Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


It is curious to think in our day that one of the most beautiful aspects of the Latin Rite Liturgy is the presence of silence.  I say curious because it is so little found today or fostered.  To do so seems to violate the "freedom" of distraction that individuals fight to maintain.  A confrontation with silence is too frightening a thing in a culture that thrives on perpetual diversion.  Any attempt to speak of the value of silence is met with either polite disregard or suspicion.  Recently, I came across an article describing concern for maintaining a prayerful setting for worship as a reflection of narcissism; claiming that external distractions pull people out of focus on self and internal distractions that masquerade as prayer; allowing them to shift their prayers on to the needs of those around them.  The absurdity of such an argument is unnecessary to address.  Rather, in the weeks to come I would like to reconsider a classic writing on liturgy - Romano Guardini's Meditations Before Mass.  He begins by emphasizing what is sorely needed and painfully absent in our day: Stillness.

WHEN Holy Mass is properly celebrated there are moments in which the voices of both priest and faithful become silent. The priest continues to officiate as the rubrics indicate, speaking very softly or refraining from vocal prayer; the congregation follows in watchful, prayerful participation. What do these intervals of quiet signify? What must we do with them? What does stillness really imply?
It implies above all that speech end and silence prevail, that no other sounds of movements, of turning pages, of coughing and throat-clearing be audible. There is no need to exaggerate. Men live, and living things move; a forced outward conformity is no better than restlessness. Nevertheless, stillness is still, and it comes only if seriously desired. If we value it, it brings us joy; if not, discomfort. People are often heard to say: “But I can’t help coughing” or “I can’t kneel quietly”; yet once stirred by a concert or lecture they forget all about coughing and fidgeting. That stillness proper to the most beautiful things in existence dominates, a quiet area of attentiveness in which the beautiful and truly important reign. We must earnestly desire stillness and be willing to give something for it; then it will be ours. Once we have experienced it, we will be astounded that we were able to live without it.

What Guardini captures here is essential: silence does not happen spontaneously.  It has to be desired as a good, fostered and we must be willing to make certain sacrifices to attain it.  Few in our day have tasted true stillness and the beautiful fruit it produces in the soul and the liturgy.
Moreover, stillness must not be superficial, as it is when there is neither speaking nor squirming; our thoughts, our feelings, our hearts must also find repose. Then genuine stillness permeates us, spreading ever deeper through the seemingly plumbless world within.
Once we try to achieve such profound stillness, we realize that it cannot be accomplished all at once. The mere desire for it is not enough; we must practice it. The minutes before Holy Mass are best; but in order to have them for genuine preparation we must arrive early. They are not a time for gazing or day-dreaming or for unnecessary thumbing of pages, but for inwardly collecting and calming ourselves. It would be still better to begin on our way to church. After all, we are going to a sacred celebration. Why not let the way there be an exercise in composure, a kind of overture to what is to come? I would even suggest that preparation for holy stillness really begins the day before. Liturgically, Saturday evening already belongs to the Sunday. If for instance, after suitable reading we were to collect ourselves for a brief period of composure, its effects the next day would be evident.

Again, astutely, Guardini notes that preparation for such holy stillness begins not with the start of the liturgy but at the beginning of the Sabbath the evening before.  The desire for stillness must be such that it leads us to begin the movement to still the mind and heart and regain the kind of composure that will become fully evident the following day.  Saturday evening is often a time of heightened distraction rather than the begin of a fast from those things that fragment the mind and heart and lead to dissipation.
Thus far we have discussed stillness negatively: no speech, no sound. But it is much more than the absence of these, a mere gap, as it were, between words and sounds: stillness itself is something positive. Of course we must be able to appreciate it as such. There is sometimes a pause in the midst of a lecture or a service or some public function. Almost invariably someone promptly coughs or clears his throat. He is experiencing stillness as a breach in the unwinding road of speech and sound, which he attempts to fill with something, anything. For him the stillness was only a lacuna, a void which gave him a sense of disorder and discomfort. Actually, it is something rich and brimming.
Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being “all there,” receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.

Stillness is not a void but rather a receptivity; the tranquillity of soul that prepares one to hear God as He speaks the Word He desires us to receive.  In truth we should seek to live in a state of perpetual receptivity and alertness - a mindfulness of God that comes only through prayer and asceticism.  We must seek to purify our desires and order our passions in order that nothing should distract us from the presence of God.
Attentiveness that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God.
What then is a church? It is, to be sure, a building having walls, pillars, space. But these express only part of the word “church,” its shell. When we say that Holy Mass is celebrated “in church,” we are including something more, the congregation. “Congregation,” not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual “space” around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary. It is important to understand this. Church buildings may be lost or destroyed; then everything depends on whether or not the faithful are capable of forming congregations that erect indestructible “churches” wherever they happen to find themselves, no matter how poor or dreary their quarters. We must learn and practice the art of constructing spiritual cathedrals.

