A long time ago at a little Catholic college in Virginia, there lived a cardinal. Having specified that it was a Catholic college, I should also clarify that the cardinal in question was of the avian, not episcopal, variety—a rather important distinction given the odd behavior I’m about to describe.
I knew this particular bird well, because he had an unusual habit. There was a classroom under the church where the professor’s podium stood before a row of windows running at ground level along one side. In the spring, around 4pm, our fearsome cardinal would throw himself with all his might at this wall of glass. Afternoon classes were often punctuated by the sight and sound of a bright red bird dashing his brains against the pane of glass, thunk… thunk… thunk…, until, exhausted, he flew away to try again the next day.
I think of my cardinal often; usually in church. His senseless but persistent crashing against some barrier he cannot see or understand is the closest analogy I can conjure for my usual experience of the mass. With all my heart and mind I believe that Christ is truly present there on the altar and with all my heart and mind I long to feel that presence. Yet no matter how I try, there is a thick invisible wall between myself and what is happening. I know that I am called to active participation in the sacrifice of the mass but the more and more I try the less I feel my participation is working. And so, like the poor little bird in Virginia, I redouble my efforts, but of course they bring no new result.
Since having children, some of my concern about this feeling of estrangement has dissipated. Not because I focus better in church; far from it! It is out of the question to focus with children. Since the first time I brought my three-day old firstborn son to church my uppermost thought is: At least I know for this brief time my family is where it should be and doing what we should do. There is no time left to worry about whether I am properly engaging in the prayers or listening intently enough to the readings. At least we are here and often that is all I can do.
The other day I had the rare opportunity to attend mass on my own and I was reminded that children do not so much prevent me from concentrating at mass as mask the fact that I never could. With kids, I am distracted by a real excuse: somebody is fussing and needs taking out, somebody needs to be reminded to kneel or stand. Without them I’m distracted by my own mental wanderings.
Perhaps the most distracting thing is this desire not to be distracted. To do better and see more clearly. Much of my mental energy goes to examining whether I’m doing things right. If I can just find the exact right way to run my mind I will suddenly crack the glass and perfect this active participation I’m supposed to be going for.
To return to my feathered friend, his problem was not really the glass of course. The problem was that the light hit that window at just the right angle for the cardinal to see his own reflection. He was determined to vanquish that other bird, this time for sure! So with my mistaken ideas of active participation. The thing between me and the altar is mostly me. I have imagined that if I feel my participation is lacking what it needs is more activity. I struggle harder and harder, think more and more, throw my skull against that glass more and more desperately
The notion of act here is of frenetic activity: participation being better the more you do. But if it is true that my family is where it should be doing what it should do when we go to mass in all our chaos, if it is worth being there under those circumstances, then perhaps participation is not as complicated as I have made it. It isn’t about saying the words right while simultaneously holding them in your mind just so. It isn’t measured by how many jobs you perform. It isn’t about smothering out every distraction from your everyday life. Certainly, working to focus at mass is very important but when I fail to do so it doesn’t mean I have failed to actively participate. Participation isn’t so much measured in a million-and-one minute acts but in the uncomplicated act of being present.
Certainly, working to focus at mass is very important but when I fail to do so it doesn’t mean I have failed to actively participate. Participation isn’t so much measured in a million-and-one minute acts but in the uncomplicated act of being present.
When we hear “physically present” we tend to imagine a body just going through the motions and undoubtedly there is way to check out while sitting in a pew that is irreverent and inactive. However, we are human which means our bodies and souls are joined. Where our body goes there goes our spirit also. This is a kind of participation anyone can do: parents of squalling infants, people beset with worries and distractions, theologians and the barely catechized, attending mass in any language. Anyone can be present by joining in the words and actions of the liturgy as best they can and in so doing bring both their best intentions and worst imperfections before the Lord.
One of the glories of our faith is that Christ’s presence is a physical reality and this means He is there in His entirety: body, blood, soul and divinity. I must go, body and soul, including my wandering and inadequate mind in all its longing, to kneel before Him and unite my meager offering with His perfect sacrifice on the altar. I participate when I humbly bring my whole self into the presence of God although I may only see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.