|The monks at Weston|
"back in the day"
We have already examined the idea that friendship with the Risen Lord is nourished by an immersion in the Scriptures which is the only foundation for a sound Christian spirituality, now let’s look at how a lively sacramental life can bring us into a deeper friendship with Christ. I think the biggest challenge here is that the Western Church has long emasculated its Sacramental heritage leaving us not with the splendid banquet of rich foods and choice wines promised by Isaiah but with crumbs and dregs that has left most of us spiritually emaciated. While I will be the first to admit that a lot of babies went out with the Vatican II bathwater, the real problem is not that we lost much in the conciliar Reform of the Liturgy but that not enough of our rich heritage has been restored to us as was promised in Sacrocanctum Concilium
I remember—case in point—teaching a class about fifteen years ago in which I had a number of students from a local Anglican seminary which was involved in renovating their collegiate church. During a break in the class they began to discuss whether or not the baptismal font should be constructed for pouring or for full immersion. I told them that I was a bit nonplussed that this would be even be an issue. Once one has seen baptism by immersion one can understand what the Sacrament of Baptism is all about and one would never advocate “pouring” as the means of baptizing. At the time I was attending an African-American parish where all baptisms were done by full immersion—they had a permanent baptismal pool built into the sanctuary—and I had become used to seeing the Easter Baptisms where the whole idea of going into death with Christ so that we might be raised with Christ was not simply a formula but a profound sensory experience in which the rite was actually able to symbolize effectively its meaning.
I also recall often attending the Liturgy at Weston Priory and seeing the one bread fractured into the many pieces by which we would actually be nourished (it was real bread, not a unsubstantive disk of bleached flour and water) and reminded us that though we are many we become One in Christ by sharing the one loaf and the one cup. Similarly I once attended the Easter Vigil of a neo-catechumenal community and while I was somewhat taken aback by a strong Gnosticism in some of the texts and in in the homilies, the visuals of the beautiful golden loaves of bread and silver basins of wine set aside for the Eucharist and the full immersion baptisms empowered the Liturgy to be not simply a formulaic exposition of our belief in Baptism and Eucharist but a portal into participation in the profound Paschal Mystery at the center of our faith.
I do not know why Roman Rite Catholics are such sacramental minimalists. If our churches before Vatican II were ugly (and more often than not they were) too often they are sterile now. While we rarely heard music—good or bad—before the Council, now we too often are subjected to the most banal of Church music. (If I hear “On Eagle’s Wings” or “Be Not Afraid” at one more funeral, I will offer to switch destinies with the corpse.) And I am sorry, but the latest translation/revision of the Roman Missal is a “dog’s dinner” of unintelligible English, convoluted syntax, occult vocabulary, and ambiguous theology. If we are to be nourished by the Liturgy we need liturgical forms that are actually prayerful.
And if the Mass is bad, the breviary is even worse. While it can serve well as a book for private prayer—as long as one doesn’t feel a need to complete any liturgical hour but wants to use it as a springboard for meditation or lectio divina—it is piss-poor for communal prayer. We have to slog our way through the psalms and canticles only to get to scripture lessons that are way too truncated. And while I like antiphons in general, the need to keep going back and forth from one ribboned part of the book to another is just far too distracting. Why can’t our prayer be more simple? Read the mystics—read people like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux or Brother Lawrence—prayer just isn’t that complicated. Don’t make it complicated. Whether it is liturgical prayer or private prayer let’s just keep it simple so that we can give our attention to the prayer and not be preoccupied by the how we are praying. Don’t get me wrong—I like the psalms. I like canticles. I like antiphons. I just want something that lets me pray without overwhelming me in a bizarre combination of verbiage and ribbons.
All that being said, I love the Liturgy. I love how it guides us through the days and through the seasons. How mornings are mornings and nights are nights and one tastes the hopes of the Advent and the introspection of Lent and the long lazy aimless passage of Ordinary Time. And I want to see us as Church—not only the Religious but all of us—swim in the moving currents of Liturgical prayer. We need to find ways to bring what we already have—the Eucharist and the Sacraments—to far greater vitality in our parish communities and also to revive the Prayers of the Hours so that we can all be nourished with that splendid banquet of fine meats and choice wines. And it is not unfair of us to expect that the Religious—who supposedly have kept and preserved at least the bones of this one fine Tradition—to guide us on reviving a full rich Sacramental life.
Perhaps we need to remember that Christ is the fundamental Sacrament—the Visible Presence of the Invisible God. And the Church which makes Christ visible present in his Body is the spring from which the seven sacraments originates. Above all we need to recover a strong sense of community. Religious need to take this with a particular seriousness. Again, it is the vocation of the Religious to set the pace for the rest of us. Both in common prayer and common life, not only the rest of the Church but the rest of the world has the need of the witness that Religious can give. Community means something different to a Benedictine than to a Jesuit—and I can appreciate that—and we don’t need Jesuits to live like Benedictines or Franciscans like Redemptorists. Religious can give us not only the witness of community but the witness that there are different models for common life. But in our culture of rampant individualism, the chief Sacrament of which we have need is the visible sign that in Christ people of different ideas and different backgrounds and different personalities can still be knit together by the Holy Spirit into One.