The Mass

Seeking Silence

I want you to picture the scene in your minds. It’s Passover. Jesus has gathered his disciples to share in the Last Supper. Before His passion, He will give us the greatest sacrament we can ever have. His words will give hope and salvation to all souls until He comes again. The Apostles sit in silence and listen to his words intently but from the end of the table, there’s whispering going on.

“Hey Matthew, can you pass the salt?”

“I don’t have it Thaddeus”

“Oh okay, must be down by Peter, I’ll wait I guess”

“I have some egg left”

“Nah, I can’t eat eggs, they just give me indigestion. Ask Philip for some of that matzah would you?”

Now before you accuse me of being disrespectful, just hear me out. I know this absolutely did not happen at the Last Supper. The Apostles were as fallible as you or I but they knew that they were in the presence of Jesus and that what He was saying was so important, so vital and so remarkable that they sat in silence and listened intently. We know from the Gospels that the Apostles often had a lot to say for themselves – but we also know that they respected the Lord and when He spoke? They kept their peace and listened. And it’s time that some of us learned to do the same.

At yesterday evening’s Mass, I arrived a little early and took my place as usual. I like to have the chance to spend some time with Jesus before the Mass begins and whilst there’s always a little chatter and heavy footfall as people take their seats, I usually find it easy to zone the noise out and just focus on why I’m there – to see Jesus. Before I enter the church, I like to visualise a little suitcase full of all the daily irritations and annoyances and I leave it in the repository. I don’t want to take all those distractions into the church with me. Within a few minutes of taking my seat last night, two ladies arrived and took the pew in front. They began a hushed conversation but it wasn’t loud enough to be disruptive. The bell rang, we all stood up and the Mass began. But the conversation in front didn’t stop. They joined in the appropriate responses, they stood when we stood, they kneeled when we kneeled – but the conversation just didn’t stop. Finally we had a breakthrough. During the Homily? Perfect silence. Okay, it was accompanied by lots of frustrated glances and even the occasional rolling of the eyes but for the duration of the Homily, not a word was exchanged between the two women. And then….you guessed it. It started up again with a vengeance. All through the consecration of the host, in the line up to the altar, on the way back to the pew, throughout the hymn….it just didn’t stop.

Now I get it. Church has a social side to it and it absolutely should. We’re called to build a community in Christ, to help and support our brothers and sisters. We’re also called to tolerance. Sometimes little children are noisy and don’t quite understand what’s going on and that’s fine. It’s hard for parents and not all churches have the same resources to help little ones learn about the Mass in a way that helps them participate as best they can given their age. But children learn from example and what example is being set by those who seem to treat the church as a community centre or a pub rather than the house of the Lord? As a place for socialising rather than praising? For all the two ladies said to each other, there was only one thing they were saying to Jesus: “We know you’re here Lord but you’ll have to wait because this is more important”. Which is just tragic.

In his book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Robert Sarah has the following to say on the importance of quiet reflection:

How could it be possible to discover oneself in the midst of noise? A person’s clear sightedness and lucidity about himself can mature only in solitude and silence. A silent man is all the more apt to listen and to stand in the presence of God. The silent man finds God within himself. For any prayer and any interior life, we need silence, a hidden discreet life that prompts us not to think about ourselves. Silence, in important moments of life, becomes a vital necessity. But we do not seek silence for its own sake, as though it were our goal. We seek silence because we seek God. And we will find it if we are silent in the very depths of our heart.

Whilst His Eminence is focused on silent prayer in this excerpt, what he says is relatable to the way we behave during the Mass. From the moment the bell rings to the time we receive the blessing during the dismissal, we are in the presence of God and if we can’t give just one hour to Him free of all other distractions, just once a week, then why are we attending Mass in the first place? It isn’t just that we ourselves fall short of the respect due to Him and thereby lose out on the majesty and the gifts contained within the Mass but we also rob others of that same opportunity which is not in our power to deny. To ignore, to snub or to disregard Christ at any time during the Mass is to deny the real presence that is so integral to our faith and the same applies to those who disappear as soon as they’ve received communion or those who refuse to join in responses because they’re busy reading or chatting. When we go to Mass, we should go with a full heart and a clear mind. And yes it can be hard, yes it can be a struggle. But the reason we go to Mass is to be healed, to be directed and to be saved. We cannot do so if we’re concerned with temporal things and don’t take in the solemnity of what’s happening before us.

