how they came to this or that decision, it’s a personal narrative.  It’s going to include obstacles and adventures that are worth telling even if they don’t bear any universal truth.  That you, personally, prefer your local TLM because the Mass times are better, the donuts are fresher, and you can’t stand the paint job at the Novus Ordo parish around the corner — those things aren’t untrue.  They are worth knowing.  But what if St. Modernus fixes its scheduling and donut and decorating problems?

Was that really what it was all about?  Because you can’t ask your local clergy to take on the significant chunk of work involved in offering a second form of the Mass if it’s really just all about paint.

What we need to hear are all the reasons, and there are such reasons, that the Extraordinary Form is worth the effort even when beautiful, reverent, awe-inspiring Masses are available in the Novus Ordo.

Your wife is beautiful in her own right, not because all the other women are ugly.  She has a personality, and a style, and way of being that’s distinctive, and precious, and worth cherishing.

So it is with the liturgy of the Church.  When the NO is rendered in all her proper beauty, the EF remains beautiful in a different and also-valuable way. When the NO is said in Latin, the Latin of the EF doesn’t lose its merit, any more than you would toss a great work of literature on account of how you’d gotten a new book written in the same language.

We don’t quit praying the Rosary because we’ve found our souls are stirred by the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

Likewise with the Mass: Our souls are rightly stirred by the treasures of both the old and the new.

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Gate of the Annunciation’s chapel, Cathedral of Santa María, Sigüenza, Castile-La Mancha, Spain.  Photo by Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0

 

Culture, Evangelization, and a Free E-Book: Getting Along with Traditionalists

In a conversation on a private forum, the topic of culture and evangelization came up.  The discussion question was whether the concept of “Engaging the Culture” is relevant in a society as diverse as our own.  Can we even say that there exists “a culture” to engage?

Excerpts from my response:

I spent a year of my undergrad work in International Studies sitting in a classroom on another continent with a 100 classmates from around the world, all expats using a second language for their coursework. Did my thesis on a question of “cultural exports” in international trade. Since that time I’ve been living immersed in one of the most diverse and misunderstood American subcultures on this continent (to which I am bi-cultural, or probably more accurately quad-cultural), at a time of tremendous demographic change in the region where I live . . .

Trust me: There is an American Culture, there is a “Western” Culture, and there are myriad national cultures, ethnic cultures, religious cultures, and social-sub-cultures within all the different lumped-up mega-cultures.

Knowing where someone is “coming from,” by which I mean knowing all the forces that form and shape them, is very helpful in being able to connect with them. It doesn’t shortcut the process of listening and learning from the individual, but to the extent that you are fluent in the culture of the person you are evangelizing or discipling, you have way more ability to recognize and address unspoken needs and concerns, and way more ability to understand what the person is trying to say.

Being aware of cultural gulfs — even if you’re only aware that there is a possibility of one, but don’t know where it lies — is a great help in avoiding disastrous misunderstandings.

All that was one train of thought. For a nice book recommendation (not mine) concerning culture and thus indirectly the question of evangelization, see my review of The Culture Map over at New Evanglizers.

Then I concluded with a remark in the other direction, because you can really trip yourself up by leaning too heavily on cultural assumptions:

. . . interestingly, every single inter-personal disaster I have seen in church work over the past decade or so stemmed from watching one person assume all sorts of crazy things about another person based on the fact that the second person came from or identified with this or that ethnic or social sub-culture.

 

Which reminded me there was a book I’ve been meaning to write.  I hear so many times about how difficult is to get along with Traditionalists and other foreign-types.  I’m sure someone else has the Getting Along With People From Other Countries That Speak Spanish segment sufficiently covered, but what about the much more pervasive and feared Radical Traditionalist?  Not everything in a mantilla is a sweet little immigrant grandmother just doing her special immigrant customs, you know.  So I had to write a new book.

I thought it would fit on an index card, but it’s a little bit longer.  Here’s the galley of the first in the series, which is my free gift to you, my loyal readers:

How to Get Along with Traditionalists

Click the title-link to immediately download the PDF, no ads, no shopping cart, no mailing list.  It’s yours for the clicking.

