The Father William Most Collection
Why is Mass Uninteresting?
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
Why is the Mass uninteresting? Many, especially young people, are asking that question today. And there definitely is an answer.
There are three reasons for that: lack of spiritual sensitivity, lack of understanding of God, lack of understanding the theology of the Mass.
So we need to look at each.
The first, lack of spiritual sensitivity is something very common today. It is not hard to diagnose the cause: so many have grown up with a false theology which is sometimes called the New Spirituality, though most often it goes without a name, but yet is almost breathed in in the early levels of school. The central idea is this: to give up any creature or pleasure, voluntarily, for a religious reason, does one no good spiritually. We added the tag "voluntarily". For those who follow this error commonly agree that we ought to make good use of things that God sends us, even trials. But to give up anything otherwise - that is not only no good, it is often harmful, they claim.
It is hard to imagine that even Screwtape himself could think up something more devilish. For, believe it or not, this attitude not only wrecks vocations to religious life, but also wrecks many marriages as well. What a track record!
The reason for saying it is harmful to give things up is this: the new spirituality people say that obedience is harmful. But obedience is, of course, one of the major ways of giving things up. They say that especially in the early years of life, a person needs to make decisions in order to mature psychologically. That is very true. But the objection would hold only if there were only a very few decisions to be made. Actually, there are so many. So one can cultivate two goals, namely, maturity by decision-making; yet at the same time, get the spiritual benefits of obedience in other matters.
It wrecks vocations in this way: Imagine a teenager deciding whether or not to enter some form of religious life. To do so, if done in the right way, involves giving up many things. But if he/she thinks that does no good -- why do it? And worse, obedience should be part of religious life and that, as we saw, the new spirituality people claim is positively harmful. That is not hard to answer: we have just done that.
Some time back, there was massive exodus of nuns from convents. Why? They came to believe the new spirituality. So they would be fools to stay, if they believe that. Or if they would stay, then they would try to remake their institute to match the new spirituality. Some have done just that, and have even gained power positions, and harass those who do not follow their way. Liberals are very illiberal with those who disagree with them.
Not strangely, these remade orders are losing vocations - for they are not really following the essential principles of the religious life, and so cannot attract those who would really want such things.
But the new spirituality is wrecking countless marriages as well. How does that happen? Marriage by its very nature must be a permanent commitment. If even one of the two parties is unable to make a permanent commitment, then there is no marriage, however many flowers and bridesmaids there may be.
The reason is this: So many grow up today breathing in the new spirituality. The result is that they do only what feels good, and only as long as it feels good. As soon as it no longer feels good, they stop. Of course, if someone has lived that way every day up to the time he/she walks up the aisle -- then that person is really incapable of a permanent commitment. And in due time that will show, and the marriage can be annulled. Rather, it never was marriage at all from the start, since at least one of the two was incapable of a permanent commitment.
The parties discover their error when the high tide of emotion simmers down to a normal level after marriage. Then they find out that male and female psychologies are enormously different. Even with an ideal couple, each one soon finds he/she has to give in most of the time to make it work. The psychologically immature children who grew up in new spirituality cannot make it work. (Paul VI said "marriage is a long path towards sanctification." That is true, for those who are really mature and who succeed in making the indispensable adjustments).
How does this new spirituality affect understanding the Mass? Very simple. To grow up living a life that is in a spirit opposite to that of Christ, who said: "If anyone will come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me" -- to live that way is the opposite of the spirit of Christ. No wonder such a person is not in good condition to understand the Mass, the supreme offering of the obedient sufferings of Christ.
Vatican II gave us a real help towards seeing the folly of the new spirituality. In speaking of the three evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience, which are the core of religious life, it said that they "constantly stir up the fervor of love." (LG §46). For those not in religious life what is needed: to begin to live the ideal of Christ, to make it a practice to get in at least a little self-imposed mortification frequently, perhaps one small thing daily, of the type St. Therese of Lisieux taught us to cultivate. For example if a letter from home arrived in the morning, she would not open it until evening. Or others who drive cars, can keep their eye on the road -- good for safety -- and not let themselves satisfy their curiosity by looking at things that turn up which one does not need to see. And there are countless of other little ways of following the cross. Those who do this will find their aptitude for all spiritual things growing. This does not mean that they will have ecstasies or be swimming in emotion. No, they may have hardly any emotion. But they will still understand the message of the Cross, and gladly live it, and find a deeper kind of satisfaction. .
