Liturgical Attitude

By Joel Kelley

Many Catholics have heard their fellow churchgoers complain about the Mass: “It’s too boring and old-fashioned,” “I cannot stand the music,” and, perhaps worst of all, “I don’t get anything out of it.” Why does this sort of bemoaning seem so standard and predictable? Unfortunately, the underlying theme in these grievances is rooted in the idea that the Mass should in some way entertain or stimulate emotion. One could argue that, at least in the United States or the broader Western civilization, this assumption comes as a byproduct of consumerism or individualism, principles that promote experiences eliciting emotional responses. This paper does not seek to discover the antecedents of why many use the word “boring” to refer to liturgy. Rather, it explores how the faithful are called to participate consciously, actively, and fully, (Sacrosanctum Concilium 13) regardless of individual emotion.

Principally, one should note that emoting is a natural human experience, not something implicitly negative. However, emotions can have a harmful impact whenever a person acts solely on them. Responsibility often requires tasks to be accomplished in the face of opposing emotions. No one always ardently desires to go to work or even spend time with loved ones; work can be stressful and people annoying. Despite this stress and annoyance, one must attend to his duties. The same applies to liturgy: “there is something more basic at work in the context of liturgy than feeling, and that is attitude” (Mark Searle, Called to Participate: Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspectives, Liturgical Press, 2006, p. 61). That is to say, liturgy does not happen whenever one “feels like it” and liturgy does not happen in order that one feels excited or stimulated. Rather, liturgy as public worship occurs because it is “the action by which God sanctifies the world in Christ” and “the worship that the human race offers the Father, adoring him through Christ, the Son of God, in the Holy Spirit” (SC 10). The faithful are called to worship not for themselves but to respond to these two callings of sanctification and adoration. Herein lies the mission of every Christian:

“whenever we celebrate the liturgy, therefore, it must not be for our own benefit so much as an exercise of our vocation to represent humanity before God” (Searle, 81).

One does not attend liturgy for her own sake but for the sake of all people.

This other-centeredness might be found in the popularity of the word “community,” especially when referring to neighborhoods, schools, or churches. It shows that people naturally seek some place of belonging and familial fellowship. However, one should carefully avoid confusing community in the popular sense with community in the liturgical sense. Community in the popular sense is simultaneously feelings- and self-centered; it indicates a place where I feel like I belong. Liturgical community reflects an attitude of prayer and transcends self. Mark Searle notes, “our liturgies are used in awkward attempts to create pseudo-communities” which “can ultimately be alienating, for it invites all the participants to see reality other than it actually is” (Searle, 73). These “pseudo-communities” worry about how people feel and try to produce a positive feeling. People consequently recognize the manufactured feelings as shallow and pull away from something so fabricated. Conversely, it seems unreasonable, even impossible, to expect the congregation to naturally bond so filially to create community. What, then, can the liturgy offer?

The answer lies in changing perceptions instead of relationships. Each member of the congregation need not be best friends with her fellow worshipper. Instead, a new attitude must be donned, replacing the soiled “feelings-only” model, in order to realize that “liturgy is by definition an act of anamnesis, of remembering” (Searle, 78). As a Christian community, the faithful come to remember in a profound way the action of God in human history, in the lives of those who have died, and in the lives of the Church universal. In this sense, Christian community does not refer to a collection of distinct individuals in a certain location but a single, unified Body of Christ across time and space. That one does not care for a particular hymn or the homily of the day does not invalidate his membership in the Body; it does require a self-sacrifice of feelings for the prayerful attitude of communal worship.

Changing the inclination to emotion into an attitude of worship can seem daunting, even insurmountable. Fortunately, the Church has a solution to this conundrum: ritual action. The collection of gestures, words, songs, and silences all point to a deeper theological reality than that which appears physically to our eyes. In the words of Aidan Kavanagh,

“ritual is a system of symbols rather than mere signs. Symbols, being roomy, allow many different people to put them on, so to speak, in different ways” (Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 5.)

