We were at the karaoke bar. My other friends stepped outside for a smoke, and it was just me and E. in the booth. It wasn’t Easter yet, so she was still waiting to become Catholic. She still had lots of questions.
She didn’t understand every last bit of it, she said, but she knew about the Eucharist. Hoping I wasn’t causing scandal, I told her that the Eucharist was the only thing that mattered anyway. The rest was just details. I answered her questions about the other stuff, of course. But I thought then and I think now that the Eucharist is, as Lumen Gentium has it, “the source and summit of the Christian life”. I told her as much.
Our friends finished their cigarettes. I sang Patsy Cline like I always do. We finished our beers and went home.
I’m thinking about that night as I read Timothy Ware on the history of the Orthodox Church:
There is a danger that mysticism may become speculative and individualistic — divorced from…the corporate life of the Church…[but] Palamas and his circle did not regard mystical prayer as a means of bypassing the normal institutional life of the Church.1
A means of bypassing…the normal institutional life of the Church. Something about that phrase hits home. I think of my preferred mode of prayer. Not the Mass, not the Liturgy of the Hours, not even the Rosary. Just me and Jesus alone in an empty chapel. This image has been bothering me more and more in recent weeks. How did I come to regard the Mass the way I do — as a distraction from the Eucharist? When did I start trying to ignore the priest so I could focus better on the tabernacle behind him? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with the Mass?
Catholic traditionalists have an answer to that question, of course. Yes, there’s something wrong with the Mass, the Novus Ordo Mass to be specific. Or at least, there’s something impoverished about the NO. Or at the very least, it’s extremely reasonable to have a strong preference for the Extraordinary Form.
No, I’m not going trad, or anyway not like that. I flirted with traditionalism for a while in high school and afterwards. The beauty of the EF appealed to me. I even, because I am a Catholic neckbeard, got a phrase from it tattooed between my shoulder blades. In Latin, obviously.2
I eventually distanced myself both from that school of thought and from most of the people who espoused it. I couldn’t deny that the EF was more reverent and more beautiful, and that it drew more deeply on Scripture. But I started to recognize among the trad crowd that kind of legalism and rigidity that I was learning to flee from whenever I saw it. I was fleeing it internally, too. The Pharisee and the Pelagian run deep in me. I stab at them every chance I get.
Eventually I concluded that the EF might be more beautiful, but that it didn’t matter that much. The point was that the Mass was real (NO or EF), that the Transubstantiation happens, that I get to receive Jesus as intimately as any lover receives his beloved. What did the externals matter?
By this point, too, my flight from legalism had me terminally freaked out by anything that smelled too Roman. The Liturgy of the Hours made me claustrophobic. I developed an allergy to Latin. I felt strangled by my scapular. If I was ever going to go trad, it was going to be one heck of a long road.
But I think of myself, again, alone in the Church, no Liturgy, no music, no other parishioners, no words. Just me and Jesus, looking at each other. It’s good, no doubt about it. But it’s not very human. It’s not even very bodily. What’s so Sacramental about staring at a wafer without even eating it?
We’re not designed for this kind of naked spirituality. To put it another way, God does not tend to give himself to us immediately, that is, without mediation. He comes to us through our senses, through our neighbors. He comes to us by means of space and by means of time. He comes by words, by sounds, even by smells.
He comes by Incarnation, by Sacrament, by Liturgy.
So you could say the Mass is just a setting for the Eucharist. But that would be like saying that Christ’s smile is just a setting for his heart. The heart is what matters, of course. But the smile — oh, it matters a lot, too, and if it’s ever been turned on you full blast, you know exactly how much it matters. And if he never smiles at you, how can you know anything about his heart, anyway?
So what do you do when the Novus Ordo makes you feel bodiless, but the Extraordinary Form makes you feel buried alive?
You head east.