This week, Pope Francis gave a fatherly slap on the wrist to the faithful. “It makes me very sad when I celebrate Mass in the Square or in St. Peter’s Basilica and I see so many phones in the air”, His Holiness said, “Lift up your hearts, don’t lift up your cellphones to take a photo!”. His remarks were not just aimed at Catholic tourists either. “It’s not only the faithful, but also many priests and bishops”, the Pope chided, “Please! Mass is not a show!” – Amen to that! I can’t know or judge the content of anyone else’s heart. I don’t know their intentions or their trials and in no way am I suggesting that we must form rows of little automatons whilst at church. But the one thing I fear some Catholics forget is that Mass isn’t just about responses and hymns. It isn’t archaic ritual or a lecture in morality from a priest. It’s about being in the awesome presence of Jesus; body, blood, soul and divinity.  Let’s learn from the Apostles and when we’re in that presence, let’s respect it. Let’s wonder at it. But mostly importantly, let’s thank God for it.

N.B: The Power of Silence (Against the Dictatorship of Noise) by Cardinal Robert Sarah is published by Ignatius Press and can be purchased by clicking here.

The Mass

Put Your Hands Up…

It all began a few weeks ago at an RCIA meeting. The early church was the theme. Who were the early Christians? What were their lives like? How did they pray? Little did I know that within that discussion, an issue would arise which later led to a very passionate and heated debate in which the word ‘heretical’ was thrown around an awful lot. “When the priest holds up his hands, he’s adopting the orans posture”, our RCIA director said, “It’s a way of praying that the early Christians used and it’s making a bit of a comeback. You don’t have to do it but it’s now sort of encouraged”. For Church newbies, there’s a lot to remember and we all want to fit in. Genuflecting, the Sign of the Cross, the Sign of Peace…I mean, it’s easy to feel under pressure. And so, wanting to “get it right”, I dutifully held out my hands when we got to the Lord’s Prayer at the next Mass I attended. I noticed several other people had done the same and assumed that was that. It was simply a stance one took during the Lord’s Prayer.

Fast forward a week and I’m back at Mass. We come to the Lord’s Prayer.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been shot a look during a church service that made you feel as if a little demon had popped up on your shoulder but that expression of total shock, anger and horror was fired down the length of the pew so fast that it could have knocked me of my feet. The two ladies sitting next to me were not at all impressed with my upturned hands during the Lord’s Prayer (I promise you, they were clean) and actually shuffled down a little to put some distance between us. Embarrassed? Me? More like mortified. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong – if anything at all – and so as soon as I got home, I dashed to Father Google to try to work out exactly why they had been so offended. I punched in ‘orans posture’, assuming that was the cause of their distress, and suddenly it all became clear. Orans isn’t just a way of standing – it’s an issue which gets people very hot under the collar.

Noah at prayer, as depicted in the catacombs of Rome.

I’m going to skip over the history of the orans posture, other than to say that our RCIA director is quite right. It was a stance adopted by the early Christians and many people adopt it today during the Lord’s Prayer. But is it encouraged?

The Church itself hasn’t taken a formal stance on the matter outside of the way a priest is called to say Mass. In other words, there’s no rule that says the laity must not adopt the orans posture but there’s no guidance that we should adopt it either. It’s left up to the individual to decide and naturally, you’re going to get opinions on both approaches. For those who support the laity “taking a stance” during the Lord’s Prayer (or even holding hands with the people next to them), it’s an outward sign of community and a link to the early Church they want to foster and promote. For those who oppose it, it’s a disrespectful imitation of the priest and taking from the sanctuary into the church what should remain something of the sanctuary. So who’s right? For those who want to become Catholics, what should we do and which example should we follow?

When man poses a question, God gives an answer. And this weekend’s Gospel provides the perfect response to the orans issue (in my humble opinion). In the 23rd Gospel of St Matthew, we hear Jesus preach on the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees.

