Refresh my heart: “Send them out as prayer”

Here it is, the second week of Easter. The ice on the lake in my neighborhood is gradually receding. The grass is a slightly greenish shade of brown, and the geese are arriving, and I’m thinking about the proclamation of the word in the liturgy.

Unlike liturgical musicians, whom I admire without a thought of emulation, lectoring is a ministry I have practiced. It now feels like a natural outgrowth of my teaching ministry in the church, although, on reflection, it might rather be the foundation of my teaching.

One April, 14 years ago, when I still lived in a state without icy lakes or Canada geese, I had just been received into full communion with the Catholic Church. I was asked to read the scripture for the one of the first mystagogical prayer services, which took place on the Wednesdays of Easter. I practiced and nervously waited, terrified that I wouldn’t remember when to go forward to the ambo.

I started to read. Suddenly, the text didn’t seem like the same text I had practiced. Of course, the words were still the same (although I did, on another occasion years later, practice the wrong text – a cautionary experience!). The listening assembly, though, the community with whom I had been preparing for many months, changed the taste of the reading as I proclaimed it. I found myself not trying to read the word of God, but listening to it, and hearing it in a way that I could not have heard it in the silence of my own study.

That experience has endured. When I read the scriptures at liturgy, I never expect them to say exactly what I thought they said. And years later, I said a hearty Amen when I first read Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk:

“Being a lector is a unique experience; it feels nothing like reading poems, my own or anyone else’s, to an audience. And it’s certainly not a performance; no emoting, or the monks would have my hide. The Liturgy of the Word is prayer. You pray the scriptures with, and for, the people assembled, and the words go out to them, touching them in ways only God can imagine. The words are all that matter, and you send them out as prayer, hoping to become invisible behind them.”

– Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, 68. Emphasis mine.

May God send the Word into your heart this week.

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13 comments

  1. As a lector, my heart sings as I read your words. Which is good, because I have little future as a liturgical musician… and especially that of cantor! So better, my heart than my voice! 🙂

    In all seriousness, I love this ministry, what a rich privilege. Thanks for the reminder of that passage from the Cloister Walk.

    Might I add, I am sitting here with the image of you being received into the Church. I love that language, and it says so much, especially in these days of mystagogy. Received, what a rich image, what a beautiful thing. Off topic, a bit maybe, but I can’t help but mention how the words land, in that same heart of mine, the one that is singing.

  2. Yes, this is lovely, and a nice affirmation of how I felt at the end of the Easter Vigil (it was a particularly good year because I got to read Is. 54). I am always mystified when people I barely know come up to me and say “you’re such a good reader–I wish I could take a class from you at the College”; it would seem pedantic, under the circumstances, to explain the difference between reading and teaching…

  3. Many thanks for your story! And may it continue for many years to come. It is telling that the experience you describe is not at all unlike that of church musicians. Somehow, when one is playing Bach, or singing chant, or directing a choir in the miracle that is Palestrina, the music is both transformed into a likeness that it did not possess when practiced on, and, as well, transforms all who hear. Whatever we do in the courts of the Lord, it is not merely our ‘offering’, but something that he makes of it for his own glory and our benefit. It is well remembered that ‘surely, the Lord is in this place; this is… none other than the gate of heaven’.

    And! How fortunate you are to still have ice on a lake behind your house! You might say a prayer for those of us in Houston, where it never snows.

  4. I chanted the Gospel for the first time at the Easter Vigil and I found that proclaiming it in situ was a very different experience from practicing it. And those who heard me do both were unanimous that the actual proclamation was far more effective than any of the practice attempts.

  5. Gracious and eternal God, please take the snow out of my yard and give it to the deprived people of Houston. Amen.

    1. @Kimberly Hope Belcher – comment #5:
      Just thinking about your snow makes me feel better! Thanks for the prayer. Where, actually, do you live? I was born in Missouri, but have lived in this sweltering city most of my life. We get a few dozen snowflakes here about once every 10 or 12 years. Throw a snowball for me!

      1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #8:
        Monticello, Minnesota, just a bit up the road from Minneapolis-St Paul. I was born and raised in Florida, but I enjoy the change of seasons. Ahem. Change! In fact, I’m ready for them to change right now!

