Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Congregation as "New Creation"

In this reflection Guardini issues a challenge to us to go deeper and further than we have in understanding the nature of and participation in “Congregation” as New Creation. He shows us how we must patiently allow our vision of Church to be transformed and to become what Christ has made it through the Paschal Mystery. The Ego - the Self - must be let go with its trappings as well as our familiar ways of understanding group psychology and identity. We must open ourselves to that without marked and clear boundaries as we know them and be drawn into the richness and expansiveness that is God. Guardini writes: “What sustains the Mass is not only an endless legion of hearts and spirits, the faith and love of all creation, but also a supernatural society endowed with authority and bearing responsibilities. Our task is to find our place in the enormous whole. This is not easy. Man has a leaning to spiritual intimacy and exclusiveness, which causes him to shrink from such magnitude and grandeur.” 

In the end we must abandon ourselves to the grace of God which alone gives us the courage and faith to embrace such a reality. 

WHEN CHURCHGOERS enter the sacred precincts, they come as individuals, each with his particular talents and circumstances, worries and wishes. Each takes his own stand, confronting the others. Each is isolated from the others by all the sentiments summed up in the words “I not you”: indifference, strangeness, mistrust, superiority, dislike, and enmity; by the hard crust developed in the struggle for existence and by the disappointments that past goodwill has experienced. This, then, is the mental state of the average worshipper as he steps into church, stands or sits or kneels; certainly there is as yet little of the “member of a congregation” about him. Leaving aside the questionable and the out-and-out wrong that this state brings with it lovelessness, pride, ill will and so forth let us try to get an idea of the kind of life that is pouring into the church. We have a roomful of people, each with his private thoughts, feelings, aims: a conglomeration of little separate worlds. The bearing of everyone present seems to say “I” or at best the “we” of his closest associations: his family, friends, dependents. But even this inclusion often really means little more than a widened self-esteem. The singular ego is stretched to a natural group-ego that is still far removed from genuine congregation. The true congregation is a gathering of those who belong to Christ, the holy people of God, united by faith and love. Essentially, it is of His making, a piece of new creation, which finds expression in the bearing of its participants.

When we read the prayers of the Mass with this in mind, we notice that the word “I” appears very seldom, and never without a special reason. It is found quite clearly in the prayers at the foot of the altar when each one present acknowledges his sins; in the Credo, when the individual, conscious of his personal responsibility, professes his belief in divine revelation; in the prayers immediately preceding Holy Communion.  As a rule, “we” is used. We praise thee, we glorify thee, we adore thee; forgive us, help us, enlighten us. This “we” is not spontaneous, but the carefully nurtured fruit of genuine congregation.

Now we begin to see what we are after: not a communal “experience”; not the individual’s great or joyous or overwhelming foretaste of the union of many before God, which may sometime sweep through him, filling and sustaining him. Like all true experience, that is a gift of the hour which is given or withheld; it cannot be merited. Here though it is a question not of an experience, but of an accomplishment; not of a gift, but of a required deed.

If we are to get anywhere with these considerations, we must realize how deeply immersed in self we are and for all our talk of community what thorough egoists. When we speak of community we seldom mean more than the experience of self-extension. Lifted up and out of our personal narrowness by the total vitality around us, we feel suddenly stronger or more enthusiastic than otherwise. In reality, no matter how long and how often people are together, they always remain alone. The real antonym of community is not the individual and his individualism, but the egoist and his selfishness. It is this that must first be overcome, and not by frequent or prolonged association, but by mastering the mind and will, which alone allows us to see others as they really are: to acknowledge and accept them; to make their desires and anxieties our own; to restrain ourselves for their sakes. But to do this we must have solitude, for only in solitude do we have a chance to see ourselves objectively and to free ourselves from our own chains. Someday, perhaps on some special occasion, we will realize what walls of indifference, disregard, enmity loom between us and “the other man,” and before Mass or during the Introit we will make a real effort to break through them. We will remind ourselves: Together we face God; together we are congregation. Not only I and others in general, but this man, that woman over there, and the believer next to me. In God’s sight they are all as important as I perhaps much more so: purer, braver, less selfish, nobler, more loving and fervent. Among these people whom I know only by their features, by their gestures, are perhaps great and holy souls with whom I am fortunate to find myself associated, because the surge of their prayers sweeps me along with it to God!

