Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Palm Sunday Graces in the Urgent Care

A few days before Palm Sunday, I injured my left shoulder while exercising. By Saturday night, the pain was so bad that I could barely sleep, so on Sunday morning I called the consulting nurse, who recommended urgent care. Julie, my wife, took me in, early in the morning. This was not how I had hoped to start Holy Week. "Lord," I thought, "what more will you take away from me?" For over 20 years, the liturgies of Holy Week had been the focal point of the year for me. But this time, thanks to the virus, they were taken away. The liturgies, the celebrations, the family gatherings - all taken away. "And now, Lord," I thought, "will you take away the use and comfort of my body too?"

But then I thought, during Holy Week, we especially reflect on the suffering of Christ - his suffering for us. The best way to enter into Holy Week is to unite our suffering with his. Suffering has tremendous spiritual value. It is through suffering that we die to self and learn to love with a pure heart. We can also offer the spiritual value of our suffering up for others, as Christ offered up his suffering for us. Feeling completely miserable at the start of my Holy Week, I decided to offer up my suffering for healing in our families, for healing in the world. I added, "Lord, thank you for deeming me worthy to suffer for you."

Urgent care felt like a ghost town. I was told that there were other patients there, but I could see only medical staff. Julie had to stay in the waiting room, while I was escorted in. I was examined and X-rayed in a relatively short amount of time. As I waited for the doctor's diagnosis alone in an urgent care room, wearing a gown I could not tie in the back because of my bad arm, and an N95 mask that made breathing really hard, I continued to feel thoroughly miserable, but I kept offering up my suffering, and I focused on praying the Rosary.

When the doctor came, he ruled out major injuries, diagnosed the problem as an inflamed muscle, and prescribed some medications, as well as an at-home care routine. I was soon able to rejoin my wife in the waiting room. She was watching a livestream on her phone - the Palm Sunday Mass from St. Stephen the Martyr in Renton, the parish she attends. (I work at a different parish and I usually go to Mass there.)

We went over to the pharmacy, where, as we waited, I joined her in watching the Mass. The few others also waiting at the pharmacy, appropriately distanced from each other, didn't seem to mind that we had the volume on. I was able to see the Eucharistic Prayer. I prayed the Our Father with Julie. We exchanged the sign of peace through our obtrusive masks. We made Spiritual Communion together. In between these moments, I also picked up my medication. No one seemed to mind that even after picking up the prescription, we just stayed sitting there, watching the Mass.

Again, back on Ash Wednesday, this was not how I would have envisioned the start of my Holy Week. But the grace of God could still come to us through that small iPhone screen, and through the prayers the two of us made, gathered in our Lord's name in that pharmacy waiting room. Christ still found us. The Holy Spirit still entered our hearts. And as I made my Spiritual Communion, while holding in my hands a small bag containing medicine for my body, I knew I was receiving much more important medicine - medicine for the soul.

Photo Credit: Top photo: At the urgent care with Julie. Bottom photo: Our Palm Sunday display in quarantine. By Zoltan Abraham (c) 2020.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Most Counter-Cultural Thing in the World - A First-timer Reflects on the Latin Mass

I am a cradle Catholic, and I have attended the Novus Ordo liturgy all my life. Being a lay ecclesial minister by profession, and having worked full-time in the Catholic Church for over 18 years, I have taught many classes on Catholic history and theology. The question of the traditional Latin Mass has often come up, and while I have been able to talk about the Latin Mass on an intellectual level, I had not actually had the experience of being at one - that is to say, until this past Saturday.

For the first time in my life, at long last, I actually attended a Latin Mass, held under the auspices of a traditionalist parish in full Communion with Rome, using the 1962 Missal promulgated by Pope St. John XXIII for their liturgies. The community has no church building of their own, so they rent use of the worship space from a suitable Novus Ordo parish in the greater Seattle area.

I have spent the last few days reflecting on the many thoughts stirred up within me by the experience of the liturgy. The first thing I want to note is my approach to the Latin Mass. In discussions of the traditional liturgy, Catholics often speak of the Latin Mass with a dismissive and derisive attitude, sometimes going so far as to assert quite categorically that the Latin Mass was harmful to the life of the Church. But I cannot agree with such a perspective. The Latin Mass, in its various developmental phases, was the central liturgy of Western Catholicism for most of Catholic history.