        It’s a bit beyond snowball season, alas – the “snow” in my yard is a convenient shorthand for something that’s really half ice and half slush. But next winter I will throw a snowball for you with pleasure!

  6. I thank Kimberly for her own witness and for quoting that of Kathleen. And I am glad that we pray over it as we rehearse and that we do not tie everything down neatly, leaving ample room for the Spirit that breathes as it will in unplanned ways.

    I see many connections with poetry and oratory; our readings in liturgy have a certain rhythm that we will detect and repeat if we have read a lot of these. I also think my ministry is more effective whenever I enter the reading and seek to become the author. In the end, though, one criterion stands out: does it help to build the people’s prayer? When I witness to “The Word” do they respond to the Lord’s Word or to my word? So far they say that it helps their prayer; never have they applauded like detached hearers. And if they come to me as they sometimes do, may they only thank, never applaud or even admire, like the Nazarenes did on Jesus’s homecoming day.

  7. These are lovely comments on bringing the word(s) to life. I am intrigued by M. Jackson Osborn’s observations about music!

  8. Kimberly, this is a beautifully put and totally accurate post……certainly for me!!!
    I AM a pastoral musician, but I have filled the ministry of lector – on occasion in my parish and at Notre Dame in the summer program. I found it every bit as humbling and as prayerful as singing the psalm before the assembly. No rehearsal comes close ( although rehearsal certainly enables and is necessary)

  9. I’ve never been a reader or a Eucharistic minister at Sunday liturgies. I have read for family funerals, and read once and been a Eucharistic minister once at a weekday liturgy.

    Like most people, I have never been asked. Generally if asked to do something I apply the “Let George do it” rule. If there are many other people that could do it then why not them. Years ago when I was asked to be a voluntary pastoral staff member, I said yes because it was obvious that the pastor had few choices. I became a pastoral council member because no one was interested in the job (and it gave me a good opportunity to observe voluntarism in a large parish without doing much).

    Unfortunately existing volunteers discourage other people from volunteering. Many of them become very entrenched in their positions (often they hold more than one). Paid pastoral staff have to worry about alienating dependable people.

    The pastor who recruited me for pastoral staff had a rule that you could not do more than one ministry. So when I became a pastoral staff member I could not longer be in the choir.

    Since the Readers and Eucharistic ministries are very visible and also relatively limited in number, it might be helpful if they had term limits, that they not only have some form of preparation but also meet for mutual support and discussion as to how their ministry is affecting their own spiritual lives as well as the parish. Finally early on even during their preparation that might begin to discuss how their ministry in the parish might affect their lives outside the parish both during and afterwards.

    Term limited voluntarism gives both professionals and the receiving organization a lot of benefits. I found that my term as a voluntary pastoral staff member energized my professional life afterwards. A major effect was my increasing awareness of voluntarism in the mental health system and the valued role that the mentally ill acquire when they become volunteers both within and outside the mental health system.

    Perhaps Francis emphasis upon our external service to others will lead parishes to consider the advantages of both bringing new talent into the parishes from different occupations as volunteers and then sending if forth to volunteer in the community.

    Thanks for the different perspective.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #11:
      What an insightful comment, Jack.
      Signed, Paid pastoral staff tiptoeing around

      In all seriousness, sometimes a ministry, with all the best intentions, goes to someone’s head. Or it is their one little seemingly (hah) controllable piece of real estate. It can be such a challenge.

      And as much as I love lectoring, term limits… you may be on to something.

  10. I appreciate Jack’s comments. I do think there are a whole lot of people who need to be asked, and at time nugged and encouraged. So many folks feel unworthy to train to be a lector or an extraordinary minister of communion. At my home parish, rounding up the EM’s for mass is often a challenge. Our pastor seems more than willing to dispense with the cup if there aren’t enough people signed up. Wanting to avoid that, I offered to make sure we have enough EM’s. I quickly learned that enlisting other EM’s in getting people to volunteer was key, as was inviting folks who were regularly attended 7:30 mass to go through the training. Sometimes all it takes is that personal invitation.

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