Be sure to the check the last page for more titles in the series, because rad-trads aren’t the only dangerous beasts in parish life.

Enjoy!

File:President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II 1982.jpg
President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II, The Vatican, Rome, 1982. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia. Listening is important, because not every person in a mantilla is the spouse of the President of the United States, either.

Active Participation and the Things We Do with our Bodies at Mass

So let’s talk about the feet of Jesus.

God becomes Man, and the prophet sent to prepare the way for Him declares, “I am not fit to untie his sandals.”  We can imagine our Lord untied his own sandals most of the time.   She may or may not have been the one to remove his shoes, but we know the sinful woman did wash those feet.  That woman might or might not have been Mary Magdelene, but Mary certainly did know those feet as well.  The feet she saw pounded through with nails weren’t generic metal feet hanging in your hallway, they were the feet she had held and caressed and perfumed.

I have a friend who is a nursing student, and she tells me that when she has downtime working in the critical care unit, she’ll fill the hours by going around and washing the patients’ feet and massaging them with lotion.  Very sick patients typically have feet in horrible condition and a desperate hunger for human touch, both.

When Mary Magdalene met the resurrected Jesus in the garden, she wasn’t like Thomas who asked to see the pierced hands and side; had she asked, it probably would have been to see the feet.

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Cappellone di San Nicola, Basilica di San Nicola da Tolentino, Tolentino, Italy, courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

***

In my absence from the internet, another Catholic food fight has broken out over the question of what people should do with themselves during Mass.  The latest round concerns the direction priests point their feet.  Where your feet go, you go.

Because humans are body and soul both, what we do with our bodies at Mass matters.  The Mass can’t happen if the priest stands in a corner and prayerfully wills it to be so.  Human wills express themselves in bodily action.  In carrying out the actions of the Mass a priest makes the Mass happen — it can happen no other way.

The other sacraments are the same.  Thus the question of feet is important.

***

We Catholics get fervent in our opinions about what everyone should do at Mass because we know deep in our souls that our bodies matter so very much.  Thus we’re fifty-some years in to a massive Catholic food fight over how we laypersons might best carry out “active participation” in the sacred liturgy as mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium.  Says the Church:

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

[Paragraph 14.]

It’s a food fight that typically devolves into two questions: Who else can we put a cassock on, and how do we persuade Catholics to sing more?

So I want to tell my story about active participation in the Mass, and singing, and the feet of Jesus.

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Maria Magdalene, 1899, Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) [public domain] via Wikimedia.

***

I like words.  I am the person who pays attention to the words of all the hymns we sing at Mass.  I like to sing at Mass, because I like having all those words about God and to God moving through my body and coming out of me.  I was pretty happy at St. Populus, my home parish, where every Mass was a folk Mass in the best meaning of that term: We served up a four-hymn sandwich sing-along every Sunday, always and every time meant to be that part of the Mass when everyone joined in with gusto.

The actual amount of gusto varied.  But that was the goal.  It was a goal that I loved.

Then my husband reverted to the Catholic faith (good) and I discovered that he could sing (interesting) and he became a cantor at St. Populus (variable).  There wasn’t another bass available to help him with his cantoring skills, so he drove down to Our Lady of Classical Choirs and pestered the choirmaster until they got tired of his badgering and agreed to teach him to sing.  One thing led to another, and I ended up with 50% of my family in the choir loft at not-my-parish.

The trouble with OLCC, in addition to being not-my-parish, was that half the time you couldn’t even understand the words they were singing — even if it was English.  The sound bounced off ancient plaster mercilessly.  Furthermore, whether you could understand it or not, the bulk of the Mass on any given Sunday was done in the style of Not a Sing-Along.   I was aware that the whole thing was purported to be exceedingly beautiful, but couldn’t we all just have four nice easy hymns to sing together as a group?  Please??

***

Then some things happened.  One thing was that I was now living with three people who played this strange, purportedly beautiful, music around my house all the time.  I got to know the music better.  It was no longer weird sounds bouncing around a tall building, it was something my ear understood and could make sense of.