The Latin Mass was inextricably at the center of the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural life of Catholics for the better part of two millennia. It was the Mass of the saints and martyrs, who lived the Catholic faith to its fullest; of the mystics and thinkers, whose writings and reflections helped to shape our articulation of the faith; of the popes and bishops, who directed the life of the Church and gave formal definition to the articles of our faith; of the multitudes of nuns and monks, who gave their lives throughout the centuries to serve the poor, the sick, all those in need; of the myriad artists who shaped the Catholic experience through paintings, sculptures, mosaics, buildings, stories, and compositions; of the Catholic kings, queens, statesmen, and political movers and shakers who helped create and maintain a Catholic society in their lands.

We could not repudiate the Latin Mass as something harmful without also repudiating the spiritual, theological, ecclesial, and cultural legacy given to us by the millions of Catholics whose lives the Latin Mass nourished, sustained, enriched, and vivified. I will therefore proceed with the assumption that the Latin Mass is a good and profitable thing, and I will seek to find the good in it, however alien the experience may seem at first to someone reared entirely in the Novus Ordo system of liturgy.

I tend to think that the key to understanding the difference between the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is to consider the focus of each liturgy. The focus of the Novus Ordo is the celebration of the Eucharistic meal; whereas the focus of the Latin Mass is our mystical participation in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Both liturgies have both elements, but the overarching focus is different.

In the Novus Ordo, the faithful are gathered at, and sometimes around, the altar table in order to take part in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread and the sharing of the Eucharistic cup, doing so in remembrance of Christ. The priest presides at the Eucharistic meal, serving, among other functions, as the host of the community. As the host, he naturally faces towards the people, and he naturally speaks words to which the people respond.

As the people come forward to receive Communion, the sense of the shared scared meal is maintained through communal singing. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ offers each person spiritual nourishment, healing, and strength, and at the same time each person’s participation in Communion helps to build up the whole of the community. The act of Communion is also a sign of shared faith and shared ecclesial identity.

The scriptures are proclaimed and expounded upon in order to give context to the communal celebration of the sacred meal and to help the faithful to live out their baptismal vocation in the world after the worshiping assembly disperses. The music is, for the most part, sung together, to reinforce the sense of community.

The the text of the Novus Ordo describes the sacred meal shared by the faithful as a sacrifice. In fact, we might say that it is precisely the sacrifice of Christ that enables the faithful to be the people of God gathered around the Eucharistic table for our Eucharistic meal. The Fraction Rite, when the consecrated host is broken and the broken host is held up for the people to see, reminds us that, just as Christ was broken for us, we must also be broken for one another in sacrifice.

However, having said the above, the Novus Ordo liturgy is not primarily focused on the idea of sacrifice either in its language or in its liturgical actions. By contract, the Latin Mass revolves around the concept of the Mass as a mystical participation in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The priest, anointed in a special way for this special role, parts a mystical veil and transports us, we might say, trans-historically (my word), to the foot of the Cross. In the Latin Mass, the faithful are not gathered around a table for a sacred meal; they are in a posture of worship beneath the cross. They are looking up at Christ being crucified.

The focus of the priest is not to preside at a meal, but to offer the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, united in a mystical way, across time, with the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Thus, the priest’s attention is not primarily directed to the faithful present. He does not stand facing toward the people, because his focus is on the sacrifice being offered on the altar. He does not, for the most part, speak to the people, but addresses most of his words to God, sometimes in a voice inaudible to the congregation.

Since the focus of the Latin Mass is participation in the sacrifice of the Cross, the demeanor of the liturgy is, of necessity, going to be very different from that of a celebratory sacred meal. The motto of the Latin Mass might be, “If it doesn’t belong at the foot of the cross, it doesn’t belong at Mass.” Would we play lively guitar music at the foot of the Cross? Would we tell jokes at the foot of the Cross? Would we chit-chat and socialize at the foot of the Cross?

But, one might ask, what is it that the people are allowed to do? The chief objection leveled at the Latin Mass is that the faithful are merely spectators, who see and hear very little of the actions and words of the priest, and therefore cannot participate in the ritual fully. Instead, many people in the congregation might be quietly reciting the Rosary during the Mass. The Second Vatican Council famously called for the full, active, and conscious participation of the faithful at each liturgy. How could the faithful possibly be so engaged in the context of the traditional Latin Mass?

