In Exile

Liturgical Tips From the Pew

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread,
and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said,
“This is my body that is for you” (Second Reading).

I am not a liturgist. Hence this critique comes more from instinct, and frustrations with many of the liturgies I attend, than it comes from theological principle. Be that as it may, let me propose, for the consideration of all liturgical planners, celebrants, and musicians, a few, corrective, suggestions:

More is not necessarily better:

Length does not necessarily good liturgy make! Because a liturgy is long and has excellent singing does not necessarily mean that it is good. Liturgy is like food. It’s good, though never to excess. Anything which is over-done, be it ever so good and aesthetic in itself, is, at a point, counter-productive. For example: I was just recently at a liturgy which was being celebrated to conclude a rather major event in my home diocese. It was carefully planned and every part of it, taken individually, was a model of liturgical aesthetics.The choir was superlative, the homily was excellent, the processions were beautiful but, in the end, the final result was somewhat draining. Why? Because when everything was put together, good as it was, it was simply too long and nobody, other than those leading it, could sustain their energy and enthusiasm. 

It reminded of a meal I once cooked for some European friends of mine. I went to their house on a Saturday evening, having promised that I would cook for them a gourmet American meal. I prepared all of my favorite dishes, including a very rich and heavy dessert, not taking into account that, together, they constituted too much of a challenge for a single digestive tract on one night. After we had finished the dessert, fishing for a compliment from my hosts, I asked them what they thought of my meal. The hostess put it to me gently: “You know, I liked very much every dish you prepared, but, together, it was all a bit rich. Perhaps when you have shrimp served in garlic butter as an appetizer you might want to serve a fruit salad rather than a rich chocolate for dessert. It gives a better balance.”

There is liturgical wisdom in that. Even the good, in excess, is problematic. …  “Perhaps when you have an entrance rite that is 10 minutes long you might not want to have an extra 10 minutes of singing after communion. It gives a better balance.”

New piety is just as bad, liturgically, as is the old:

When I was child we were blessed with a parish priest who had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was a dear man, transparent in his sincerity, a person of prayer. But he was a bad liturgist. His problem was that he could not preside at any Mass without somehow working Mary into it, whether it was her feast day or not. His devotion to her was so great that it was simply impossible for him to contain himself. He had to bring Mary into every celebration. 

I know a number of priests today whose commitment to social justice is so great that they cannot ever preside at a Eucharist, give a homily, lead a prayer service, or indeed lead a single prayer without bringing in the issue of justice. Like the parish priest of my childhood, they too are transparent in their sincerity—and bad liturgists!

New imbalance is no better than old imbalance.

One person’s creativity is another’s idiosyncrasy:

The task of a celebrant of liturgy is to not to change the ritual so as to make it more creative, but to pray the ritual in such a way that it becomes truly prayer. That’s no easy task and the best way to do it is not to change the ritual prayers but to truly pray them. However, if you are tempted to make up your own prayers (“to improve the ritual”), you might want to keep these things in mind:

Very very few persons can write better prayers than are already contained in the ritual itself. Don’t too quickly put yourself in that category. There is already too much bad poetry around. Moreover, the ritual is meant to protect the congregation from the idiosyncratic whims of the celebrant. There’s wisdom a plenty in that. One man’s creativity is another’s bad poetry! Respect your congregation. And finally, never never begin a creed with: “I believe in butterflies!” The words “I believe in God” were put immediately after the homily so that you, the celebrant, after preaching badly, might have something to immediately redeem yourself with!

Good Friday of the Lord's Passion

Easter as Opening the Doors of Hell

See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
(First Reading) 

Some years ago a young woman I knew, a university student, fell into a severe depression and attempted suicide. Her family, startled by what had happened, rallied around her. They brought her home and for the next few months tried to provide her with all the best that medicine, psychiatry, the church, and human love could offer. They tried everything, but they couldn’t penetrate the dark hole into which she had descended.

Four months later she killed herself. She had descended into a private hell into which nothing on this side of eternity could any longer enter. She was powerless to open up her own soul for help. I suspect that many of the reasons for her depression were not her fault. She didn’t will herself into that paralysis, circumstance, wound, and bad health put her there. All of us know similar stories.

What’s to be said about this? Does our faith have any answers?

There is a particular line in the Apostles’ Creed which is deeply rooted in the Gospels that does throw light, major light, on this issue. It’s the phrase: He descended to the dead. Or, in some versions: He descended into hell. What is contained in that phrase is, no doubt, the most consoling doctrine in all of religion, Christian or otherwise. What it tells us is that the way Jesus died and rose opened up the gates of death and of hell itself. What does that mean?

This is not a simple teaching. There are different layers of meaning inside of it. At one level, it expresses a Christian belief (which itself needs much explanation) that from the time of the fall of Adam and Eve until Jesus’ death, nobody, no matter how virtuous his or her life might have been, could enter heaven. The gates of heaven were shut and could be opened only by Jesus through his death. There is an ancient Christian homily (now part of the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday) which paints a picture of this as you might see depicted on an icon. It describes both why nobody could go to heaven before Jesus’ descent into the underworld and how Jesus, once there, wakes up Adam and Eve, and leads them through a now open door to heaven. But that’s an icon, not a literal picture.

