Guardini begins to close the first part of his book with a few practical considerations; specifically those things that hinder our full participation in Mass. The first thing he addresses is Habit. The perpetual becoming that is part of our spiritual lives can be lost and one can fall into indifference. Whereas those things that are unchanging and involve demands or responsibilities can give rise to a sense of boredom - fidelity begins to feel suffocating and no longer stimulating. The sameness of certain aspects of the liturgical life can feel intolerable and even lead to a kind of disgust. Monotony rather than the freedom and depth that familiarity foster becomes the lens through which we see the Mass. "We no longer 'get anything out of it,' hardly know why we still go." The fact that we speak of Sunday Mass being an "obligation" makes the matter only more difficult for some and increases a sense of purposelessness. We can lose the sense of Mystery associated with the Mass and that it stands at core of our lives and salvation. We must, then, find ways to express the inalterability of the Mass as providing us with a sense of strength. There are vital forces in and through which God operates precisely in the very human elements of our actions. He is ever-present and active as is the inexhaustible love he offers and that transforms us.
THIS BOOK is called “Meditations Before Mass” and its aim is to present for reflection each time from a different angle thoughts inducive to a fuller participation in the sacred celebration. Part One now draws to a close with a few purely practical considerations. What actually hinders us from taking part in the Mass as we should? First of all, habit.
It is fundamental spiritual law that every impression exhausts itself. All life is a perpetual becoming, but also a perpetual perishing; thus an impression starts out strong, gains in strength, lasts for a while, then fades. He who has experienced it has “used it up,” and indifference sets in. This is as it should be as long as it is a question of the many fleeting contacts of daily life; each has its moment or moments and then makes way for the next. But the same process becomes fatal when permitted to govern relations that are a fundamental part of our existence and consequently irreplaceable: our vocation, for instance, with its unchanging demands and responsibilities; marriage; genuine friendship; or our relations to self, since we are as we are and must find some sort of mod us vivendi with ourselves. Here the law of diminishing impressions and emotions can cause serious difficulties. When a task is new and full of interest it seems to perform itself. When it has been performed for a long time it becomes burdensome and difficult. The company of another person is joyful and stimulating as long as yet unknown responses in his thinking or surprises in his attitude refresh us; but after closer acquaintance, when we begin to know beforehand exactly how we will react and reply, boredom sets in. As for ourselves, we all have experienced discouragement with our shortcomings and oppressive disgust with our own nature.
All this applies to Holy Mass as well. We hear it every Sunday; many people more often, even daily. It is always pretty much the same, most of the principal texts recurring time and again. Always it begins with the same prayers at the altar steps, varied on certain occasions only by the omission of the psalm Judica me. In accordance with the Lord’s command to do in His memory what He Himself did, the Canon too, with slight variations, remains the same: the great prayer-texts, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Pater noster and Agnus Dei are complete units that never change. Sometimes the Gloria is omitted (during Advent and Lent) or the Credo is left out, as in certain weekday Masses, or in those commemorating the martyrs, confessors, and holy women. Even the variable parts of the Mass resemble one another in construction, language, and spiritual attitude. The Graduals, for example, are usually patterned after the biblical proverbs and interspersed with allelujas. The Collect always begins with the direct address, then develops the principal thought, and finishes off with the formal end-clause. In time, even the changing Epistle and Gospel readings lose their freshness. After years of following the sacred ceremony, we begin to respond to it as to an old, familiar friend.
Thus at first fleetingly, then ever more prolonged and powerfully, the feeling of monotony creeps in. “I know all that. I know exactly what words follow every move.” When in addition the same priest appears at the same altar over a long period, officiating in the same manner with his unchanging personal peculiarities and shortcomings, a veritable crisis of boredom and weariness can overcome us. We no longer “get anything out of it,” hardly know why we still go. The fact that Church law requires Sunday attendance sometimes only adds to our difficulties.
What shall we do stay away? When the Mass threatens to become a habit for someone who goes regularly during the week, it is certainly advisable for him to attend less frequently, perhaps only on Sundays for a while, substituting visits in the quiet church or Bible reading. But this remedy is not possible for the Sunday churchgoer, whose attendance is required on that day. Here is an illustration of the pedagogic importance of this precept: our nature requires a rule that will keep us from giving up entirely.
It is claimed that religious life must come from within and should not be forced, yet man lives not only spontaneously but also in the practice and discipline of an ordered existence. Whenever he abandons these, something valuable is lost. The rule about Sunday attendance is therefore not only necessary but right, the more so as it applies to sacred time, the day of the Lord and its relation to the rest of the week. But behind the pedagogical standpoint is another and more important consideration: the fact that Christ instituted the mystery of the Mass, so that it is not something we can ignore at whim, but the essential core of our religious life. And if we really were to omit it, what should we put in its place? We would devise something of our own choosing and soon experience a much worse satiety: the insupportable triviality of human endeavor where the ultimate meaning of existence is at stake.
Then what can we do? First, make it clear to ourselves once and for all that Holy Mass belongs in our lives. In the conviction of a thing’s finality and inalterability lies a peculiar strength. As soon as I am convinced that I should perform some act, I can do it at least up to a certain point. Anything but steadfast by nature, man is always ready to let things slide; this definite law in his life is something like the bones in his body, giving him firmness and character.
“Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle.” The psalm does not mean that the singer must continually hope for new inspiration, but that all his singing should soar fresh from the heart renewed. This power of renewal is one of the happiest elements of life, the ability not only to create something nonexistent, but also to re-create something that already exists in so new a way that it seems to exist for the first time. Man is capable of breaking through the monotony of long continued doing and seeing, and, by inner readiness, of beginning anew.
This is particularly true of Holy Mass, which is something absolute and inexhaustible. Much of it is the work of men in the beautiful sense of the word, as God-directed human service, as well as in the pejorative sense of formalism and superficiality. Its central reality, however, is the saving act of the living Christ, which contains the fulness of God’s wisdom and love, not merely as objects received, but as vital and operative forces. At the celebration of the Lord’s memorial we are not dependent on our own faculties of perceiving and appreciating; Christ works with us. Primarily it is He who acts; in our “remembering” it is Christ Himself who stirs.
Habituality and monotony best prove that things, activities, people have only a certain measure of significance and reality; hence at some time or other that measure will be full and there will be nothing new to add; then stimulating interest must be replaced by loyalty. In the Mass, however, it is different. Here we are dealing directly with Christ and His work of salvation, with the Logos, with the infinitude of His divine being and the inexhaustibility of His love. We are here related to Christ not only in the sense that He demands from us His just due; He helps us with the work of commemoration. Faith tells us that monotony cannot come from what the Mass itself is; it can make its appearance, but only in us, when we do not take Christ and His love seriously enough. Christ is new precisely to the extent that the believer occupies himself with Him. Every act of obedience, every self-conquest, every situation in life that we master through the Lord’s direction and strength reveals something new in Him. The Mass gives as much as we ask of it. And the power of renewal is not limited to our own capacity for renewal; we can count upon God’s infinite possibilities.
Admittedly, we can claim this only in faith, but the truth of what is believed becomes apparent to the extent that it is personally experienced.
Meditations before Mass