My answer is that the understanding of full, active, and conscious participation in vogue today is, in my opinion, far too limited. The popular assumption prevalent today is that the complete participation in the Mass called for by Vatican II requires speaking certain words, dialoging with the priest, and singing along with the cantor or choir, as well as seeing and hearing everything that is happening during the liturgy.

But from my perspective, there is another way to participate just as deeply and just as meaningfully. The faithful can participate in the Mass fully, actively, and consciously by uniting themselves internally, spiritually with the sacrifice being offered. The faithful are not mere spectators. They are at the foot of the Cross, worshiping Christ Crucified.

For the faithful, the Latin Mass is an invitation into a contemplation of all that the crucifixion entails – our salvation, our forgiveness, our spiritual healing, our cleansing in the Blood of the Lamb - a sacrifice of propitiation offered to God, through which the world is reconciled to its Creator. We are also invited into reflecting on what the Cross entails for each of us in our lives - the purifying nature of our own suffering, the profound value of accepting suffering for one another, the transformative efficacy of choosing forms of suffering to offer for one another.

Nor would praying the Rosary distract us from such reflections, since the Rosary is an extended meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and, therefore, the Rosary helps us enter more deeply into the contemplation of the mystery of the Cross. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that, for the properly disposed participant, far from being a distraction, the Rosary can form a symbiotic relationship with the Latin Mass.

After our contemplation of and spiritual union with the sacrifice of Christ, we then receive the fruit of that sacrifice, the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. We become physically united with the Lamb of God offered in sacrifice on our behalf. The spiritual and ecclesial benefits of receiving Communion are vast and numerous – but one of the key blessings we are given is the strength to embrace our own cross in our own lives and to carry our cross from day to day, in union with Christ.

By focusing on the sacrifice of Christ and by transporting us to the foot of the Cross, the Latin Mass upholds and proclaims the spiritual value of suffering. As such, the Latin Mass is the single most counter-cultural thing in the world today. Our secular world, which seeks to eradicate all memory of Christianity from our culture, hates nothing more than the Cross. On the one hand, modern technology has helped us do away with much preventable suffering, which is commendable. But our culture pushes us to go much further than that. The chief message of the secular world is that we should never suffer. We must always medicate or self-medicate, we must drown out all pain, anguish, or even inconvenience and boredom, with entertainment, possessions, ephemeral pleasures. In the face of such cultural messages, the most radical thing we can do is to do as Christ commanded and willingly – fully, actively, and consciously – take up our cross. The Latin Mass guides us into exactly that.

Of course, one might object, that the image I present here of the faithful's sublime participation in the Latin Mass is overly idealistic, and that historically many people did not reach such levels of engagement with the mystery of the traditional liturgy. Maybe so. But by the same token, my description of the Novus Ordo celebration above is truly idealized and is a far cry from how most Novus Ordo liturgies are celebrated in the day-to-day life of the Church.

I myself have, as mentioned above, attended Novus Ordo liturgies all my life. I have experienced Novus Ordo Masses on four continents, in over a dozen countries, in many different languages, using a wide range of liturgical styles. The quality of those liturgical celebrations also spanned a wide spectrum. Ironically, the chief complaint I hear from participants in the Novus Ordo, which seeks so hard to engage the participants, is boredom. I must confess that I too have often been bored at Novus Ordo Masses, until I would receive Communion, when a profound peace would wash over me, and the boredom of the prior hour would be worth it. But I have also had many experiences of profound, transcendent, uplifting beauty. As I write this reflection, the Triduum liturgies celebrated at my Novus Ordo parish during Holy Week are still fresh in my mind. They were not just the best Triduum I have experienced, but quite possibly the best Novus Ordo liturgies I have ever participated in.

Whatever happens to the future of Catholic liturgy, there is much beauty in the Novus Ordo that I would be loath to part with completely. At the same time, I believe that the Latin Mass has much to offer to us as a Church and to our society. Whatever liturgical developments are to unfold in the Catholic Church in the future, I believe that one change should without question be made to the Novus Ordo - the recapturing of the centrality of the sacrifice of the Cross for our worship. The Catholic Mass, I believe, as did most Catholics for most of Church history, should focus first and foremost on Christ Crucified. From our embrace of the Cross, individually and collectively, flows healing - the healing of our souls, the healing of our Church, and the healing of our deeply diseased society.