I know we’re not supposed to ask for a sign, but I sure would like one or two in my life. How about a sign about where to send our kid to kindergarten? A sign about how our family should live out its vocation? A sign about what to make for dinner?
I’ve been going to Mass hoping I might see or hear a thing or two which tells me what to do. Let us pray. Fine. Lift up your hearts. Okay. The Body of Christ. Amen.
I feel like I already know what to do about these things. But I want to know about what to do with my worries, my hopes, my concerns, my general yawp over the roofs of the world (thanks Walt Whitman).
As you may have guessed, I am not getting any “sign.”
When we feel lost and unsure, or overwhelmed and stressed, directions and directives sure are nice. They tell us what to do, where to go, and what to do. But, as you likely already know, and to my own disappointment, liturgical worship isn’t about directives. Liturgical worship is about discernment.
Discernment involves choice: about noticing what attracts (or depresses) you, and a whole lot of listening. It’s more than a science (where a nice sign would come in super-helpful). It’s about trying to find the will of God, pondering it in prayer, and ultimately turning a decision back to God (before you sign any paperwork). Being filled with a sense of consolation about the choice, as Ignatius of Loyola describes, offers some confirmation that you’ve made a good choice, perhaps even among several good options.
This is a process which involves some time, of course. Unlike the immediate mental energy with which a “sign” might task us, discernment demands an expansion of one’s heart—a choice to focus, quieting the besetting, unsettling worries which plague us—and offering our wonders to Christ.
How does the liturgy allow for discernment?
Let us pray. There are a lot of words in the liturgy (I’ll reserve my thoughts on need for silence for another time). But this simple invitation to pray is a key to the Christian life. We are encouraged to choose to come to the Living God in relationship. Prayer facilitates this relationship. Rather than leaving us to spin in worry, the liturgy offers us a space and a time to focus on hearing how God has loved us, calls us to conversion, and offers us mercy. That sounds like a good starting point.
Lift up your hearts. Well, there’s nothing like trying to empty out whatever is in our overtaxed and burdened hearts and instead offer our hearts to God. Any burden which Jesus carries, we know, is light. Why not abandon the weight we’re carrying? In liturgical celebration, we’re bringing whatever is in and of ourselves to God; maybe he can do something with it while we join in thanks and praise.
The Body of Christ. Well, Jesus really does come back at us with a pretty specific answer every time we celebrate the Lord’s supper and say “Amen.” This is Christ—with us and in us. We become, again, part of his body—and we are all Christ’s body together. The liturgy reminds us that we are all invited to flourish, to have dignity, to know we’re in the image of God. We’re all invited to bring Christ’s light which first dawned on us in our baptism to others. So, what choices can we make that will honor this reality—and this duty—today?
Sure, these aren’t “signs”—so maybe we should still be annoyed. But signs don’t allow for growth. Signs don’t allow for conversion. Signs don’t even allow much for the exercise of a well-formed conscience. Perhaps this is why neither Jesus nor the liturgy are interested in signs. The liturgy offers us a process—and asks that we actively participate in it.
So maybe I’ll try to stop asking for weather forecasts from God when I show up at Mass. Instead, I can try to read the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3). What can I do—in this time—to serve the will of God?