Generously fulfilling the duties of one's state in life, whatever it may be, is another way of cultivating mortification. St. Francis de Sales makes a surprising suggestion in a letter to a married woman. He says that her husband will be delighted if he sees that as her devotion grow, she is becoming more warm to him. She has really pledged that in the marriage vows. She must not think that spirituality calls for coldness in the matter.
This need for mortification reminds us of the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:17 where he said: "We are heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." So many today are miles from that position. They want and try to get even constant entertainment now. As soon as they return to their quarters they turn on the TV or a stereo. While riding in the car, they also must have entertainment on the radio. And in everything, pleasure seeking is the rule. Really such attempts are self-defeating. For our bodies cannot respond at high pitch ford long periods: fatigue comes in, a natural defense, and our reactions are blunted. The result is that people who seek constant entertainment develop almost something like a callous, and do not really enjoy it; instead, it is apt to cause stress, No wonder they find little happiness. That comes only insofar as we are like Christ. We do not mean that we will be exempt from sufferings if we follow Him - rather the opposite. But there is a deeper satisfaction even here and now, which leads to happiness later beyond that which eye has seen or ear heard, and which has not even entered into the heart of man.
A second reason for lack of appreciation of the Mass is lack of appreciation of God Himself. There are as it were two poles in our relationship to God ("poles" mean centers around which things are grouped). One pole is that of love, closeness, warmth; the other, a sense of infinite majesty, greatness. If someone told me: "Joe Doaks who lives two blocks from here, loves you", my reaction would probably be: "Ho hum. Who is that? Why should I be interested". Similarly if we have little or no perception of the greatness of God, to hear that He loves us makes little impact.
St. Teresa of Avila understood well these two poles. Even though she was privileged to often have marvelous mystical closeness to God, yet in her writings she regularly refers to Him as "His Majesty." And an opening to many ancient Jewish prayers said; "Avinu, malkenu" - "Our Father, our King."
The liturgy of the Mass in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church is well designed to promote that sense of majesty; our western liturgy seems to have done everything possible to diminish respect: turn the altar around, no Communion rail, let even children with dirty hands touch the most sacred things. Primitive people, as anthropology shows, observe a sharp division between the ordinary, everyday things, and the sacred. We have lost it. In the Eastern rites, instead of a turned about altar, they have an iconostasis, an icon-screen between the people and the altar, which can be seen at all only if one is in line with the holy door and the altar. Most persons in the church hardly see the altar at all.
We greatly need to try to recover that sense of the sacred. One thing that would help is much meditation on some lines from the Fathers of the Church. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses said: "The true vision of the One we seek, the true seeing, consists in this: in not seeing. For the One Sought is beyond all knowledge." St. Augustine in his treatise On Christian Doctrine wrote: "He must not even be called inexpressible, for when we say that word, we say something."
There is of course a bit or exaggeration in these statements, but very little. To clarify, let us think of the time the young man came to Jesus and said: "Good master, what must I do to get eternal life?" Jesus at once said: "Why do you call me good? One is good, God." He did not mean to deny He was good, but He meant to say that if we use the word good twice, to apply to God and to apply to anyone else, the sense in the two cases is partly the same, but mostly different. In this way the great ancient philosopher Plotinus said: "God is beyond being."
Astronomy could help us too, to recapture some of the majesty of God, if we gather together some of the staggering figures about the universe, e.g., that the nearest spiral galaxy is Andromeda, at a distance of 2. 2 million light years, and then realize that a light year is the distance light travels in one year at a speed of over 186, 000 miles per second - then we say to ourselves: "And yet He who made that, not with great planning, but by merely wiling it: Let it be - He loves me and permits me to call Him Father." The line in the Mass is very helpful here: "Jesus taught us to call God our Father, and so we have the courage to say... ."
In a way it was easier for people in a primitive culture to feel their need of God than it is for us, who by our technology can accomplish things that would have dazzled the primitives. And yet, if we use our increased knowledge well, we are better off than the primitives. We know that in any speck of dirt, there are atoms, each with a nucleus, plus electrons in several energy levels, which used to be compared to planets in orbit around a sun. That power in a bit of dust is so great that if it were unleashed it would blow us all to pieces. Yet He who made that by merely willing it, tells us to have the courage to call Him Father.
