Three earth-shattering events converged in my life recently and radically altered my whole world view. I attended a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, I attended a Latin Mass, and I visited my hair stylist.
To begin with the last: Everyone knows that the most astute social scientists in the world are bartenders, taxi drivers, and hair stylists. So, recently I climbed the mountain, so to speak, to seek the latest wisdom from my personal stylist. In the midst of a cut and style she casually informed me that the most abused drugs are prescription anti-depressants. I later discovered through news articles that the abuse of anti-depressants is indeed a fact. Abusers range from pre-teen kids to every age of adulthood. I can’t even imagine how many children and adults are in therapy. I am completely overwhelmed by the obvious conclusion that so much of the treatment contains some sort of prescription! It is impossible to not ask the question, "Why?" The United States is one of the most affluent nations in history; there are no current wars on our soil, no famine, or great plague sweeping the nation. We have antibiotics, modern dentistry and indoor plumbing; even the economy cannot explain why we are all so depressed.
Next snapshot: Many Catholic families whose faith and lives I greatly admire have started attending Latin or Byzantine liturgies. There are not enough, probably to justify a trend article in the news, but enough in my personal sphere of acquaintance that I took note. Here, I must admit to a kind of impatience with criticism of Vatican II that I have listened to over the years. I had some initial reluctance over attending these “throw back” liturgies with them, but I eventually accepted their invitations. What I experienced at these parishes was truly life changing to me!
After participating in the liturgies I walked away with the same reaction from both. I was filled with a sort of holy awe and struggled to come to grips with what I was feeling. I had just worshipped the Almighty Triune God. I realized that up until participating in those liturgies, I had gone to Mass, but now I had worshipped God. I suddenly felt like I had never worshipped Him before. It isn’t very modern to worship; I was almost uncomfortable saying the word. I experienced a radical shift in my understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. There are so many “helps” throughout these liturgies that make the average church goer really understand what he is participating in! Here are a couple of elements from both Masses that really struck me as a newcomer to worship.
In the Byzantine Liturgy the priest sings out, “Wisdom, be attentive!” before the readings and Gospel. How effective! I suddenly stop looking at the shoes of the woman in front of me and am attentive to the Word of God. Similarly, before the anaphora, again the lector sings out, “The doors! The doors!” the doors of the iconostas open and we are reminded in a physical manner of a great spiritual truth — that heaven itself has been opened to us and we are allowed (we do not by any means deserve this privilege) to participate in the heavenly banquet of the Lamb. The most powerful aspect of the Eastern liturgy, though, is its overpowering beauty! The prayers and praises sung throughout the celebration are so splendidly beautiful that one is almost convinced that the Holy Spirit dispensed with His usual custom of inspiring man to write, and just took up a pen and wrote everything Himself — so much does the beauty seem to be beyond anything man is able to produce.
In the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass there is an effective use of silence. If there is any single overpowering trait of the modern world, it is a lack of silence. Much of what the priest prays during consecration is prayed quietly. The people are left in silence to reflect upon what is happening, dare I say, to contemplate. In fact there is time for reflection throughout the whole of the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass. Brilliantly, this silence is then contrasted with Gregorian chant of the Psalms. The most powerful attribute of the “old Mass” to me though, is the time spent kneeling at the altar rail, waiting for the priest to bring Our Lord to each communicant. Why in the world did we ever do away with altar rails? I was raised on the Novus Ordo, so it is not like I am going all nostalgic here. I can not tell you how much that time for reflection accompanied by the appropriate body language helped to remind me of the great truth — Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, is allowing me to receive Him and thus become a part of Him! Look at the difference in symbolism and instruction: Waiting in line and putting out my hand is no different from a million different activities that I do daily. I wait in line and put my hand out for movie tickets, to get change, airline tickets, etc. In contrast, there is no time ever that I kneel down, open my mouth and someone “feeds” me. Body instructs spirit. My body is telling me that something is happening here that is like nothing else in my life. The fact I am “fed” reminds me of my true helplessness and the fact that God Himself is stooping down to feed me! The fact that I am kneeling tells me that God and I are not equals, He is greater than I. The fact that I have to wait teaches me that I do not command God; I wait on Him.
