…totally unmediated by editing, careful deliberation, or caffeine.
I spoke with Fr. Thomas, my formation director, a few days ago. He is a broad-shouldered Carmelite whose mind works fast and whose sentences often interrupt one another, who is possessed of bright eyes and a keen intellect and who is positively overflowing with wisdom, but who you are just as likely to find on any given night on the court playing basketball in his full habit as in the chapel kneeling quietly in adoration. Most nights, both.
“Are the reasons you are in seminary now different than they were when you first entered?” he asked me (in those or similar words, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal might have it.)
No, I told him—my reason hasn’t changed. Maybe intensified, or maybe I have a deeper understanding of it now, but I am still here for the same reason I came here in the first place, which is to seek the Lord’s will for my life, and to do it with an undivided heart.
“But you could be doing that anywhere,” he challenged me, his eyebrows mischevious. “You could be seeking his will by substitute teaching in Uganda. Why here?”
Ah, I said.
And I told him about the moment when my vocational discernment really started. It was the summer after I was received into full communion with the Church. I had been going to daily Mass regularly, if not quite daily, and I liked to sit in the church after everyone else had gone. There was something special about the silence and the stillness in that wide open, sacred space. The little old ladies who locked up the church would always come up to me and put one hand sweetly on my shoulder and stage-whisper, “You can stay as long as you like, just go out the side door when you’re done,” and then toodle off and pray fifteen decades of the rosary for the holy souls in purgatory, probably.
At that time, I might not have called what I was doing ‘praying’, exactly. Sometimes I might pray the rosary myself in those precious minutes after Mass, but more often I just sat and allowed my thoughts to wander, enjoying the feeling of being wrapped in silence, knowing the holy sacrifice had been celebrated here just minutes before, that God had been incarnate here, that he was still present here!, and the spirit of him hung in the very air I was breathing.
And that particular day, as I was sitting, and thinking, and silent, and still, God brought me to a sudden realization. I could see all my plans for my life, neatly laid out and built one upon the other: graduate high school, move to the city, then college, design school, B.F.A., M.A. maybe… a hip urban flat in Portland or Seattle, a freelance graphic designer, a life with a cool indie soundtrack. (The details got a little fuzzy around there, but the soundtrack was dope.)
And in that moment, for the first time, I could see the foundation those plans were built on, too. And it struck me in one great blow that that foundation, on which I had built my whole life, was gone. Not just shaken, not just painted over, but totally, irrevocably gone, stolen away as if by a thief in the night, and instead I had…
This. This Church, in all its silence and its stillness and its wonder and awesomeness and majesty. I had built a whole structure of plans and goals on shifting sands, without even realizing it, and the tide had come and washed them all away. And here I was, acting as if the structure was still standing. But it wasn’t. And I wasn’t standing on sand anymore. The tides had swept away what little I had painstakingly constructucted of sticks and reeds, and the very sand I had built it on, but it had left me standing on solid rock.
And I thought, okay.
I didn’t feel any despair. Not even a pang of sadness. Because I was reflecting back on the past two years of my life, how very much had changed already. I would never have predicted, two years before, where I would be sitting and what I would be thinking in that moment. I also would never have been able to imagine what joy, what peace, what deep satisfaction, what fulfilment!, but also what excitement, what passion, what longing, desire, would be awakened in my heart—what healing would take place from wounds I wouldn’t even have known I had yet—in short, what an incredible love story I was being swept up in. I was struck, literally struck, almost struck out of my pew by the realization all at once that God had brought me there, and not in an abstract or a theoretical way but actually, patiently, through my years of wandering, loneliness, confusion and doubt, through slow revelation, through gentle nudges from path onto path, from grace unto grace, by a quiet burning in my heart that grew greater and greater, a longing for that love which no one but Him could ever satisfy. And there I was, in His Church, having just received Him into my very self, and I felt in that moment I could die and be perfectly content.
And I prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what you have in store for me, but my life is yours. You can have it all. My plans are nothing compared to the plans you have for me. These past years are proof enough of that. So I surrender it all to you, Lord. Just show me what you want me to do.”
And in the days and weeks after that, as if by clockwork, everyone, and I mean everyone, from the little old ladies of the parish to an old ex-Catholic at an Episcopalian picnic, started asking me if I had considered that I might have a vocation to the priesthood.
And I thought, okay.