The Gospels insert this into a wider concept. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, we see that is important that Jesus goes into every dark, taboo place on this planet and take God’s light and healing there. Thus Jesus goes into morally taboo places, the singles bars of his time. But he also goes into all other dark, taboo places, particularly into sickness and death. And, for first-century Judaism, there was no place more taboo than death itself. The belief was that human beings were created to enjoy God’s presence in this life and not to die. Death was seen as an evil, the consequence of sin, an alienation from God, a place separated from heaven, with no door in between. Hence to say that Jesus “descended to the dead” was the same as saying he “descended into hell.” All of the dead were considered as separated from God.

One of our major beliefs about Jesus is that, by entering death, he precisely entered this underworld, this Sheol, this place of separation and alienation, this “hell,” and, once there, breathed out God’s light and healing in the same way as, in John’s Gospel, he went through doors that were locked by fear and breathed out peace and forgiveness. By going through locked doors and breathing out peace, he both descends into hell and opens up the gates of heaven.

And this is not something abstract, a creedal statement to be believed. It is still happening. There are many forms of death, Sheol, the underworld, hell. Suicidal depression, incurable bitterness, a wound so deep it can never heal, helplessness inside of a life-destroying addiction, a beaten and crushed spirit, an alienation too deep and long-standing to be overcome, any of these can leave us huddled in a locked room, in some underworld, in some private hell, too weak to open the doors that lead to love and life. The gates of heaven close for many reasons.

That was the case for the young woman described above who killed herself. She was in Sheol. But, I don’t doubt for a second, when she woke on the other side Christ came through her locked doors, stood gently inside of her private hell, and breathed out peace.

In that ancient homily describing Jesus’ descent into hell, as Jesus wakes up Adam he says to him: I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. … Arise, let us leave this place! No doubt this is what Jesus said too to this young woman, and then he opened the gates of heaven for her just as he once opened those same gates for Adam and Eve.

Easter Sunday

Easter Should Be an Eye Opener

When Simon Peter arrived after him, 
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head … (Gospel)

Easter is mostly about waking up. It’s Easter when God and spring susurrate through the veins of nature giving frozen earth and frozen hearts a wake-up call. That call is ever needed. The human proclivity is towards sleep. Without outside revelation, the trumpet blast announcing resurrection, a divine force opening tombs, and God whispering new life inside of us, our preoccupations and obsessions invariably render us blind as bats—left to fly by radar.

Easter is about eyesight, seeing. George Orwell once summarized our difficulties in this area: “A rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with us. The thing that has been cut away is our soul and there is a period of time…during which we do not notice it.” (G. Orwell, Collected Essays, Vol. II, Page 15)

It’s a strange irony! We spend our lives searching for life in its rarity and we hardly notice Easter and spring. It’s Easter and we are heavy in spirit. Resurrection is all around and we are feeling old! Why? Why so blind to spring and resurrection?

Classical spiritual writers have always affirmed a connection between morality and epistemology. That’s a sophisticated way of saying that how we live morally affects our eyesight, our perception of reality. Moral laxity, sin, and lack of faith, cloud vision. That’s very true and our propensity to sleep through the resurrection, obviously, has something to do with our less than perfect faith and morals. However, I believe, in the end the problem is not so much our badness as our busyness, our sin as our obsessions. Let me try to explain this:

I don’t think that we are a particularly bad people. We have moral faults and laxities which are peculiar to our generation, but, conversely, we also have moral strengths and virtues that past generations lacked. Moreover, God is used to revealing love and resurrection to a sinful people. Where God is perhaps less practiced is in revealing love and resurrection to such busy and preoccupied persons. Where we differ from past generations is more in the pace of our lives than in our moral inadequacies. We are pressured, preoccupied, hurried, hell-bent, and driven in a way that previous generations never were. We’ve no time for the examined life, for contemplation, to notice spring and resurrection. “The plant must run!” as Merton once put it. There is little time or energy left after that has been taken care of.

Sadly, this is true even of our preaching of the gospel. We are so busy teaching the gospel, learning the gospel, running religious programs, administering sacraments, and making sure the religious plant runs that there is precious, little, if any, time and energy left to actually live the gospel. We have to spend so much time talking about God that, at a point, there is no time to listen to God any more. To this we add restlessness and emotional obsessions. Here too we differ from past ages. We are more restless, more dis-eased, than they. People have always been restless and prone to obsessions, but our age militates against restfulness and literally invites obsessions.

A myriad of factors—mass media, more leisure time, unbridled romance and sex, and philosophies of self-fulfillment which point us towards a salvation within our world—have driven up our psychic temperatures and have made it very difficult for us to accept our own lives and spirits. This makes for lots of heartaches. As painful as are the headaches that come to us from the hurriedness and pressures of our work, they are a lesser evil. It’s our heartaches, the emotional obsessions that so unsettle our rest, which, in Orwell’s metaphor, keep us concentrated on the jam.

They are the pain and the narcissism which makes us unaware of spring and resurrection and the whispering of God about newness and stones being rolled back. We don’t notice spring and resurrection because, outside of our heartaches and headaches, we hardly see anything at all. The earth is ablaze with the fire of God, with sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes that are enough to make anyone want to take one’s shoes off. There’s resurrection a plenty! Mostly it goes unnoticed. We sleep the sleep of heartaches and headaches!

It’s the time for spring and resurrection. I doubt there will be any resurrection trumpets loud enough to blast the narcissistic hell out of us. Mostly resurrection is about susurrection,* whispering. God whispers a lot. There are all kinds of secrets to be heard. Spring and Easter is a good season, for looking and listening.

* The definition of susurrection can be found here.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser


**From Saint Louis University


Kristin Clauson