Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It matters most. Here's why.

Every once in a while, someone who is a bit (or a lot) less traditional than I am asks me a question that (apologies to Bob Newhart) goes a little something like this:

"Don't we have bigger things to worry about than being the rubrics-police? Shouldn't we be focusing on clothing the naked/quenching the thirsty/eradicating pestilence/etc.?"

The short answer, I'm afraid, is "No, we do not."

Before I launch into why I believe this is, allow me to throw in my favorite bit o' Holy Writ on the subject:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he reclined at table. But when His disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, "To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor." When Jesus heard this, He said unto them, "Why trouble ye the woman? She hath wrought a good work upon Me. For ye have the poor always with you; but Me, ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on My body, she did it for My burial. Verily I say unto ye: Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."

You will kindly note the sentiment expressed by the disciples "To what purpose is this waste?" is identical to the one at the top of this post. In the search for goodness and holiness in results, people often forget the work that must precede it and, should that work cease to be done, the goodness and holiness, seemingly disconnected (or very distantly connected) will inevitably wither and die.

And then people scratch their melons and wonder why the whole thing fell apart. Earlier I wrote of the necessity of evangelization and catechetization if we are to see peace, kindness, charity, goodness, justice, temperance, etc., etc., breaking out all over the world. The germ of this is a reverence for the Lord. Things that foster reverence for God will lead people to be better catechized, to evangelize, to treat others with dignity and fairness.

This is why it's important to adhere to the norms that give us that sense of reverence, that "awe and wonder" that teaches and reminds us that God is not (as opposed to Zaphod Beeblebrox) "...just this guy, you know?" There is nothing more important than how we worship God and the homage we do Him. Nothing at all. If we fail to do this, all our good works, all our nicey-nice intentions, all our efforts are nothing but a vanity, a carefully constructed chain of elaborate links hanging on to a nail affixed firmly to...thin air.

Part of what fosters reverence is a sense of the universality of the Universal Church. You can't get that sense if at St. X they are all about bongos, tambourines and kumbaya, and at St. Y, it's Ye Olde Yells, Bells and Smells. Adherence to norms means there is a sense of geographical continuity and an enhanced sense of the global nature of the Church. There is a difference between the current "Ain't we grand?" approach and "We are all in this together."

Another part of fostering reverence is--as a desecrated altarpiece from a synagogue, on exhibit at the Holocaust Museum read--to "Know Before Whom You Stand." If Jesus walked in through your front door, would you run out with that alabaster jar? Or would you be mindful of the "waste?" The same way we must be aware His Body and Blood are consecrated in the proper vessels, not cheap baskets and Kool-AidTM pitchers. How does this glorify God? How does this put the faithful in the frame of mind to recognize the infinite gulf between Him and us?

If we do not make active, conscious, ceaseless efforts to remind ourselves of this gap--a gap only God can bridge--we are in reality just rebuilding Babel. We just cloak our vain nature in nobler aspirations, but it's the same thing. With, inevitably and eventually, the same results.

With a loss of reverence--of an active and constant recognition of the unimaginable distance between us and God--sooner or later, everything falls apart. Everything. Every last itty-bitty little thing. Vocations deflate, morals erode, civility evaporates, injustice and violence abound, mercy crumbles, courage disappears, repentance desiccates and kindness and goodness take a powder.

This is why "rules matter," why those of us who long for greater adherence to norm continue to struggle and work and pray. Not because we want to stick it to the BirkenstockTM crowd, not because we want to quench the Spirit, not because we are backward-looking nostalgists. We do this because we long to see certain fruits in abundance at the harvest and we know the only way to get them is to plant seeds a certain way, nurture the seedlings and trees a certain way and care for the leaves and blossoms and buds a certain way. This is because we know that when this was standard operating procedure in the Church, the measurable aspects of its impact were in a positive trend. What works, works.

"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto ye.




  • At 12:45 AM, May 24, 2006 , Blogger --erica said...

    You nailed it.

  • At 6:47 AM, May 25, 2006 , Blogger Steve Bogner said...

    How we worship is very important, but for me it takes a back seat to what I believe. My personal faith in God and the salvation Christ brings, and 'faith' in terms of the body of the Church, come first for me.

    As I look back on things, it hasn't been the adherence to certain liturgical rules that have deepened my faith. It has been prayer, reading scripture and the works of the saints, and receiving more grace from God than I deserve. And whether there are bongos or a pipe organ & choir at mass, the Eucharist always moves me.

  • At 10:30 AM, May 25, 2006 , Blogger Joe said...


    Obviously, without the "what we worship" the "how we worship" is pointless and irrelevant. I think, on that point, we are in agreement.

