I recently had an article post on this site addressing what I have witnessed and realized to be a trend toward self-centeredness in Liturgy, especially in many of the more modern songs we sing. I specifically referenced a particular song, "Here I Am, Lord” that many find special. I indeed find it special as well, but the song does illustrate our own individual parts in God’s story, and this is a mood contrary to what the Mass is all about. It is a song that caters to our desires, and emotions.
Many of the comments I received from that piece were declarations of how that specific song made individuals feel more united with God, because the song proclaimed their desire to do His will. Many others defended the song because it was Scriptural, and because it was scriptural, it should be free game. That might have some validity, in certain contexts of the Mass, and maybe not in others. Overall the comments defending the piece were about the emotions it elicited.
Faith is not about feelings.
Timing is everything they say, and as I thought about all these peculiar events, gestures, and the belligerence to ideas that are traditional and “orthodox’, the anniversary of the Reformation and the irony of that timing did not escape me. It seems that many of us have determined to stage a ‘reformation’ of our own. It is much more subtle and probably a lot more dangerous. As the Gospel message for today’s readings (11/5/17) instruct us, humility is key to knowing and growing in love and obedience to the Father. Humility is lost when we perform our own interpretations for rituals and gestures for selfish and self-gratifying reasons, essentially because they make us feel good. We must constantly be evaluating the motives for our actions, and ensuring that our works are for the praise and glory of God, and are rooted in love and charity. St. Paul warns us that actions born without love and charity, though noble, demote us to the status of a clanging cymbal in the Kingdom of God.
As the Pharisee’s in today’s gospels show us, as Jesus warns us to listen to but not to follow the examples of, it can be very easy to fall into this cache, and not even realize it. It is a subtle, gradual and very slippery slope from charity and love to self-righteousness and pride. It only took the Pharisees a few generations to fall from the righteousness exhibited in the Books of Maccabees. Pride can be masked very easily as virtue, which is why it is so dangerous and Satan’s favorite weapon.
We are called to know and love God, not chase the emotional high that superficial gestures and songs elicit in us. It’s not about “feelings” it is about knowing, it is not about emotion, it is about reason and intellect. “Be still and KNOW that I am God”. To know him, is to love him. We come to know Him by intently listening to the Readings in Scripture, by entering into the Eucharistic prayers and mystery with him, and then by savoring the moments when we are united physically to Him in Holy Communion. We find Joy, not happiness, in the peace that comes by knowing our Lord. Joy is what we must seek, it is rooted in reason, happiness is rooted in emotion. Joy will last, happiness not so much. Joy will withstand and transcend the dryness and lows of life, happiness will succumb to the dryness and lows. Happiness is fleeting, Joy is eternal.
This is a battle that we have been fighting since the beginning of time, when Eve decided for herself to eat the fruit, Abraham denied trust in God and slept with Hagar, Moses hit the rock twice, David slept with Bathsheba, and on and on and on. It happens to the best of us, and with unbelievable Mercy, God just keeps giving us more chances to get it right. The thing is, we cannot get it right without God, and everything right we do, even our acceptance and response to His Grace, is a gift of His Grace as well. The Father beckons us, through his son. Jesus came to reveal the Father to us, and that is what we offer in Sacrifice at Mass. The Mass is an act of Sacrifice first and foremost, it is not a song fest, it is not a community festival, it is a community gathering for worship. This is worship that we as Catholics have a privilege and honor to participate in, as we offer everything that we have and are to the Father. It is the ultimate sacrifice that God laid out and prepared us for so carefully and meticulously throughout the Old Testament. We nullify so much of that when we come to Mass expecting to get something out of it for ourselves. God brought our ancestors out of Egypt for Worship to Him, because he knew that only in Him and through Him and with Him, are we able to find peace and happiness, in this world and in the next.The superficiality of our own created gestures impedes our path to that sanctification that He wants to pour over us, if we would only approach Him with humility and shed the pride that tarnishes what we can be.
It is such a struggle. If we are going to Mass and trying to reach that level of relationship just once a week, it is impossible. Daily prayer, Mass, adoration, Confession, along with many other opportunities for devotion are so necessary. Being Catholic is not something that we do on Sundays, it is who we are every day, or should be. Being Catholic is a lifestyle, not a Sunday obligation. We cannot have a deep, meaningful relationship with someone we only spend one hour a week with, and don’t make an effort to know intimately. If we don’t do the work through the week to know God, we won’t realize the magnitude and miracle found in the Mass on Sunday. Mass is not an isolated pathway to holiness, it is the summit of our lives as Catholics, but there are many steps to get there along the way.
The complaints about gestures and songs at Mass are rooted in misunderstanding and lack of formation. We must put in the time and the effort to understand the Faith, and not fall into the traps, like so many of the Protestant denominations, to desire a service that will provide the best music, and most inspirational speaker, the entertainment, while ignoring the true divinity and Life found in the Eucharist. So many Catholics have left for these other services, in pursuit of the kind of self-centered fulfillment that is temporary and dull when compared to the glory found in the Divine Liturgy and Eucharistic Celebration that encompasses all of Heaven and Earth. I wonder what they see and grieve over on the other side of eternity, when we focus more on our own part of the story than on God, the one that has so generously offered us a role in that story, His story.
My plea is for all of us is to focus on Christ, and give Christ the Glory he is due. When we truly give everything we are and have to Him, what we receive back in return is far more greater than when we try to do it all on our own. We can be that light to others, a very noble and virtuous endeavor, but that light is so much brighter when it is magnifying our Lord and God, and not our own self-satisfaction and pursuit. That is what we all want, to honor Him, and the Church really does lead the way, with all Her rules and teachings. She really does know what is best for us, because God has divinely revealed this to Her, for His mission. It is Her sole purpose. The Church is here to make Saints, and she is very successful at this, and always has been. Her instructions and outlines of how to celebrate the Mass really will lead us into the fullest communion with Christ and Our Father in Heaven. We must detach ourselves from the emotions and temporal desires that hold us back from full submission. That is what these small seemingly harmless gestures and self-serving songs do. They devoid us of or our dependence on God and enslave us to our emotional dependence on good feelings. It really isn’t about the gesture or the songs, but the disposition that it creates in our hearts.
Worship music and our prayer gestures should lead us to know God, and deepen our connection and relationship to him first and foremost. Without that relationship, there is nothing true that we can offer our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, let’s let the Church guide us, and let us make the effort to understand the rituals, prayers, gestures and traditions found in the Mass and the many other devotions offered by the Church that can lead us to Holiness. Because, being Holy is all that matters in the end.