07Mar Everyone needs ‘mystery’: do we find it at Mass?

Janice Turner writes for the London Times. She always has a slightly unusual view of life and seems to delight in being eccentric (off centre to the prevailing wisdom). She came from a home where scholarship, study and education were rather foreign. She grew up then and somehow made her way to Oxford with no family or community history or culture behind her – in education. She is unusual and enjoys being an outsider.

She wrote recently about being a profound atheist from an early age. She even ‘robbed’ the infant out of the ‘crib’ as a teenager. But she said in her article – ‘my soul has needs too.’ She was shopping in Oxford Street in London when her phone rang with grim news. She had to find a place to be quiet. It was a church called St Giles in the Fields. She sat there for a long time. She found mystery. She then wondered where all the noisy atheists discover that mystery.

Well yes, where do we find mystery and what is this mystery? Is it in the wonder of Spring or the dawning of light in the morning? Is it in the beauty of sunlight and the dancing shadows on the hills and mountains? Is it in the scrubs and trees and birds and insects and the wildness of nature speaking the Word of God daily to us? Or is it in the birth of a baby; or the chatter of youngsters as they discover their voice and the revelations of a world all around them? Is it in friendship and love and beauty and care and music and marvel and art and life about us daily? Without such a sense of poetry – life is wooden and empty.
The Bread of Life.
Francie (a local illiterate traveller) was asked (at Mass) what was the Bread of Life (from John 6). He said: “ The bread of life for me is – I look out the window and see the birds and the insects; the bushes and the trees; the wind swaying; the hills in shadow and light – that is the Bread of life; it feeds me. I look at Mary (wife) and think of how she puts up with me. I look at Yvonne (born after a very severe accident when Francie almost died) and think – this is the Bread of Life. I look at the community here and am full of gratitude – they feed me and nourish me. That is the Bread of Life. That is Christ for me. I am well fed and nourished. “

The Table
Any understanding of Eucharist has to find that Mystery and face ‘the hunger’ inside all of us. There has to be a Table. The Table has to bring together all our memories – of sitting around a Table; eating and talking. That Table is somewhat lost in today’s world. The noise of life (be it TV or music); be it individual’s taste; be it a fact that few sit to chat. The family of the past – around the Table with common and shared food is the Eucharist at work. It was a noisy Table when families were big. People had to talk and had to listen. Everyone had a story to tell and be listened to. How was the day? What happened and what was happening? That was how we were fed and how we fed each other. How often too did that food come from our own gardens? We had set the seeds; watched and waited for the vegetables to grow; were aware of the cold and the diseases that affected our plants and then delighted in eating our own. The eggs came often from our own hens.
What do we bring to the Table? We come together. We come to meet others. We come to enjoy the company (companionship of others; to share our stories and their stories: companionship = cum panis; with bread). This is the Table of life; this is the Table of Teilhard de Chardin. We come to our ‘home’ (Church) where all our Tables are gathered into One.

Sacred moments of the past
We come with a sense of Mystery and a need for it. The past ‘enjoyed’ the pomp and ceremony: The smoke; The noise of bells; The quietness; The ‘otherness’ of the Priest up in that faraway place surrounded by an architecture which defined ‘his holiness’ and the ‘holiness of the place.’ Today we must bring or catch something of that mystery in a different way. How can we? We may come with busy minds and tired hearts. Somehow – we must stop. How can we really Stop. We need time beforehand to ready ourselves. If we bring nothing of ourselves; nothing can really reach us (if we are not interested; we will not find anything interesting!). We have to get a little something of the Moses story: ‘Take off your shoes; you are walking on holy ground.’ There has to be a ‘burning bush’ somewhere in our daily lives. That is what we bring.
What happens at Mass?
The Listening around the Table of the past – was to the family chatter. The listening at Mass (at the Eucharist) is to the family chatter too. It tells us of our History. We have to find a place in that Story. This is never just about yesteryear. It is about today and God/Christ among us. It is my Story. ‘This is your Life.’ Our Story. There is a sharing of Story in our minds and hearts and imaginations. God still speaks. We cannot ever just arrive and take in the message. We need to ready our minds by praying into the Readings before we arrive. Otherwise – boredom is the convenient truth. As for the Priest and his words – he may be ‘in-spirit-rational but he has little chance unless some of the ground work is done. The personal story has to be awake. It helps if the Community actually respond and share! Does this happen? The story too of the characters of our lives and our past must be entertained when we come together. Prayer is stirred in us when we ‘hear’ the word. The ‘prayers of the faithful’ are strangely named but really do bring together what matters in this community at this time and what is happening around our country and our world. And can be full of faith?