You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.
St Matthew, 23: 3 -7

In other words, these were people making gestures or saying prayers without a thought for God. They just did it because they felt it would make them look holier than everybody else – and they encouraged others to do the same. But in reality, they were guilty of false piety. They were so keen to be seen as teachers, as Godly men, that they actually led people away from the true meaning of God’s commandments. In the same way, if someone is telling us to adopt a stance because it makes us outwardly appear more holy or understanding of God’s word, they’re just as guilty of hypocrisy as the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of. I’m not accusing everyone who adopts the orans stance as seeking attention – I don’t have that right. Neither am I saying they shouldn’t. But later in the same chapter, Jesus says, “Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted”. If adopting the orans stance is something a person does during the Lord’s Prayer to humble himself before the Lord? That’s one thing. But to do so because it’s just what everyone else does these days? Well that’s quite another. If I make the Sign of the Cross but don’t give a thought to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit then why am I doing it? To show piety? To prove my faith is stronger than that of others even when it clearly isn’t?

Our Lady of the Sign
Orthodox iconography often depicts Our Lady in the orans stance.

In the course of the debate online, one contributor knowing my fondness for Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “His Holiness endorsed [orans]! He wrote a book about liturgy and he told us it was fine!” – so naturally I purchased ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’. What the Pope Emeritus says is actually far more complex. Yes he does talk of the orans and yes, he absolutely does confirm that early Christians prayed that way. That was never up for debate. We know they did. But this is what His Holiness actually says:

Standing prayer is an anticipation of the future, of the glory that is to come; it is meant to orient us towards it. Insofar as liturgical prayer is an anticipation of what has been promised, standing is its proper posture. However, insofar as liturgical prayer belongs to that “between time” in which we live, then kneeling remains indispensable to it as an expression of the “now” of our life”.
The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 2000

When we stand at Mass, we’re like our Christian ancestors who were waiting for the glory of salvation through Jesus Christ. When we kneel, we’re reminded that we aren’t there yet. We’re humbling ourselves before the Lord as well as looking forward to His return. And yes, His Holiness does say that the orans is a perfectly acceptable stance to take in prayer (St Dominic assured us of the same)…but knowing the Pope Emeritus to be a man of great detail and clarity in his writings, I can’t help but feel that he would never have simply implied that the laity should adopt the orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer – he would have said so outright. Indeed, at no point in the book does His Holiness connect the orans to the Lord’s Prayer. The general message of ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is that we have to consider the meaning of the Mass at all times during the liturgy because that’s what brings us closer to the glory of God. But we can’t just decide ourselves what God wants of us or how we should show our love for Him.

In doing so, we could attribute motives to God that actually belong to us and our own intentions.  In the Letter of James in the New Testament, we’re given a clear command; “Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up”. If our devotion and all the expressions of that devotion come from a place of humility and of true love for God, then we’re fulfilling that requirement. But if, like the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of, we’re just doing something out of false piety or misplaced guidance to prove our fervour, then we’re not only hypocrites but we’re also not humble before the Lord. Perhaps what we have to accept is that there is a compromise to be made here. The orans is a stance we take in the privacy of our prayer lives outside of the liturgy but we have to accept that it has no formal place in the public liturgy….that is, the Mass. When we’re at Mass, we come together as a community before the Lord but we remain individuals, each guided by our own conscience and answerable for our own decisions. At certain times within the liturgy we petition God together as brothers and sisters for the benefit of others and wee do so because the Church has constructed the liturgy to allow for both individual and collective acts of devotion – but nobody can seem to decide if orans is individual or collective. And therein lies the problem.

Personally speaking, I feel that if orans is this divisive in the setting of the Mass, then it has no place within the Mass. It already detracts from the Lord’s Prayer itself. I mean….we’re all focused on hands here guys. The Lord’s Prayer was given to us by Christ Himself. And what does he tell us? That we must respect God. Forgive our neighbours. Seek mercy. Accept God’s will. Put our trust in God to deliver us from evil. If anything distracts us from living out those truths then surely it can’t be beneficial? Personally speaking, the orans during the Lord’s Prayer isn’t something I’ll be continuing with for that very reason. I don’t feel it humbles, I feel it separates. I don’t see that it connects me to the priest or to my brothers and sisters – neither should it. I’m called to love my neighbour but at Mass, I’m being called to something greater. To lift up my heart to the Lord. And that’s what I want to focus on, not the lifting of hands.

N.B – The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is published by Ignatius Press and is available for purchase by clicking here.