When I told him that story, Fr. Thomas immediately made a connection with Scripture which I had never remotely thought of, which is a very Carmelite thing for him to have done.
He handed me the Gospel of St. John, chapter one, pointed to the section beginning with verse 35.
The next day again John stood, and two of his disciples. And beholding Jesus walking, he saith: Behold the Lamb of God. And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turning, and seeing them following him, saith to them: What seek you? Who said to him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? He saith to them: Come and see. They came, and saw where he abode, and they stayed with him that day: now it was about the tenth hour.
“But in the Greek,” he said, “it’s all the same word. ‘Dwell,’ ‘abode,’ ‘stay’—it’s all μένω. It means something like…resting. Just being in a place, you know… Hanging out.”
Which is why I love the Thomas Koller translation of sacred scripture.
“And,” he went on, “these guys, the disciples and John, they followed Jesus, and they hung out with him, and it was such a powerful experience that St. John even remembers the exact time of day it happened, ‘the tenth hour,’ which was about 4:00 in the afternoon.”
It was a kind of proto-holy hour, I told him, that time in the church after Mass. I wasn’t really conscious of my relationship with Jesus yet, wouldn’t have characterized it as “spending time with him” or, God forbid, “hanging out with him”—that kind of thing smacked of evangelical Protestantism for me, even the whole notion of a ‘personal relationship with God’, and I wanted to distance myself from that tradition as much as I could. But God was doing what God always does, reaching out to us where we are, and drawing us gently onward, deeper into the mystery of his love, which is to say, of Him. In that quiet time in the Church, whether I knew it or not, I was “hanging out” with Him: I was staying with Him, dwelling, aboding with Him, or as the Greek dictionary helpfully adds, I was “μένων, lodging, tarrying, loitering, was idle, remaining, abiding, waiting” with Him. And His grace was working on a deeper level in my heart than I was even conscious of, until I was prepared to receive that revelation of the new foundation of my life, and the love which had brought me to it, and for me to offer him my whole life in return.
That idea, of grace working imperceptibly, reminds me of a great deal of reading I’ve been doing recently on the sacred liturgy. Many people, in our Puritan-rooted, Protestant-woven, deeply left-brain dominant society, protest that they “feel nothing” when they go to church. Or that they “get nothing out of it.” Even though they go week after week, it has no bearing on the rest of their lives. They don’t see the point. It’s irrelevant. My faith is about me and God. Why bother with church? they may ask. I can worship God at home or in the forest better.
Contra that mindset, I would like to respond first with a quote from Fr. Jeremy Driscoll OSB, a very holy monk of my very own Mount Angel Abbey, who I am altogether too privileged to know, in his book What Happens at Mass?:
“In the Eucharist, God is acting! He acts to save us. It is a huge event. In fact there is nothing bigger. God has concentrated the entirety of His saving love for the world into the ritual actions and the words of the Eucharistic liturgy.”
And then a longer quote from the inimitable Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, in the introduction of his very aptly titled companion volume, Why Go to Church?:
“But mostly it does not feel like a ‘huge event’. At a confirmation, a boy, asked by the bishop if he would go to church every Sunday, replied, ‘Would you go and watch the same movie every week?’
The ‘huge event’ of the Eucharist works in our lives in ways that are profound but often barely noticeable and hardly register as experiences at all. It is marvellous if the celebration of the Eucharist is a beautiful, emotional and aesthetic experience. It should be so, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one. Romano Guardini wrote that ’emotion flows in its [the liturgy’s] depth … like the fiery heart of the volcano. The liturgy is emotion, but it is emotion under the strictest control.’
Herbert McCabe OP compared the fruit of prayer to the subtle effects of living in a beautiful room. It does not have the immediate breathtaking effect of a glass of Irish whiskey, but it works at a deeper level. There are people, he says, ‘who do not really feel they have celebrated a Eucharist unless they get some kind of immediate experience of personal warmth and enhanced sensitivity … I agree with those who say they find the Missa Normativa (the modern post-Vatican Catholic Eucharist) a little dull, except that I do not think it is altogether a criticism. A room furnished in good taste is a little dull compared to one covered in psychedelic posters saying ‘God is Love’ and ‘Mary, the ripest tomato of them all.’
