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.

1 The Orthodox Church, p. 70. He’s talking about the Hesychast controversy.
2 I’ll tell you which phrase if you buy me a drink.

33 Comments on “Bypass”

  1. Sarah Breisch says:

    “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?”

    You remember the verse in which Jesus tells His disciples that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Well, growing up as a “non-denominational” Protestant, eventually I felt that I could see nor find either. There was no corpus, and there was no ceremony. There was only that “immediacy with Jesus,” which was entirely dependent on ME to make happen. I was not enough. And so my desperate prayer became, “Father, show me the Son!” Meaning, where on the EARTH can I find the road to Heaven? I felt that I knew the Father pretty well– I knew the Scriptures, the prophecies fulfilled and still unsure, I knew the Old Law and the New. But what I didn’t feel was a kind of love that encompassed all of me– up to and including a love that would help me LIVE, not just hang around being good while waiting to die.

    Long story short, one kind of normal day I held my breath and tiptoed inside a tiny Roman Catholic chapel somewhere in New Hampshire. No one was in there but me, but I sure didn’t feel alone.

    Years later, I pray for the full conversion of my friends and family, who as yet still think that their long-distance relationship with Jesus is good enough. But there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.

  2. Brian says:

    I feel like both are pretty important: the Mass and the time alone with the Blessed Sacrament. When I make a visit to hosts locked away in the tabernacle, I don’t think about it as divorced from the Mass itself. I think of it more as an extension. The Mass isn’t going on, but Christ in the tabernacle is still the sacrificed Christ.

  3. Mike says:

    From what you wrote, I don’t think it’s the Extraordinary Form itself that’s the problem, but the people and the culture that tends to surround it.

    Also, what is it exactly that you are searching for? Is it how you can serve Christ better, or is it a better sense of positive emotional affirmation? If it’s the latter, I think you are setting yourself up to always be disappointed, whether you go East or stay West.

    1. I’m searching for what is most true, most good, and most beautiful.

    2. Luke says:

      I do wonder about the culture around the EF a little as well.

      I think that it is largely a result of the way that in most parts of the English speaking Church, the EF has been sidelined – sometimes fiercely. There has been a lot of hostile politics around the issue, and those that gravitate towards the EF in spite of this are naturally those you are somewhat more intense in their thinking, those more naturally predisposed to perfectionism and legalism. It is not the EF itself that is the problem, it is the situation and culture that surrounds it as a”minority interest” of sorts within the Church.

      You could imagine a parallel situation where the EF was the predominant form and the NO was sidelined – those that adhered to the NO would be extreme – in different ways but still extreme.

      As the Orthodox Church does not have this issue, I imagine that its liturgy can emphasise many of the same good aspects found in the EF without resulting in that somewhat legalistic attitude. It is not an issue with the EF changing the people – it is with the natural character of the people initially attracted to it in the first place.

    3. CatholicAspie1 says:

      Agreed on both points. And I suspect that, just as he found problems with the people and culture surrounding the Extraordinary Form, he will eventually find problems with the people and culture of the East, (or anywhere else in the Church).

  4. Wesley D says:

    Given your complaint, it seems that you are heading in the wrong direction.

    If you value the core of the sacrament — the Real Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ — his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity — but the trappings are getting in your way, then it seems that you value receiving the Lord in the Eucharist more than the liturgy of the Mass.

    That’s perfectly fine. That’s exactly how the Catholic Church was in the Middle Ages.

    Today, the “traditionalists” value the Tridentine liturgy, while the “liberals” value the Novus Ordo liturgy. Those in Eastern Rites have different liturgies. They all are arguing about liturgy, liturgy, liturgy — not about the sacrament itself.

    But back in the Middle Ages, scholastic theologians focused on the sacrament itself. They wrote about its form and its matter. And then, as a quick aside, they mentioned all the extra stuff — the stuff that wasn’t form or matter. What was this “other stuff”? It included all the physical things (kneeling, standing, processing) other than the bread and wine. And it included all the words (songs, hymns, chants) other than the few words necessary to perform the sacrament.

    That’s why they developed Eucharistic Adoration.

    There are folks who love the new liturgy, and I’m delighted that they can celebrate it everywhere. There are folks who love the traditional liturgy, and I’m glad that they can celebrate it in an increasing number of locations. But for those of us who first and foremost love the Real Presence of Christ, these trappings aren’t what’s important.

    1. That’s an extremely Western explanation. 🙂

      1. Wesley D says:

        That’s exactly my point. Both the Novus Ordo folks and their Trad opponents have more in common with each other — and with the East — than they do with the Medieval West. Like the East, they value the integral liturgy, not just the Real Presence. Like the East, they put a lot of thought into the entire Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer).

        But in the Middle Ages in the West, you can find entire treatises on the Eucharist, but it’s hard to find anyone who wrote about the integral liturgy or the Eucharistic Prayer.

        Based on your post above, it occurred to me that perhaps your thinking has been closer to the Medieval western view than to modern Catholic trads, Catholic liberals, or Eastern Orthodox. But the last few paragraphs of your post suggest something different.

        You might want to look at the Eastern Rite Catholics. Today, it’s almost impossible to separate the Tridentine Mass from the subculture that has grown up around it. Their surliness and resentfulness may or may not be their fault — perhaps it’s the fault of those who have persecuted them for half a century, or maybe that’s an excuse. But it’s a real thing. I have encountered Traditionalist communities that I would never consider joining because of the toxic resentment. If you like their liturgy but can’t stand the subculture, then an Eastern Rite parish (or a time-machine to the 1950s) is your best bet!

      2. CatholicAspie1 says:

        “That’s an extremely Western explanation.”

        I’m not sure what this response of yours is supposed to mean.