Then we will let the other believers into the inner circle of our lives, present ourselves to God with them, linking our intentions to theirs. We will consciously, earnestly pray the “we” of the liturgy, for from such things congregation is formed.

Until now we have spoken of congregation as the Christian “we” in its encounter with God, the community of those united by the same faith and by mutual love. But this is not all. The conception must include also those outside any particular building, even outside the Church; for congregation reaches far beyond. It is no closed circle, no organization or union with its own center; each congregation is part of a whole that far surpasses any Sunday gathering; it embraces everyone who believes in Christ in the same city, the same country, over the whole earth. The congregation gathered in any one church is influenced by its particular circumstances, by its services, by the quality of its members and by the particular feats that they are celebrating. It is a unit, but one that remains open; and all who are bound to Christ are included in it. Its center is the altar, every altar in every church altar that is simultaneously the center of the world. At Christ’s table all the faithful are remembered, and all belong to the “we” that is spoken there.

And still we have not touched bottom. In the Confiteor priest and faithful confess their sins. Their confession is addressed primarily to God, and in His presence alternately to each other, but it is also addressed to Mary, the Mother of the Lord, to the archangel Michael, to John the Baptist and the apostles Peter and Paul, and to all the saints. Behind the archangel, who appears here as the leader of the heavenly hosts, stands the world of the angels; and “the saints” means not only the great historical figures of sanctity which the word usually suggests, but all the saved, all who have “gone home” to God. In other parts of the Mass as well, those who already participate in eternal life are invoked, whereas in the memento for the dead after the consecration all those still in need of purification and prayer are remembered.

In other words, congregation stretches not only over the whole earth but also far beyond the borders of death. About those gathered around the altar the horizons of time and space roll back, revealing as the real, sustaining community the whole of saved humanity.

This congregation in toto then is the Church, sustainer of the holy act of worship. That the Mass is something quite different from the private religious act of an individual is obvious, but it is also more than the divine service of a group of individuals united by like beliefs, that of a sect, for instance. It is the Church with all the breadth that the word implies, the universal Church. We begin to visualize her scope when we read what Saints Paul and John write of her. There, even her ultimate earthly limits dissolve to make her one with all saved creation. Her attributes are “the new man,” “the new heaven” and “the new earth!”

Nor is the Church merely the sum total of the saved plus the totality of things, but a living unit, an “organism” formed and composed round a reigning, all-permeating figure: the spiritual Christ. She has full powers to proclaim Christ’s teaching and bestow His sacraments; respect or disrespect to her involves God Himself. What sustains the Mass is not only an endless legion of hearts and spirits, the faith and love of all creation, but also a supernatural society endowed with authority and bearing responsibilities.

Our task is to find our place in the enormous whole. This is not easy. Man has a leaning to spiritual intimacy and exclusiveness, which causes him to shrink from such magnitude and grandeur. There is also the resistance of modern religious feeling to the visible Church in its realistic sense: resistance to office and order, to authority and constitutionality. We are all-too-subjective, inclined to count as truly religious only the direct and spontaneous experience. Order and authority leave us cold. Here self-discipline is especially necessary. The text of the Mass repeatedly reveals the attitude which has been called “Roman,” an attitude that rests precisely upon the consciousness of formal institutional unity, God-given authority, law and order. This may strike us as strange, perhaps even as unreligious we spoke of this before in our discussion of the Collects. Those same Collects express something very important for us. Not only are we as Christians “congregation,” not only “saved mankind” and “new creation”; we ourselves are “Church,” so we must consent and patiently educate ourselves to this given role.

Romano Guardini
Meditations Before Mass