The “roominess” that he speaks of hints at an openness to interpretation or the ability to be understood on a variety of levels. Thus, ritual has a profundity and a richness, especially in its repetition which is not to be confused with “monotony.” The two are distinct; repetition implies “rhythm, which organizes repetition, makes things memorable, as in music, poetry, rhetoric, and architecture, and the plastic arts no less than in liturgical worship” (Kavanaugh, 28). The beauty of a symphony or a cathedral is made manifest through its rhythmic order and recurring patterns. Thus, while the structure of the Mass may be a common tune, its familiarity can help bring the worshipper into the proper attitude.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) notes the improbability of perfect participation from all members at liturgy; in the face of that, it states:

Even though it is on occasion not possible to have the presence and active participation of the faithful, which manifest more clearly the ecclesial nature of the celebration, the celebration of the Eucharist is always endowed with its own efficacy and dignity, since it is the act of Christ and of the Church. (19)

This intimates the humanity of the faithful; the impending deadline at work, the wailing baby two pews up, or the slightly pitchy cantor will likely distract from prayer. Thankfully, through God’s grace, the Eucharist still maintains its “efficacy and dignity” despite any imperfect attentiveness. However, this does not excuse or encourage distraction, and while there is a temptation to surrender to individual feeling in relation to any non-liturgical ritual event (e.g. curiosity regarding the score of the football game) during liturgy, the attitude of self-sacrifice must take precedence. Searle writes:   

“Through the prayer and gestures of the liturgy, we open ourselves up to the prayer of the Spirit praying in us. Through conforming to the constraints of the rite, we de-center ourselves, momentarily abandon our claim to autonomy, so that our bodies might become epiphanies of Christ in our midst.” (62)

This opening-up and de-centering requires discipline, and also God’s grace. Unfortunately, discipline involves continual commitment and is therefore difficult. A professional athlete does not develop her prowess by only working out three times a week, and no great musician neglects to practice his scales frequently. Similarly, if one desires an attitude of prayerfulness in the liturgy, it must be trained. To be clear, someone with a more developed liturgical discipline, one who understands the rhythm of ritual, will not “get more out of Mass” in a materialistic understanding. The person accustomed to Mass will not necessarily leave feeling more fulfilled than someone who attends infrequently; she understands that liturgy is not about feeling and will not gauge the “effectiveness” or “gravity” of the liturgy on how invigorated she may feel afterwards. She will, however, have tried to participate consciously, actively, and fully, regardless of distraction or other personal or emotional factors.

Going to Mass can seem like a lot of work if understood incorrectly. Countless responses and prayers must be memorized, the body must handle a variety of postures, other people who may be distracting must be ignored, and a prayerful attitude should be maintained throughout the liturgy in gesture, word, song, and silence to “achieve” seemingly nothing – particularly, no emotional high. One must recognize that the liturgy intentionally avoids such emotions, relying rather on ritual action. Fortunately, these enacted symbols draw the faithful out of themselves as individuals into the life of the Body of Christ. In time and with practice, one can immerse himself in the rhythm of ritual, finding instead of a feeling of fulfillment, peace in an attitude of prayer that is not one’s own.

Joel Kelley is at rising junior at Marian University in Indianapolis. He is an honors students in the honors academy and a student of Pray Tell contributor Katie Harmon.

One comment

  1. Thumbs up, for the most part.

    And yet, God has created us as beings with emotion. Rather than cast suspicion on all feelings, I think they can be useful expressions of the human aspect of worship. Psalmists sing of emotion quite frequently. Just in the songs of ascents: distress in 120, gladness in 122, joy after tears in 126.

    I would be cautious in ascribing emotion to the assessment: “I didn’t get anything out of it.” That statement requires discernment. Usually it means a gap between preacher and pew and more often, something intellectual is missing–either from leadership or from the seats. From working years in the trenches, many homilists I’ve heard are disconnected from the Gospel and from the lives of parishioners. Many people just want a straight-forward homily that brings some meaning to their life struggles. Good news, in other words.

    As a pastoral musician, I would take seriously the challenge that someone “can’t stand the music.” That would suggest self-searching on my part if that were a significant fraction of my parishioners.

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