Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Christ Becomes the Mystagogical Catechist through the Mass

Book review: A Devotional Journey into the Mass - How Mass Can Become A Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion, by Christopher Carstens (pub. Sophia Institute Press).

In this book (available here), Christopher Carstens, who is also the editor of Adoremus Bulletin, takes us through each key element of the Mass, from entering the church through to our response to the dismissal). Grounding his discussion in the sacramental thought of Romano Guardini, he takes us on a journey into the heart of the liturgy which, in the principles he articulates, is applicable to the Ordinary Form, the Extraordinary Form, and the Anglican Ordinariate form of the Roman Rite. (Sophia Institute Press also very kindly provides a free printable summary of the major points in two pages, available here.)

“If you’re unhappy because the Mass has become for you routine – or even boring and tedious – these pages are for you. They teach you eight simple ways to make your every Mass a joyful time of piety and intense devotion.” This is how the publisher describes the appeal of this book. I would add to this that Carsten’s approach is the basis for a mystagogical catechesis that will allow us to participate, so that the Sacred Liturgy as a whole itself becomes the primary force for continual mystagogy. As such, I would see it as a natural complement to any authentic Catholic education, such as described in the book on children’s education I reviewed recently, Educating in Christ.

By emphasizing the sacramental nature of the Mass so profoundly and in such simple and clear language, and by showing its deep connection to Scripture and salvation history, it is, in my opinion, a foundational text for an approach to mystagogical catechesis that could reap rewards for a lifetime.

I appreciated particularly, for example, his emphasis also on lectio divina as a preparation for the Scripture that is proclaimed in the readings at Mass. Firstly, he de-mystifies it with simple and clear instructions on the method. Secondly, and just as importantly, he highlights how this exercise in meditation and contemplative prayer is consummated in the worship of God. It is not a higher activity, but one which, like all other activities that are not liturgical, derives its power and effectiveness from the liturgy, and so, in turn, leads us back to it for its consummation. To help us, Carstens explains beautifully how our personal pilgrimages are a participation in that which takes place in the story of salvation history, running through Old and New Testaments. This is a useful point for the evangelization of New-Agers and non-Christians who are looking to Eastern religions in a search for mystery. I would say that their desire to meditate is good, but will be even more powerful and effective if transformed to be harmony with its true place in the spiritual life.

I was gratified to read how strongly he makes the point that this is not just about the words. All art and even the architecture of the church building must reveal these universal truths in such a way that they are communicated to each person, and so act as clear perceptible signposts that direct us on our way. To the degree that we respond to what is offered, we can ourselves be formed as artists who then fashion our very lives to the template of the Paschal Mystery.

To take one example of how images can support this: some will remember my discussion on why the image of the three children in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel is important for Christians. Through this book, Carstens enriched my own understanding and appreciation of this image even further with his detailed discussion of the Scriptural account of this episode, and its importance to the Mass. As he tells us, “its message, as well as its central text (Daniel 3, 39-40), is present at every Mass during the preparation of the altar and its gifts. This is truly right and just because the three youths exemplify the only true way for the Church to prepare for the Eucharistic sacrifice.”

I enjoyed the following passage about the priesthood. “There are a few words that the Roman Rite uses to describe its priests and one of them is pontifex. In Latin the noun pons means bridge... and -fex is the foundation of today’s word factory, the place where things are built. Put the two words together - pontifex - and you get bridge-builder, which is precisely what a priest is; his role is to bridge the divide between God and man and pass over from earthly woes to heavenly blessings. Christ is the Pontifex Maximus. Even though he does not need our assistance in his saving work, He makes us sharers in His priesthood at baptism, empowering us to build the Paschal bridge with Him during the Eucharistic prayer.”

My hope is to be formed as one of many such supernatural bridge-builders who are capable of forming an edifice that spans the divide between the liturgy and the culture of faith, and then, between the culture of faith and the wider culture; and further, that the cuture of faith can become a channel of divine beauty, bringing it from its source out into world, so that grace might be reflected in all human activity and every artefact that results from it. However, none of us can play a part in this if we don’t first come in from the dark, and “pass over”, so to speak, that bridge called the “Paschal mystery“ which connects us to the wellspring of grace and beauty, Christ present in the Eucharist.

Order the book here.

Christopher Carstens is the editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and one of the Liturgy Guys (along with Denis McNamara and Jesse Weiler) who create regular podcasts for the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein. He is also on the faculty of Pontifex University, for whom he has created an online class on the meaning of the Mass as part of the Master of Sacred Arts program.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: