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Last Sunday I found myself smack in the middle of a protest between pro-choice feminists and anti-abortion Catholics. This Sunday I took communion with Senator John Kerry.
It wasn’t until halfway through the Mass that I realized the deep singing voice behind me belonged to the famous American Catholic politician. “Peace be with you,” I said, offering the tall man my tiny hand. Only as he reciprocated the gesture and words of peace did I became aware of who this man is.
It wasn’t mere celebrity that had his presence on my mind throughout the Eucharist and the rest of the Mass. After a week of meditating on the difficulties of being a Catholic feminist in light our nation’s debates concerning reproductive rights, there I was with the famous public figure who has been set apart as the embodiment of this tension between women’s rights and religious tradition. I was humbled. What kind of courage and devotion must one possess to show up to Mass time and time again, undoubtedly aware of the political implications accompanying every walk one takes toward the altar in that communion line? Although there is real friction in my feminist Catholic identity when it comes to navigating the question of abortion, the discomfort I experience and the Catholic allegiance I profess in light of it is really so easy compared to a man who must work out these tensions so publicly.
From the protest lines to the Communion line. I felt a great deal of courage, standing in that line with him.
Sometimes love is stronger than [one’s] convictions.” -Isaac Bashevis Singer
It is my experience that one of the marks of falling in love, particularly in its glorious initial phases, is an unshakable desire to be with one’s partner. This desire is such that even when physical presence is impossible, alternative connections are eagerly welcomed: a phone call that simply brings the sound of that voice. A message with words that capture that charm. A day on a calendar that marks our next meeting. An imagined vision of what he or she is doing at the present moment…
I realized today that I have fallen deeply in love with the simple Catholic liturgy I experienced on weekday afternoons this past summer. I find myself longing for it, longing to be present to it again, the way I have eagerly longed for the comforting presence of my beloved. I worry, sometimes anxiously, about the next time I will experience a liturgy that brings me such peace. Sometimes I hear a song or enter a sanctuary or recite a prayer here in Boston, and their aesthetics recall that simple noon service, and more than anything I want to celebrate a liturgy like that again. I want us to be together again.
As genuine as it is, I’m sure my longing for the comfort of this beloved liturgy is only magnified by the religious displacement I currently experience. I’m thinking and talking all the time about why I am Catholic, and how that really does make me different from so many people here. I always talk about how I possess lots of convictions that align with the tradition, and plenty of convictions that do not. The more I talk about the former and the latter–especially on the tough days, like today, when the convictions for and convictions against seems particularly convoluted–I sometimes feel as if all I have to offer up in response to “why” is this mysterious longing to be in that simple, white-walled chapel in Seattle. I’m in love, and I long to be with my beloved. That’s why I am Catholic today. I have fallen in love in this Church, with this Church, and today, that is stronger than my convictions.
On Thursday evening I looked over the balcony at Century Ballroom as my friends Katie and Frank danced to the final song of the night on the dance floor below. It was the last night of salsa before I head off to Boston, and the only night of the summer when the club hosts a live salsa band. (I would have liked to think the special occasion was in honor of my departure, but I know it was simply a pleasant coincidence.) Along with the best sounds the ballroom had heard all season, the live music brought out the city’s best dancers, which made for a night of both great dancing and fantastic viewing. Of all the swift spins and fast footwork displayed by the evening’s talented couples, however, the most memorable dance, in my humble opinion, was that last one danced by my friends.
The three of us have gone dancing together at least once a week all summer long. And just as I, a clumsy beginner, went from counting out every step (1-2-3—5-6-7…) to moving unthinkingly along with rhythms I instantly recognize, so too had my more experienced friends improved their dance moves. While it was unnoticeable for me when I first began dancing, I have learned that a personal dancing style accompanies this sort of progress: when one attains a certain level of familiarity with the rhythms, steps, and moves, one’s personal style—which is often a reflection of his/her personality, training, and dance community—surfaces in his/her dancing. Having danced with Katie and Frank for months now, I have gained a great affection for the idiosyncrasies of their styles. For the neat steps of Katie’s three-count turns. For the circular swing of Frank’s hands when he leads in open-position. For the expressions on their faces when they concentrate during a spin sequence, or the sympathetic grins that occasionally break when someone acknowledges a partner’s misstep.