    Likewise, I agree on the deepening of faith as a consequence of "prayer, reading scripture and the works of the saints, and receiving more grace from God than I deserve." In fact, I agree more than you would believe.

    Where our paths, I think, diverge a little bit is in how are we to approach the subject of worship. Yes, the central point of Mass is the Eucharist, and yes Christ is present even if the celebrant trills in a falsetto and juggles the vessels.

    There are people who can get past that and focus on Christ regardless of the shenanigans at the altar. But not many, I'll wager.

    Even in those cases, I would say that reverence (not, you will note, faith) is most deepened in the faithful when the norms are adhered to in a loving way.

    This is not to say that reverence doesn't exist at all where there is a "Gather" hymnal* and the vessels are acrylic pitchers and Chinet plates. Rather, I believe reverence is optimized when the environment around the worship is one which exalts God and reminds us how much we are in need of "the salvation Christ brings."

    That reverence is catalytic to one's faith, not necessary. To realize that you are engaging in a "format" (poor word, I know) of worship that spans both geography and time cannot but underscore the universality of the Church.

    Your mileage, of course, may vary.



    * Speaking strictly for myself, I'm sure it happens, but I have some difficulty envisioning it.

  • At 10:21 PM, May 25, 2006 , Blogger Steve Bogner said...

    Good points, Joe.

    I think a lot goes into a 'quality' mass (sounds strange that way). I'd love to see some research on what people say makes mass meaningful for them. We could learn a lot from that, I think.

  • At 8:20 AM, June 05, 2006 , Blogger Sarah Louise said...

    I agree with you on most points except this one:

    Part of what fosters reverence is a sense of the universality of the Universal Church. You can't get that sense if at St. X they are all about bongos, tambourines and kumbaya, and at St. Y, it's Ye Olde Yells, Bells and Smells. Adherence to norms means there is a sense of geographical continuity and an enhanced sense of the global nature of the Church.

    Organ music makes me crazy. Thus, I will never marry an Episcopalian. I stopped being a Catholic because I found that worship at the OD (electric guitars, drum set) brought me nearer to God, and worship Sunday mornings at St. X. didn't.

    While I've never been to your particular church, I have been to all Latin mass and it doesn't speak my particular lingua.

    How, for me, equals, are we being reverent, not what type of music we're using.

    My father will probably never sing with his eyes closed and his arms raised to the ceiling. Does that make his worship experience any less reverent than mine?

    Vive l'difference, I say. Just make sure worship is what you're doing.

  • At 1:39 PM, June 05, 2006 , Blogger Joe said...


    My point in stating what I did was not to say that X is good and Y is bad. What I meant to stress is that differences, glorious and wonderful and affirming and all that as they may be, are things that separate us and, therefore, cannot--by definition--enhance the sense of universality.

    By that I mean the sense that throughout time and everywhere around the globe, people of an entirely different color, culture, etc. are doing the same exact thing you are doing. I believe this is monumentally important.

    Of course, we have been given Free Will and we don't have to agree that Universality trumps Diversity.

    Lastly, these days you're more likely to find a bongos-and-tambourine (or Stratocaster and drum kit) Catholic churches than you are to find one with Ye Olde Yells, Bells and Smells. People in our parish are petrified one day they'll find us out and make us go all kumbaya and (as Dennis Miller aptly put it) make us start "pumping grace."

    You're more likely to find this sort of thing at a High Church Episcopal/Anglican parish, in fact. This is God's way of telling me not to be covetous.

    This has been worth every penny you paid to read it. :-)


  • At 10:21 PM, June 08, 2006 , Blogger Sarah Louise said...

    I'm sorry, I still don't get why it's so important that we all DO the same thing. I think it's great that you go an all Latin Mass. I could never do that more than once a year. But you and I do read the same Bible (albeit the psalms are re-numbered). Worship, in my mind, is personal and communal. But never one size fits all.

  • At 3:12 PM, June 09, 2006 , Blogger Joe said...


    In my opinion--and why I hold this opinion could be another discussion for another day--Universality is more important than Diversity. That is to say, that the body of Christ is doing X is more important than celebrating that I am the left ventricle of the body of Christ and you are the right kidney.

    To me, a sense of reverence is enhanced by knowing that at this time we are all doing _____. This unites us in both time and space. Much like Jews during, say, Passover. Throughout the world observant Jews pray the same prayers and pray them in substantially the same way not only as each other, but as generations prior.

    What I am not necessarily suggesting here and now is that old-timey Latin is the way to go. I was just trying to stress my view that Universality is a good thing.




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