Our transformation by God’s grace is a slow business. A generation used to the immediacy of cyber communication might find it hard to believe in. A new version of Monopoly has been invented that does not take more than twenty minutes, otherwise people will lose interest and begin texting their friends. In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy says, ‘I was praying for patience but I stopped … I was afraid I might get it.’ The Eucharist is indeed ‘a huge event’, but it happens, often, at a level of our being of which we may be scarcely aware, as imperceptible as the growing of a tree. This is what John Henry Newman called ‘God’s noiseless work’. We may be like Harry Potter’s uncle and aunt and fat cousin, living boring lives, unaware that battles are being fought in the sky above them between wizards and griffins, only in our case the unobserved drama is at the core of our humanity.”
It took me a long time to understand this. Just tonight, I was talking with a friend who mentioned one of his greatest struggles in prayer is always looking for the outcomes. If he doesn’t feel different afterwards or see a change in his behavior, he confessed, he wonders if he’s been doing it right.
We can all fall into this trap. It’s part culture, part habit, part human nature. But our prayer is not about us. Our prayer is not about the effects it will have or what we may gain from it. Our prayer is about God. Our prayer is about love, like a conversation with your beloved is about love and about them and not about you—like the silent surging of your heart toward your beloved, like the deep connection, or indeed, communion, that cannot be expressed in words.
And along those same lines, I had the great privilege today of attending several lectures on the sacred liturgy, as part of my own Archdiocese of Portland’s Sacred Liturgy Conference. Here are a few selections from my notes.
First, from a talk by Dr. Francisco Romero Carrasquillo on the natural law and its impliactions for divine worship:
“Our nature demands that we personally offer and witness and unite ourselves to a sacrifice. This is lacking in, for example, Islamic and Protestant worship. Christian worship, therefore, should be seen as the perfection of the demands of our nature to offer sacrifice to God (for grace perfects nature.) And this can help us reflect on how we should worship.
We can run into a similar problem as with Islamic and Protestant worship in our own Mass when we miss the aspect of sacrifice, thinking of it primarily in terms of, e.g. a community meal or gathering, instead of what it essentially is. We need to bring that aspect of sacrifice out in the liturgy and be conscious of it. Our worship, for it to be in accordance with the natural law, must be focused on God (because that’s the whole point: giving to God out of justice what he is due). Not to say that other aspects of our worship are bad, but it must be theocentric, God-oriented: other aspects come second. Otherwise we are not really perfecting our natural inclination to worship and ‘doing what is just to give God his due.’
Next, from a talk by His Grace, Archbishop Alexander Sample, on the bishop’s role as guarantor of the sacred liturgy:
“Because far too many do not know the inner meaning of the sacred liturgy, they are tempted to impose other meanings on it, resulting in poor liturgical practice—trying to make the liturgy do something it was never meant to do. Because we don’t know what the Mass is, we try to make it relevant, to use it to communicate this or that point. No! The Mass has an inner meaning. Everything we do in the Mass must bring out the inner meaning and let it shine forth. If we know what we’re doing, that will tell us how to do it.”
Thirdly, from a talk by Fr. Pius X. Harding, OSB, on the nature of the sacred liturgy as gift and revelation:
“The relativism and subjectivism of our modern culture is a product of this modernist thought, seeing it [religion] as pious silliness or an absurd construct … One is free to choose religion, like one chooses fast food restaurants (‘give me what I want, as much as I want, when I want it, and don’t tell me no!’), subject to disputes of personal taste. If something is meaningful to me, and to my subjective pursuit of the divine, ‘why not?’
But the sacred liturgy is not subject to sentiment. Our celebration of the sacred liturgy is the response, the fiat, to the revelation of God, which in fact is an invitation to communion with him. God alway shows us how he is to be worshipped.”
There is a theme running through all of these talks. The liturgy is both gift and response. It is in itself a gift from God and it is our response to God for the immeasurable gifts he has given us. It is both the sacrifice of God on the cross and our sacrifice to God in our worship of Him. We do not decide what the Mass means; we do not innovate on it or seek to improve it; we do not impose our own meanings upon it. We do not presume to be better than the Mass or than its maker.
The Mass is what the Mass is. It is the representation of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. It works imperceptibly in us, moving us from grace unto grace, perfecting our human nature and drawing us deeper into the mystery of His love.
And one final quote (this one quite short), from a talk by Dr. Lynne Bisonette-Pitre:
The liturgy transforms our embodied nature. We are healed when we are holy. To be holy is to be healed.
Can’t say it any better than that.