  5. Link says:

    Can I send you money for the drink and hangout by Skype? That would be rad.

    Or if you’re still someplace in New England, I am too. Would totally travel for that.

    1. Come to Boston! Send me an email or Twitter message and we’ll discuss.

      1. Bruce Lewis says:

        I’ve been following you for a while, but I live in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Jesuit parish I belong to celebrate the liturgy in the Syrian Catholic mode. I seriously recommend that you look into it, or into the Armenian rite. Both are very beautiful. Pope Francis came here recently, and the first was the liturgy used at his mass.

        1. Thanks! I’m definitely looking into Eastern Catholic parishes around here. There’s a Melkite Catholic church not too far away.

        2. Adam says:

          (CAIRO) – Correction: Bruce, not “Syrian Catholic”, but “Coptic Catholic”.

          1. Robert Bruce Lewis says:

            You’re right.

  6. Silvina says:

    East is a beautiful option. I think the Byzantine rite surpasses both the NO and the EF in beauty. I never did connect with the EF, reverent as it is…there is something lacking in it for me that I only get in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.

  7. Lisa says:

    I elevated the Eucharist above all other sacramnets because of CCC 1324….
    Until I went back to school to pursue my Theology degree and had Catechism I in my fist semester. (Also where your blog was linked 🙂
    Don’t bypass the Eastern Catholic rites on your way to checking out the Orthodox.
    Compact History by Alan Schreck is a good companion for that larger picture of how truth fits together. Goos luck man.

  8. Bradley says:

    too far away to buy you a drink, but I’d hazard a guess “Introibo ad altare Dei”?

    1. Not too far off chronologically.

      1. Claude says:

        Then it must be “ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” ?

  9. Kate Cousino says:

    I have a few friends that headed towards Eastern rites (or, in one case, orthodoxy) to “bypass” the wounds and trappings and emotional associations–and controversies, though Eastern types have their own dramas and controversies, being human like the rest of us–of their childhood/young adult religious upbringing in the NO or EF. I have a great deal of empathy for that, and I firmly believe that is sometimes the path the Holy Spirit uses to lead someone into a deeper life of faith.

    Of course, I grew up influenced, via my parents and visits, by the spirituality of Catherine Doherty and Madonna House–I think you know of what I speak–and so there seems very little contradiction to me in loving East and West and the spiritual gifts of each, just as Catherine was no less Russian for operating within the Western church.

    Whatever path you take, I pray Christ draws you further up and further in.

    1. Thank you! What a lovely message. I agree there’s no contradiction here — it seems to me perfectly clear that some people have hearts that are more suited to Western spirituality, and some people have hearts more suited to Eastern. I’m excited for what comes next.

  10. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    I think it’s indisputable that the creation of the NO was the greatest act of hubris and vandalism in history, and drove hundreds of millions away from Mass with the yakity-yakity-yakity-yakity-yak. I’m old enough to remember that THAT is what people HATED about it–even in that brief perod before priests began the ad libbing and the clown costumes.

    I hope that within a couple of generations, the traditional Mass will be the ordinary form. Although I am wretched with languages, I hope to get my Latin to a point where I can be sure I’m saying the correct Mass for the day, and have a pretty good idea what I’m saying.

  11. Adam says:

    BTW, there is no one united ORTHODOX CHURCH. We can only correctly speak of ORTHODOX CHURCHES (separate and plural). For example, the Greek Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Antiochan Orthodox Church (i.e. Oriental Orthodox), which in turn is not in communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church (non-Chalcedonian).

    1. I think most Orthodox people I know would disagree with this statement.

      1. Adam says:

        Joey, I live in Cairo, where Greek Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox (mainly Copts, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox) comprise the vast majority of Christians here in Egypt. Sad to say, these Eastern Christians do not recognize each others’ sacraments and routinely enforce the scandal of re-baptism for mixed marriages, i.e., they do not even recognize one another as real Christians. The late Pope Shenouda, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, once famously remarked that he’d prefer a Coptic girl marry a Muslim rather than a Catholic. After Pope Francis’ recent visit here in the spring in which he and the Coptic pope agreed on mutual recognition of each others’ sacraments, the majority of Orthodox bishops rejected this decision and continue to re-baptize Catholics before allowing them to marry Orthodox.

        1. I understand that there is a difference between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox. As far as I know, though, the Eastern Orthodox churches which are in communion with each other do consider themselves to be part of one united Orthodox Church, though of course they consider this to be a unity-in-multiplicity. That was the main part I was objecting to: the idea that “there is no one united Orthodox Church”.

  12. Adam says:


  13. Ryan says:

    “What’s so Sacramental about staring at a wafer without even eating it?”

    Wow, this hit me HARD. Like the best/worst kind of punch in the gut.

  14. ADAM says:

    In today’s Gospel, don’t Jesus’ words somehow seem à propos your blog: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so” (Mt 19:12)?

    1. Yes, I was thinking the same thing! (I also noted and preferred the “incapable of marriage” translation to the “eunuch” translation)

      1. Adam says:

        Note the Ethiopian “eunuch” in Acts 8, whose bigger than life role as the quintessential “seeker” on the margins of society (surprisingly successful as royal “court official” and “queen’s treasurer”) comes center stage in this parenthesis between Saul the persecutor (v.1) and Paul the convert in the next chapter.
        No less than the Angel of the Lord himself commissions the Apostle Philip, who “ran” to “join up” with the eunuch, who in turn graciously “invited Philip to get in and sit with him.” The Apostle then “proclaimed Jesus to him”, “baptized him” and by Spirit-bilocation leaves the eunuch “on his way rejoicing”.
        Everything in this story is a miracle, perhaps none more so than this marginalized (often despised) foreigner being “chosen” by God to announce the Good News of “thy Kingdom come” without walls.

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