I remember a homily from more than a decade ago — surprising, I know, since I can’t usually recall even the general theme of last week’s. The main idea of this memorable sermon is lost to my mind, but one sentence stuck: “The man who is good at liturgy is good at life.”
What a statement! The Mass is composed of ritual, as is life, so those who are successful in one will harvest the fruits in another. I loved the concept. It provided meaning to the monotonous routine of day in and day out.
From time to time since hearing that sermon, it would dawn on me that the opposite is true as well: He who is good at life is good at liturgy. And in an innocuous moment at a monastic bookstore, the veil of understanding was opened a bit wider.
I had stepped into the store while I was on retreat. It had a nice accumulation of spiritual reading, medals, and Christian icons. In one corner was stock from the convent next door. What caught my eye were some candles made from beeswax, but not the kind we often see that are melted down and molded. These were made by taking a sheet of beeswax and rolling it up around a wick. One could examine still the layers of honeycomb rolled over and again.
I asked the monk at the register about the significance of the wax and he explained that worship candles need to come from the earth in order to symbolize giving God our best. In other words, the ideal Catholic worship is organic. As we come from the dust, so too should our liturgy. I purchased the candles and went on with my retreat.
I keep the candles in a spot I often pass on my way between projects at home. Many times, upon seeing them I reflect on this simple but profound idea. We are but dust. We all come from the same ground as the food and drink that provide our sustenance, the minerals we shape into jewelry and dinnerware, the fragrances that delight our sense of smell, and the beautifully simple beeswax candles that aid in our sight. The Holy Mass — in the candles, the incense, the altar bread and wine, and yes, in the humanity — reconnects us to a part of our experience that can easily be overlooked. From this order, life should flow out as an ever vigilant reminder of our place in God’s creation.
The Mass provides a stable foundation for the way to interact with the environment, lest we become like pilgrims searching for a deep connection but without a competent guide. This searching can lead to a soft paganism where the good things of the earth become the end in themselves and earth’s goodness is celebrated without an encounter with the Giver of all that is good. This, in the end, may bring nice feelings but it cannot fill our void.
That’s what made those candles so powerful for me. I began to understand how the Catholic Church is the champion of the natural order. Her mission as the Bride of Christ is always to aid us in aligning ourselves with the proper celebration of God’s creation. I may wear hemp shoes, organic cotton, and a pure wool hat, but without the Mass, I am but a clanging cymbal. I may make the most exquisite natural apricot jam, but without proper worship I am casting idols. Or to put it as the homilist put it that day so many years ago, a man who does liturgy well is indeed a man who can make sacred ritual of the most profane routine. He is equally able to properly celebrate his place in the created order.