Are we passive or do we bring something?
The Offertory is properly called – the presentation of Gifts. It gets crowded out by noise and collections and fuss. In fact, it should be a quiet time. Why? It is a moment to reflect. It really asks again – what do you bring to the Table? What is your gift in the light of the Readings? We need to bring our ordinary lives; our simple gifts; ourselves. God needs that. The food cannot be shared. The meal cannot be prepared unless our unique gift is there. My chatter; my personal efforts; my-our profile now matters. Unless we can say in our hearts – this is my gift; this is me; take my gift; this is our community – something is incomplete. We are observers and not participants otherwise.

Can Communion really happen?
In the ‘giving’ – everything is changed. In the ‘giving;’ Christ is made present. In our Communion – like Augustine says: ‘Look at the Host – stop and look around. Think of everyone here and everyone in your life. Say Yes to them. Say Yes to Christ only after saying a hearty Yes to each other.’ That really is Communion. Communion arises from that Yes. Communion becomes Community in that Yes. Communion becomes Communication when we share out that Yes…. Reach out to others; make a difference. Then at the end – We are sent on a mission. You. This Community. Go. Out. You are the disciples of Jesus. Eucharist has been celebrated. Thanksgiving has happened. Food has been readied (in the shopping and growing of our lives); it has been cooked by the efforts of everyone; we have been fed and nourished by each other and by Christ among us. We are strong to face daily life. The Mystery happens. It is Holy Ground. And we are Holy.

Does the music and song reach our souls?
Music and song are essential in all of this Celebration. Why? It lifts us beyond ourselves; It catches (stirs; wakes up; provokes) our spirits. Above all – much of the singing and music should involve everyone there. Detached beautiful singing is for performance but not for a total community involvement which is the very definition of the Celebration. It also has to be done in a psychological manner. We are ‘gathered’ – gently, we move our minds from where we were, to where we are. We respond to what we hear (psalm). ‘Gift time’ should be ever so calming and reflective – really should be instrumental. Communion should take us into a real sense of ‘others’. The ‘Going out’ music, should be very strong and ‘send us out’ encouraged and Confident. All our music should reflect what is happening at every moment…. The old definition of Prayer: ‘ the raising of the mind and heart to God.’ ~And so it must be. But the Mystery has to be caught and must be there for catching. A passive church is not Eucharist. Unless we are drawn into Mystery; we haven’t been to Mass!

Seamus Ahearne osa

10 Responses

  1. Eddie Finnegan

    Thanks again, Séamus. Another tonic!

  2. David

    ‘Above all – much of the singing and music should involve everyone there. Detached beautiful singing is for performance but not for a total community involvement which is the very definition of the Celebration.’

    ….which is precisely the attitude that has led to fewer people joining church choirs. Why join a church choir, and give up weekday evenings to rehearse with them, when the choir is confined to music suitable for congregational singing?

    Surely there is room for both ‘beautiful singing’ and congregational singing in the liturgy. There is certainly scope given in Sacrosanctum Concilium for this. The faithful can participate in, and be moved, a good piece of choral music by listening, just as much as they can participate in a good homily. Should the singers who do the ‘ detached beautiful singing’ sing less beautifully so that they can blend in with everyone else and be more average? Surely this is unworthy of them – and of the liturgy.

    I know this is only a minor point raised in a much broader article, but it a significant one. There are many Catholic (and ex-Catholic) singers and organists who are now spending their Sunday mornings music-making in Church of Ireland churches, and it is the ignorance to sacred music displayed above that has driven them there….

  3. Nuala O'Driscoll

    In his ‘Mass on the World’ Teillhard de Chardin illustrates the deep connection between nature, mystery and spirituality. Teillhard was a deeply spiritual man, scientist and priest but he sailed too close to the wind. As a source of mystery and spirituality, nature is very potent. We are made of the same stuff as the stars, we have memories older than we can remember. The Church has always frowned on using nature as a means of deepening our spirituality, it is called Pantheism. If we cannot find God in nature first, we wont find God at all. Teillhard was also silenced, his books could not be published until he was dead.

  4. john

    A very thought provoking article Seamus.
    (David 2). Indeed you will see and hear many present and former Roman Catholics singing their hearts out in Church of Ireland parishes throughout the island of Ireland. I would doubt very much if we are all there for simply the singing and this should also include the Anglican priests and their wives, many of these good men once would have been attached to a Roman Catholic parish… I doubt if any are there because of our lack of knowledge of Choral music.

