I want to give two thumbs up for good old-fashioned experience, just experiencing life to its top … just having an experience! Too often in today’s hurried age and also in this time of 24×7 news, we rush past experience right to analysis. Too often we insist on knowing immediately what something “means” and what to think about it. This rush to think and analyze often happens before the experience is even over. And, of course, analyzing something before all the facts are in leads to limited, often poor analysis. Two old sayings come to mind:
1. Don’t Think … Look! We miss so much of life when we retreat into our brains for immediate analysis. I recently went to an art exhibit called “The Sacred Made Real.” As you walk in, you are handed a thick pamphlet describing each of the works. This is fine, I thought, but before I read a word I wandered through and gazed upon each marvelous work. Some of the works were mysterious to me: “Who was this?” I thought. But the mystery was part of the experience. Only later did I go back and read about each work. I also noticed many people buried in their little pamphlets barely looking at the actual artwork beyond an occasional glance. Most of their time was spent reading. There were others who had headphones on, which allows a better look, but still fills your head with information too soon. Another variant on this saying is “Don’t Think … Listen!” So often when listening to others, we pick up a few words or a sentence and then zap! — our mind lights up as we start thinking about how we’re going to answer them and we miss most of what they are saying to us.
2. Don’t just do something, stand there. With all of our activism, we seldom savor life. Few people take a Sabbath rest anymore. Few eat dinner with their families. Few even know how to chill and just relax. Even vacations are often packed so full of activities and destinations that there is little time to actually experience what one is doing. I live near the U.S. Capitol, and observing how some people are so busy taking pictures of it, I wonder if they ever really see or experience the Capitol.
Even in the sacred liturgy we get things wrong today. Consider the following:
1. It’s a First Holy Communion or perhaps a wedding. As the children come down the aisle, or perhaps the bride, dozens of cameras and cell phones are held aloft. Annoying flashes go off, creating a strobe effect. People scramble to get into better positions for a picture. In recent years, I have had to forbid the use of cameras. For a wedding, the bride and groom are permitted to hire a professional photographer. For First Holy Communion and Confirmation, we permit one professional photographer to take pictures for the entire group. But otherwise, I instruct the assembled people that the point of the Liturgy is to worship God, to pray, and to experience the Lord’s ministry to us. I insist that they put away their cameras and actually experience the Sacrament being celebrated and the mysteries unfolding before them.
2. A few years ago, I was privileged to be among the chief clergy for a Solemn High Pontifical Mass in the Old Latin Form at the Basilica here in D.C. The liturgy was quite complicated, to be sure. We rehearsed the day before and as the rehearsal drew to a close I said to whole crew of clergy and servers, “OK, tomorrow during the Mass, don’t forget to worship God!” We all laughed because it is possible to get so wrapped up in thinking about what is next, and about what I have to do, that we forget to pray! The next day, I told God that no matter what, I was here to worship Him. I am grateful that He gave me a true spirit of recollection at that Mass. I did mix up a minor detail, but in the end, I experienced God and did not forget to worship Him. Success! Thank you, Lord!
3. The Mass is underway in a typical Catholic parish.
Something remarkable is about to happen: the Lord Jesus is going to speak through the deacon, who ascends the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Yes, that’s right, Jesus Himself will announce the Gospel to us. As the deacon introduces the Gospel, all are standing out of respect. And five hundred pairs of eyes are riveted … on the deacon? No! Many eyes are in fact riveted on the missalette. Halfway through the Gospel, the Church is filled with the sound of hundreds of people turning the pages of their missalettes (with one or two dropping them in the process). Sadly, most lose the experience of the proclamation of God’s Word with their heads buried in a missalette. They may as well have read it on their own. I know, some will argue that this helps them understand the reading better. But the Liturgy is meant to be experienced as a communal hearing of the Word proclaimed.
4. I celebrate a good number of Wedding Masses in the Old Latin Form. Some years ago, a couple prepared a very elaborate booklet so that people could follow along and understand every detail of the Old Latin Mass. Of itself, it was a valuable resource. They asked me if, prior to Mass, I would briefly describe the booklet and how to use it. I went ahead and did so, but concluded my brief tour of the book by saying, “This is a very nice book and will surely make a great memento of today’s wedding. But if you want my advice, put it aside now and just experience a very beautiful Mass with all its mystery. If you have your head in a book you may miss it and forget to pray. Later on you can read it and study what you have experienced.” In other words, “Don’t think … Look!”
5. In the ancient Church, the catechumens were initiated into the “Mysteries” (the Sacraments of Initiation) with very little prior instruction as to what would happen. They had surely been catechized in the fundamental teachings of the faith, but the actual details of the celebration of the Sacraments were not disclosed. They were Sacred Mysteries and the disciplina arcanis (the discipline of the secret) was observed. Hence, they simply experienced these things and were instructed as to their deeper meaning in the weeks that followed (in a process known as mystagogia). Hence, experience preceded analysis, understanding, and learning. And the very grace of the experience and the Sacraments provided the foundation for that understanding.
Well, I realize that this post will not be without some controversy. Let me be clear about one point: catechesis is important, but so is experience. And if we rush to analyze and decode everything, we miss a lot. I have taught on the liturgy extensively in this blog and will continue to do so. There is a time to study and learn, but there is also a time just to be still and experience what God is actually doing in every liturgy—indeed in every moment of our lives.
Two thumbs up and three cheers for experience.
I realize that some further distinctions ought to be made, but I want to leave that for you who comment. Have at it!
Msgr. Charles Popeis the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, DC. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and holds Masters degrees in Divinity and in Moral Theology. He was ordained in 1989 and named a Monsignor in 2005. He has conducted a weekly Bible Study in Congress and in the White House, for two and four years, respectively.