There seems to be a deep, continual desire among Catholics to get more out of Mass. Bookstores abound with missals, devotional literature, liturgical companions, and more systematic book-length works, all aimed at deepening our personal appreciation of and entry into worship. We feel in our bones the objective perfection available in the Eucharist, the “source and summit” of our faith, and yet we often feel convicted about how anemic our participation can be. Distractions abound, duties encroach, and it can be downright difficult to find a reverently celebrated Mass with a good homily.
And that’s not to mention the difficulties that come with certain states in life. For young mothers, there is about a twenty-year period during which Mass can feel more like a three-ring circus than a solemn act of adoration. Simply getting through the Eucharistic prayer without a crying bout can be a victory, to say nothing of the guilt that attends choosing not to enter the cry room with all its terrifying eventualities (Let the Cheerio smashing begin!). So where does that leave us? Should we simply despair of ever entering deeply into Mass and just place all our eggs in the basket marked, “to be completed in the heavenly liturgy”?
An element of liturgical worship that we often overlook is the way in which it cultivates virtue, particularly religion, the virtue whereby we render what is due to God. By religion we recognize that we stand before God infinitely indebted to him as our Creator and Ultimate End. There is no way to get square with God. Our lives pulsate with the gratuity of his loving choice to create us in order that we might share in his divine life. Because of this, we stand rooted “Under the Mercy.” This need not be cause for distress, though, because our posture as beggars, when recognized and lived intentionally, becomes infinitely ennobling. This is precisely what religion and liturgical worship are intended to effect.
In worship, we offer to God not only honor and reverence for his excellence, but also a due subjection. This understanding of worship likely seems abhorrent to our deeply democratic sensibilities. But to offer due subjection is not to speak of God as if he desires courtiers to ply him with flattery. God has no need of our praise. As one of the prefaces to the Eucharistic prayers reminds us, “For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift…” Our praise adds nothing to God. While it does redound to his glory, its effect is primarily directed toward us. How is that, you might ask?
The key lies hidden in the freedom born of subjection. By offering ourselves as a sacrifice to God in recognition of our nature as creatures, we offer right worship (this is one meaning of the word “orthodoxy”) and, in doing so, enshrine in our souls, by the grace of God, the proper order of creation. Offering right worship reverses the trajectory of the Fall. In Eden, Adam and Eve chose to rebel against the order of due subjection. By choosing to enjoy the good on their own terms and by their own lights, they lost the threefold order of original justice: their minds were despoiled and wounded, no longer subject to God; their lower powers (e.g., their appetites) were no longer subject to their higher powers; and their bodies were no longer subject to their souls. The result was the turmoil of original sin with which we are all familiar, a doctrine G. K. Chesterton wittily claimed was nigh unto self-evident.
It follows that in worship, by enacting our subjection to God in accord with the order of creation, the virtue of religion reorders the soul toward the source of internal peace and thus begins the process whereby peace is reconstituted in our hearts and minds. It is in part for this reason that the liturgy can have a truly healing effect on our lives, a theme that St. Thomas draws out in his frequent references to the sacraments as medicine.
And so, though all of the externals of the liturgy may feel at times to be plagued by distraction, disorder, and the chaos of life, we can draw strength from the knowledge that the liturgy and our feeble attempts to offer right worship in cooperation with God’s grace are effecting the very fruit for which we long. The sacrament itself works the grace ordering our lives and kindles in us the flame of desire that we might pursue our goal more ardently. So let your desire rise before God as a pleasing offering, and by his grace and the power communicated in his sacraments, it will efficaciously seek the promised goal, with a heading bent on Paradise.
Image: Fyodor Bronnikov, The Catholic Mass