  5. mjt

    Seamus Ahearne osa:
    If only there were more like you there`d surely be fewer problems in the Irish Church.
    There`d be more attending and better, participating in Mass and the life of the church more widely.
    And you are surely right about the use of music: people should be encouraged, indeed, expected, to participate. Among the most uplifting experiences in our church locally is when the choir, though they sing beautifully, are away on summer holiday and the rest of us have to weigh in in our at times discordant but definitely enthusiastic way, a sign maybe of what could be achieved if people are encouraged or “allowed” to be involved. Imagine having to use the word “allowed” in 2013!
    About the only improvement I`ve seen brought about by the introduction of the new translation was incidental, in that more congregations do seem now to stand, sit and kneel at the appropriate times, as opposed to what happened in the past, when priests too often paid no attention to the norms established by the Irish bishops.
    Finally, “mystery” is, surely, truth revealed, not enigma or puzzle or conundrum, as it is most often used to mean in the media and in unthinking, common speech. It`s a simple point. But it points to another issue: if priests had proper respect for the
    intelligence of parishioners, perhaps they might think it possible to try to educate them in such ideas and meanings instead of encouraging or even requiring supine and listless head-down silence. And then there might be real involvement at Mass. Or would an informed and educated and active congregation be too threatening?
    One quibble with you: shouldn`t it be “Prayer (not Prayers) of the Faithful”? One body of people, praying to the Father through the Son?
    (It reminds me the vexatious “We believe” and “I believe” change..)

  6. Margaret Lee

    Seamus, thanks for an excellent article. I really appreciate that you took the time to write it. The value of lectio groups is that it hepls us to listen to the readings. I know that your suggestions for congregational singing make perfect sense but somehow, we just don’t join in and that fact that we are often at a physical distance from each other (due to small numbers attending) adds to our inhibitions. Also, we are not of one mind as to what is happening at Mass. Some people tell me that they don’t want singing at Mass–that they just want to say their own prayers! We have never put energy into adult faith formation and so we reap what we sow.

  7. Chris McDonnell

    This is a fine statement of Eucharist which deserves wide circulation. Too often in recent months our discussions have failed to reflect the mystery of our faith in the Eucharist. That is why Teilhard’s, Mass on the World,written in the Ordos desert in 1923, is such a fine testament.
    The opening few lines are especially beautiful.

    “Since once again, Lord
    I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar,
    I will raise myself beyond these symbols,
    up to the pure majesty of the real itself

    I your priest will make the whole earth my altar
    and on it will offer you all the labours
    and sufferings of the world.
    Over there, on the horizon,
    the sun has just touched with light
    the outermost fringe of the eastern sky.

    Once again beneath this moving sheet of fire,
    the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles,
    and once again begins its fearful travail.

    I will place on my paten, O God,
    the harvest to be won by this renewal of labour.
    Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap
    which is pressed out this day
    from the earth’s fruits.

    My paten and my chalice
    are the depths of a soul laid widely open
    to all the forces which, in a moment, will rise up
    from every corner of the earth
    and converge upon the Spirit”.

  8. Rosaline

    Thank you, Seamus, for this wonderful piece which deserves to be re-printed in every church bulletin in Ireland. You say, “We need to ready our minds by praying into the Readings before we arrive.” In line with this advice I would suggest that the readings and commentary on this website be published on the day previous rather on the day of the Liturgy. This would help those who don’t have a daily missal.
    In keeping with the spirit of the mystery of the Eucharist, I still cannot understand why any priest can repeat the words of Jesus, “Take and drink, all of you..” and proceed to deny the Chalice to the laity. Are we to contemplate mystery in every other aspect of the Eucharistic celebration and refuse to acknowledge the symbolism, the mystery of the Lamb of God, before shedding his blood saying, “Take and drink, all of you, for this is the Chalice of my blood…” Would this be an appropriate starting point for genuine renewal in our church?

  9. Darlene Starrs

    I should imagine any liturgical celebration is “empty” without the “mystery” which, is Christ. And so, any liturgical celebration that is fragrant with the “mystery”, which is Christ, is uplifting, inspiring, healing, joyful, and enduring! While the current text of the missal is a major let down…….we, as the Church, have at our disposal, all the necessary, “props”, to truly celebrate the Word of God and the Life that He is for us. Invariably, it does take reflection and thoughful planning, but Great Liturgy, is very possible, especially, since, it is all about, THE MYSTERY! Thank you for presenting your comments on the Liturgy.

  10. Catherine

    I concur with Rosaline in her thanks to you Séamus for your beautiful article, her suggestions regarding the readings and commentaries on this website and last but not least her inability to understand “why any priest can repeat the words of Jesus, ‘Take and drink, all of you’.. and proceed to deny the Chalice to the laity.”

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