From the ballroom balcony, I treasured every glimpse of these personal tendencies. They were small, endearing reminders that I was not simply watching salsa dancing, but Katie’s salsa and Frank’s salsa.
While watching them, it struck me that I have experienced a similar affection for friends when we celebrate Mass together. Having celebrated the liturgy for so long, we can engage it more naturally, less consciously, and our personal styles break through unthinkingly. Some of us enter the sanctuary with particular habits, or gesture in unique ways, or recite prayers with more or less words. Not unlike salsa dancing, these small stylistic differences often reflect who we are, where we come from, and the community that most often surrounds us. I love noticing these little things because it transforms Catholicism into their Catholicism, our Catholicism—Frank’s Catholicism. Katie’s Catholicism. They are reminders that, in such intimate, personal ways, Catholicism belongs to the people I love.
The basic steps are the same, but with time we all learn to dance them in our own way.
In my mind, one of the great wonders of religion is that its old things–its texts and rituals and doctrines–can be made new time and time again. Generations fade and arise, and people still find meaning for their lives in many of the same traditions. It’s because so many components of religion are rich, dynamic, so full of potential that people far removed from their origin find themselves in them.
“Well, folks…the cup I left on the table flew away, so do you still want to have the champagne…um….from the bottle?”
The wedding officiant, a Protestant pastor and friend of mine, asked me to help facilitate the intimate ritual during the ceremony. When the marrying couple, the pastor, the two Best Men, and I, the Maid of Honor, circled around the small Communion table in front of 200 guests, I immediately noticed that the empty plastic cup I had placed there before the wedding was no where to be found. The mountain breeze must have carried it away during the vows!
We passed the grainy loaf around while the pastor read scripture, and I said, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you.” As we chewed my eyes darted around inconspicuously searching for the cup. “WHY did I pick a clear cup!” I wondered silently to myself.When our jaws stopped chomping and everyone’s eyes turned to the uncorked bottle of champagne we had grabbed before the ceremony (someone forgot the intended Communion wine), I divulged our Communion predicament. “Yep, lets just drink it from the bottle,” my cousin said, her new husband nodding and smiling in agreement. How it must have looked from the audience, watching the bride lift the big green bottle of Champagne to her mouth amid this quiet, intimate moment of the ceremony! People laughed as we passed it from person to person. With each swig, I reverently proclaimed, “Tad, this is the blood of Christ, poured out for you…Sy, this is the blood of Christ, poured out for you…” Finally, I took my swig of the bottle, returned it to the table, and smiled.
Earlier in the ceremony the pastor had preached on John 15:13, where Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his/her life for a friend.” The pastor said that this is the kind of incredible, unselfish love exemplified in marriage. Jesus reasserted this same extravagant love on the night of the Last Supper, saying, “This is my body given for you.” Amazing, generous, lavish love is what we celebrate in marriage, and what we celebrate in Communion. So, as I stood there smiling at my beautiful cousin and her wonderful new husband, all I could think about was how fitting this Communion ceremony was. This was no sterile cup and stale wafer ritual. No. This was fresh bread and champagne from the bottle, an extravagant, lavish Communion fit to reflect the love of Christ, and their new wedded life of love together.
My legs could barely hold me yesterday at Mass. I hadn’t slept much the night before, or the night before that really, and my body had been reminding me of it since I rolled over to turn off my alarm clock that morning.
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. Jesus also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4
Today is the celebration of Corpus Christi, that is, the “Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.” As a church we reflect on Christ’s embodiment, both historically in the person of Jesus and continually in the gift of Christ’s mysterious presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Of the numerous parts of my faith that theological studies have unfortunately confused, my intellectual understanding of prayer–what it is and how it works–has been most affected. Therefore, upon inquiry, I will not explain to someone how it works. I tell them I just don’t know. But I also tell them that I am often undeniably compelled to do it when I see people I love in pain, especially spiritual and emotional suffering. I am also compelled to do it when I see people I don’t know in pain. I tell them my most intimate moments with loved ones occur during prayer. And, more than that, I tell them that some simple part of me really, truly believes that it both shakes the earth and holds it together, and it does all other sorts of things.
The Catholic Studies Program at Santa Clara University, my alma mater, is sponsoring me for a lecture this Thursday on the subject of “Catholic Identity Today.” The great Jesuit I am working with pointed me to a wonderful podcast for some inspiration, and now I’m recommending it to you.