The modern Mass is of course, valid. Jesus in the Eucharist is still Jesus in the Eucharist. But it is too often celebrated in way that is “bare bones” and minimalistic. What are missing in the “normal” American Mass are the “helps” that some of us ordinary Catholics need. What is missing is our preparation to receive Him properly. He is not changed, we are. To me, it is the difference between pouring water on a sponge and pouring water over concrete. God is all powerful and in His Mercy He comes to us in any valid Mass but our disposition in receiving Him is radically different in the three discussed liturgies. The chants, the silence, beautiful music, bodily postures and poetic descriptions all help us to understand what great act is really taking place at the Mass and prepare us to receive Jesus with love. Should we ever be matter-of-fact or comfortable with the idea that Jesus comes to us in the Holy Eucharist? Shouldn’t we be in perpetual shock? Where is the awestruck gratitude? Where is the worship of the Word made flesh? Or are we so comfortable because we really don’t believe it anymore, or worse, can’t wait to change the subject back to us?
“Wait a moment, average church-going lay woman,” you protest, “didn’t you just say that you were impatient with complaints about Vatican II and handwringing over the Novus Ordo? Is this whole article a subversive way of encouraging rebellion against the new Mass and enlistment in Fraternity of St. Peter or Eastern Rite churches all over the country?” Well, no. Mother Teresa became a Saint by attending the Novus Ordo Mass; the Mass is still holy. What we need to rebel against is the way we have been participating in it. (And perhaps the music — well, one song at least and immediately. I would like to nominate, “Sing a New Church into being” as the first to go!) We need to blow on the glowing ember of our worship of the Holy Trinity and rouse it to bright and hot flame.
Pope St. Pius X, whose name, sadly, has been dragged through the mud by schismatic traditionalists, prophetically stated that the modern heresy would be man worshipping himself. He writes in E Supremi , “[M]an, with infinite temerity, has put himself in the place of God…[and] made of the universe a temple wherein he himself is to be adored.” And so the reason for our depression becomes clear. If man is god, what a pathetic and weak god he is! I mean, we can’t even solve the smallest of our daily problems — traffic for instance. We all are familiar with the pettiness, selfishness, lack of love, and sometimes even cruelty, we experience in ourselves and others. Who wouldn’t be depressed if we, with all these evils, are god?
Which brings me back to my hair stylist…A definition of sanity is when one’s perception of reality matches reality. For instance, if there is a paper in front of me, and I perceive a paper and not an army of flying monkeys, I am sane. On the other hand if mankind, despite all evidence to the contrary, starts to think that man is God, we are collectively insane. No wonder so many people are being prescribed anti-depressant drugs. For many of these people the answer to all this sadness and hopelessness is: Worship! Adoration! Our souls are nourished on truth, beauty and goodness in the same way that our bodies are kept alive with food, water and air. Without worship and adoration our souls become sickened.
Again, it is not practical, nor even a good idea for all of us to run out and join a Church with ancient liturgies. However, just as midwives making an entrance into health care reformed the ways doctors were delivering babies, and the remarkable success of homeschoolers in the educational scene has challenged schools to improve, we need collectively to be inspired by the worship that is occurring at these liturgies and emulate it. We need to quiet our souls and realize that participating in the Holy Mass is THE most important thing we will ever do in our lives. The most immediate and practical response to this challenge of worship would be to fill up the hours of adoration at our parishes, or to start adoration there. We need to cry out with the angels, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” We should fall down in worship before Almighty God, thereby realizing the truth that He is God and we shall not have any false Gods before Him! As with all things connected with Our Good Lord, if we begin by trying to render Him a service — true love and worship, He will turn it to a good for us — in this case, the reclamation of our sanity!