By fostering stillness, we our constructing the real sanctuary where God is worshipped in spirit and truth.  The Congregation is formed not only physically but more importantly spiritually and altar of sacrifice must be humble and contrite hearts.
We cannot take stillness too seriously. Not for nothing do these reflections on the liturgy open with it. If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain. Our understanding of stillness is nothing strange or aesthetic. Were we to approach stillness on the level of aesthetics of mere withdrawal into the ego we should spoil everything. What we are striving for is something very grave, very important, and unfortunately sorely neglected; the prerequisite of the liturgical holy act.

Romano Guardini
"Meditations Before Mass"

THE chapters of this book originated as discourses held before Holy Mass in order to prepare for its celebration. They made no attempt to interpret the essence of the Lord’s memorial or to narrate His life; their purpose was simply to reveal what the Mass demands of us and how those demands may be properly met.
For many a believer the Mass has assumed the character of a sacred spectacle or of some mysterious proceeding before which he says his prayers. Its reality consequently is buried, and something ir replaceable is lost. The reasons for this are many and go so far back that criticism is pointless. But it is time that the Mass become again for the faithful what it is and was instituted to be: the sacred action of Christ’s community, which, though under the care of the priestly office, is meant to live and act as a true community, as the Acts of the Apostles (2:46) and the first Epistle to the Corinthians (11:17-34) point out. That is where this book is meant to help. It does not try to show how the Mass should be celebrated or how, within the prescribed limits of ecclesiastical law (or perhaps through a more perfect fulfillment of the lex orandi), the organic structure of the sacred ceremony could be brought out more clearly or even how closer participation of the faithful is to be achieved. That is the task of a religious manual. What is needed here is personal preparation for Holy Mass. This requires not only “Mass preparation” in the usual sense of the individual believer strengthening his faith, purifying his heart, arranging and directing his intentions, but also that fundamental, vital attitude absolutely necessary to transform a collection of individuals into a congregation, and a restless crowd into a “holy people” in the sight of God. Only from such central preparedness can the gaze lifted to the altar grow inwardly quiet and receptive to holiness; only then can hearing and speaking in church differ from the give and take of words in the street, the home, or office.
Part One of our study will be concerned exclusively with these basic aspects. Its task is important as it is modest. Until it has been accomplished, all discussion of the liturgy remains on the level of intellectual exercise or aesthetic sensation, and use of the missal will help as little as establishment of the Dialogue Mass. If the liturgical act is to be taken seriously, we must prepare for it beforehand with the total concentration of mind and heart.
Part Two will discuss the Mass itself, inquiring into its essence and what it means to us but always keeping in mind what it demands of us. We refer not only to the usual interpretation of those demands: that we participate eagerly in the sacred ceremony, that we make a real effort to conform our attitude to that which sustains the Eucharist, thus practicing self-restraint and sacrifice. All this is very important, but our problem here is quite different; how must we cooperate in the celebration of the Mass so that it really becomes what it is essentially: a holy, liturgical act? Faith, love, and readiness for sacrifice are the greatest ideals that exist and a completely unliturgical “Mass devotion” can doubtless effect true Christian service before God. But what we are aiming at is also important and deserves the utmost attention.
We remarked previously that we were concerned here not with knowing, but with doing. This is not entirely true. There are different roads to knowledge, and one that usually suggests itself first is the road of contemplation, penetration, comparison, and conclusion. Much can be grasped by these means, but not everything. I can, for example, perceive things which exist in themselves, but not those intangibles which first come into being through doing. To achieve knowledge of the latter I must do them. Through study I can learn the kinds of trees or ascertain the pattern of community life around me, but study cannot teach me what fidelity or love means, at least not their ultimate sense what they mean for me. Mere observation and consideration can prepare me to discuss trees or the phenomena of society with a certain competence; but my words grow thin and empty the moment I attempt similar “observations” on matters of the heart. If I really want to know what fidelity is, I must practice it. I can speak with authority about love only if in some form or other I have accepted its challenge. And it is the same here. Up to a certain point I can understand the nature of Holy Mass by studying the Bible and missal or by reading books on the history of the liturgy. But its essence, the act in all the earnestness of salvation, the doing in His memory, is mine only when I also “do.” Possibly the true nature of the Mass is so feebly established in the Christian consciousness in spite of catechism, sermon, and much pious literature, because the believers rarely “do” it properly. If this book helps toward better doing, deeper understanding will follow.
Romano Guardini

1 comment:

  1. I love and am deeply hungry for the gist of this post!