Another way to help develop a sense of reverence is to act as if we had it. To make no preparation for Holy Communion, and then to leave at once after Mass - if not even earlier - expresses positive disrespect. Interior respect could hardly flourish in such an atmosphere. Pope John Paul II in his very first Encyclical, Redemptor hominis, pointed out that if a person does not really make a considerable effort, he will take a loss from receiving, not a gain. When St. Pius X urged frequent Communion, he had in mind the way people used to act in his day. They would commonly go to Confession the day before, then put on their very best clothes to receive. Now they seldom go to confession - such frequency as used to be the practice is not required, but at least more than many make now is good. And to come to Church dressed in a slovenly way, or wearing short shorts - this is to show we think little of the Divine Presence. And to at once sit, and then cross legs in a slouched position, again expresses no respect. Our interior attitudes tend to follow our exterior actions. So if we bring our exterior into line, we will find the interior improving.
Further, if we really believe in the Real Presence - and so many Catholics today do not believe it - we would be glad to come at times other than Mass for adoration. Wonderful spiritual fruits follow upon this practice.
It is to pay both our obligations and our love to so majestic a Father that we have the Mass.
Probably the oldest epic in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Mesopotamia, going back to at least the second millennium before Christ, has a remarkable passage that describes a great deluge, and shows remarkable similarity to the account in Genesis. When the flood is over, the hero, Utnapistim, goes out from his ark and offers a sacrifice. Then, according to the epic, the gods, who had been cowering in fear on the battlements of heaven - even though they had caused the flood (for no rational cause) came down and "swarmed like flies "around the sacrifice. They had not had anything to eat for some time!. For sacrifices were considered food for the gods. Ancient Greece seems to have had a similar notion: the comedy, The Birds, by Aristophanes shows the birds threatening the gods that if they would not come around, the birds would cut off the flow of sacrifices and practically starve the gods into submission.
Very different is our concept of sacrifice. We get much light on it from the classic Hebrew prophets, who picture God as complaining and as not wanting the sacrifices, even though He had ordered them. The reason emerges from Isaiah 29:13 in which God says: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
We fear God is saying the same thing today about so many who go to Mass: they honor him with their lips, that is, with the externals, with answering prayers, singing etc. But their hearts, that is, their interior dispositions, are lacking almost completely.
So we gather that there are two elements in a sacrifice: the outward sign, and the interior dispositions. The outward sign is there to express, and perhaps even promote, the interior. But the whole value of the sacrifice comes from the interior dispositions.
In the original sacrifice of the Cross, and the previous Holy Thursday evening, the interior disposition was that of the obedience of Jesus to the will of the Father. In taking bread here and wine there, and saying: "This is my body... . This is my blood," He was saying in a dramatized way: "Father, I know the commandment you have given me. I am to die tomorrow. Very good, I turn myself over to death - expressed by the seeming separation of body and blood in the two species - I accept, I obey. He made that pledge the first Thursday evening. He carried it out the next day.
On Holy Thursday, the outward sign was as we said, the seeming separation of body and blood, standing for death. On Friday, the interior remained the same, or rather, continued, but the outward sign changed to the physical separation of body and blood. In each Mass, obviously, the outward sign is the same as on the first Holy Thursday evening.
The interior, His obedience to the Father, was really continuous since,"on entering into the world, He said: 'Behold, I come to do your will, O God" (Heb 10. 7). That will had been continuous from His conception until His death, and after that it still continues, for death makes permanent the attitude of will with which one leaves this world.
That knowledge and that will cost Him tremendous suffering. For the Church teaches us (Pius XII, Mystical Body Encyclical) that from the first instant of conception His human mind or soul saw the vision of God, in which all knowledge is present. So He began to see then, in all its horrid detail, everything He was to suffer. When we look ahead to something dreadful that may come, we can say: "Perhaps it won't come. Perhaps it will not be so bad". But He could not take such a refuge. The vision was, we might say, merciless, because it was infallible. Twice during His public life He allowed us to see within Him. In Luke 12:50: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished." In John 12:27: "Now my heart is troubled. What shall I say? Father save me from this hour." Then in Gethsemani, the interior pressure was so extreme as to rupture the capillaries adjacent to the sweat glands, so that the red tide flowed out.
