Monday, January 17, 2022

On “Hearing Mass”

Pope Pius XI famously said that Catholics should not be “detached and silent spectators” at Mass (Divini Cultus of 1928). I am sympathetic to this statement when it comes to the High Mass: there is little reason for the faithful not to sing the Ordinary and the various responses. But one wonders if Pius XI was already being influenced too much by a certain modern way of thinking, whereby doing something external, or at least seeming to be doing something, is the major point to be accentuated. This idea grew over the next forty years into the self-sapping activism of the Novus Ordo era.

Should we not instead be thinking first about the manner in which one is entering into the liturgy—the way one is assimilating it, relating to it interiorly?

In the old days it used to be said that Catholics “assisted” at Mass. This concept is fruitful. Every member of the body assists in (and at) the divine uplifting of the liturgy, each according to his place, but without thinking that he has to take on any particular action, other than faith-filled attention. It was also common in the old days, in fact for centuries, to say that Catholics went to “hear Mass.” We read in the lives of lay saints like Louis IX that “he heard Mass twice a day.”

Modern liturgists wince at that expression, for to them it seems to epitomize the worst of the Tridentine (or, let’s say, broadly medieval) era: a bunch of laity “doing nothing but” listening while the priest and server spoke all the words of the Mass on their behalf. In their view, only the ones saying or singing the Mass are doing it. Indeed, the dialogue Mass, promoted first by the same Pius XI, was intended as an alternative, one might even say a remedy, to move people from hearing to speaking.

But we should slow down and think more about hearing. Family counselors often like to make a distinction between hearing and listening—between mere auditory reception and actually absorbing the import of what is being said and responding appropriately. “You heard me, but did you listen to me?” When people are said to “hear Mass,” the meaning surely is that they are listening intently with the ear of the heart, to use the lovely expression of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Listening is a difficult activity to do well. It is something that requires and rewards experience, practice, concentration, receptivity, humility—an openness to being the carved-out space in which a word or sound can dwell and bear fruit. It is not for nothing that the vast majority of works of art that depict Our Lady show her looking and listening at the Archangel Gabriel, rather than talking back to him or taking action. She is pondering the Word of God in her cell; she receives his greeting and wonders within her heart what it means; after the dialogue (usually not depicted), she accepts the Word made flesh. The Virgin Mary assists at the first Mass; she hears the first Mass.

As John Paul II loved to say, the Blessed Virgin Mary reveals to us that being is more basic than doing, receiving is more fundamental than giving—just as our insertion into Christ at baptism, which happens to us (we suffer a spiritual death and God raises us up), is more basic to our identity than any particular act we perform on the basis of our baptism. No man makes himself a Christian; he (or his parents on his behalf) consent that he be made a Christian by God.

Modern times are characterized by an unusual degree of noise, busyness, and image saturation. We are always being drawn out of ourselves, out of our deep inner identity as sons of God, into distractions and dissipations. “You were inside and I was outside,” as St. Augustine said to God in the Confessions. For this reason, and without for a moment abandoning the importance of the High Mass as the most beautiful and normative expression of the liturgy, I will say that the quiet Low Mass is more relevant and more needed than ever, as a bulwark against the total extroversion and superficiality of secular life.

One wonders if the forms of meditation offered by Buddhism and other increasingly popular Far Eastern phenomena would ever have made such huge inroads in Western society without the loss of the one omnipresent form of “silent meditation” that we once had in abundance.

There have been many times in my life when I have longed for nothing more than a quiet Low Mass early in the morning. Attending it was like arriving at an oasis in the desert, or stepping through a low wooden door into a secret garden. Assisting at Mass, one can feel the roots sinking deeper into the earth, the branches reaching out higher towards the heavens, the leaves opening to the sun and the buds ripening. It is a time outside of time, a place of holy encounter, leaving one speechless and happy not to speak.

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