Another thing that happened is that over at St. Populous we had a little Latin club going on Friday mornings for about a year, long enough for we ignorant laypeople develop to a working familiarity with the meanings of the words that tended to bounce around during the Gloria and Sanctus and all those other things that were Not a Sing-Along down at OLCC.

I am persuaded that I am the Bread of Life is all the proof anyone needs that ordinary people aren’t quite as stupid as our betters pretend.  If you can teach we slobs in the pews to memorize the key points of John chapter 6 in an irregular, non-rhyming, voice-cracking, genre-less song, than we slobs can probably learn all the other, much easier, supposedly-too-hard-for-us stuff as well.

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St. Mary Magdalene, Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), [public domain] via Wikimedia.

***

The final thing that happened to me was decrepitude.  OLCC became an appealing parish to me for two reasons:

  • There was a wall I could lean against.
  • No one would try to speak to me.

Not-my-parish for the win.

I remember this night at Mass when active participation ceased to be about marching around or singing along.  I was at OLCC, sitting in the pew because standing was not on my to-do list (decrepitude), it was some feast or another, and the Gloria was going on forever, and ever, and ever.  The choir would sing some line of the Latin, and then sing it again and again in fifty different variations of hauntingly beautiful soaring tunes.  Then on to the next line.

Not a Sing Along.

It was a Pray Along.

I finally got, for the first time in my life, a chance to pray the Gloria with something that felt like justice.  No more wincing at the splendor of tu solus sanctus then quick keep moving, time for the next big idea.  Each idea, one at a time, washing over the congregation, swirling around in a whirpool of words, seeping into our thoughts and wetting the soul’s appetite for the next line of the prayer.

***

It isn’t that they don’t ever do hymns or plebeian Mass settings down at OLCC.  Nor do I have any less love for a good rousing Sing Along Mass.  Singing is good for you.  It’s good for all the parts of you, and it would be a strange and disastrous thing if we pewsitters all gave it up and used no other part of our bodies than our ears at Mass.

Curiously, the part where feet come into it was during a Mostly Sing-Along Mass down at OLCC.

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Noli me tangere, Titian (1490–1576), [public domain], via Wikimedia. I have no idea why the artist thought Mary Magdalene would think the gardener worked naked except for a loin cloth and a long white cape.

***

Because I am decrepit, I can’t always sing, or can’t sing the entirety of a Sunday’s pewsitter parts.  Because I am a word-person, lately sometimes I do the very weird thing of standing there with the hymnal open, mouth shut, eating up the words with my mind while the congregation sings them aloud.

This past Sunday, though, I was unusually decrepit even for me.  I found a seat against the wall, and didn’t even bother trying to lip sync the Our Father.  I was pretty happy to just be standing-along during the bulk of the standing parts.  I was secretly pleased that the side aisles were relatively empty and all I had to do was wave to a couple people several rows behind me during the Sign of Peace, and then I was freed to go back to my still, silent bubble.

I didn’t know, on Sunday, that Internet Catholics were busy arguing over which way priests point their feet.  The readings were not exactly about feet, except that they were.  The Law living within us, He is the image of the Invisible God, the parable of Mercy-Made-Flesh.

We don’t have to guess what active participation might mean, because Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us straight out:

11. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain [28] . Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.

It means that when our Lord comes to us, we recognize Him and respond accordingly.

The carrying out of those laws governing valid and licit celebration aren’t the stones of an empty tomb.  The carrying out of those laws is the business of our bodies doing what our bodies are made to do.  What do our bodies do? Our bodies are the means through which ours souls express themselves.

File:Ambrosius Benson - Mary Magdalene - WGA1890.jpg
Mary Magdalene , Ambrosius Benson (circa 1495–1550), [public domain] via Wikimedia.

Related:

File:Francken-simon-Rennes.jpg
The Meal at Simon’s House, 1637, Frans Francken the Younger (1581–1642), via Wikimedia [Public Domain]