Now on the altar He still has the same willingness to accept the will of the Father. Of course, the Father no longer wills that He suffer or die. Yet that will is there, and is of infinite worth.
His death earned infinitely, by the infinite price of redemption, all forgiveness and grace. Yet it pleased and pleases the Father that His offering should be continued (as far as His will is concerned) and repeated, as far as the external sign is concerned.
So He said: "Do this in memory of me." That was for two reasons. First, He wanted us to join in His interior dispositions. For even though His death earned everything for us, it would be useless for Him to give if we were not open to receive. Hence Romans 8:17 said: "We are heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." This is the great syn Christo theme of St. Paul: We are saved and are made holy insofar as we are not only members of Christ, but like Him. We are to imitate His hard life and suffering, be buried with Him in Baptism, rise with Him, and finally to ascend with Him (cf. Rom 6:3, 6, 8; Rom 8:9; Col 3:1, 4; Eph 2:5-6).
But further, the Father loves everything that is objectively good. Hence as St. Thomas put it (I. 19. 5. c): He is pleased to have one thing in place to serve as the reason for granting the second thing, even though that first thing does not move Him.
In other words, there is to be a reason, a title for granting forgiveness and grace. That title is provided by the repeated offering of the obedience of the Divine Victim. But it is required that we, to share in it, be like Him, so that the offering may be that of the whole Christ, Head and Members.
In this, one member can benefit another. St. Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:26): "If one member [of Christ] suffers all members suffer with it; if one member is glorified, all the members rejoice with it."
But there is still another marvelous aspect to the redemption. It is, as we saw, a sacrifice. It is also a payment of the debt of sin, or, a rebalancing of the objective order. A remarkable Jewish Rabbi, Simeon ben Eleazar, writing around 170 A.D., claiming to quote Rabbi Meir from earlier in the same century, told us (Tosefta, Kiddushin 1. 14): "He [anyone] has committed a transgression. Woe to him! He has tipped the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the world." Pope Paul VI, in the doctrinal introduction to his Constitution on Indulgences of Jan 1, 1967 confirmed this, and wrote that for a full make-up after sin, it is not enough to restore friendship with God, though of course that is needed but it is also necessary: "that all the goods, both individual and social, and those that belong to the universal order, lessened or destroyed by sin, be fully restored, either through voluntary reparation... or through the suffering of penalties."
A sinner takes from one pan of the scales what he has no right to take. The scales is out of order, out of balance. It is the Holiness of God, who loves everything that is good, that wants this to be rebalanced. If the sinner stole property, he begins to rebalance by giving it back; if he stole a pleasure, he begins to rebalance by giving up another pleasure or comfort of comparable value. But we say "begins", for the imbalance from even one mortal sin is infinite: an Infinite Person is offended. So to fully rebalance, an Infinite Person is needed, for He can generate an infinite value or weight to fully rebalance. That is what Jesus did by His suffering: He gave up, though He owed nothing, more than all sinners of all ages had taken. That rebalanced the objective order. That was the price of redemption. In accepting it, the Father pledged to make available for us forgiveness and grace without limit, since the price is infinite.
In spite of such an infinite price, a sinner could still be lost by making himself blind or hard through much sinning, so as to be unable to perceive or accept the first motion of any grace, which needs first of all to put into his mind the thought of what God wills that he do. The pulls of creatures, to which he has given himself so much by much sinning, can prevent him from seeing. We are thinking of a mental meter, something like a compass needle with a coil of wire around it. The current in the coil, grace, should make the needle register what God calls for. But just as such a needle can be so strongly pulled by outside power lines or magnetic steel as to be overpowered and thus unable to register the current in its own coil, so too, our mental meter may be unable to perceive the first movements of grace, if we let these outside pulls get so strong a hold on us.
Since no one can be saved without grace, such a man is lost, eternally lost. This is true in the ordinary course of graces - but there are extraordinary graces, comparable to a miracle, that can still get through the resistance, or even keep it from ever developing. Then such a man can be saved. But since such a grace is comparable to a miracle, it cannot be given routinely.
When is it given:? When someone else puts into the pan of the scales an extraordinary weight, by extraordinary prayer and penance. That will call properly for an extraordinary grace, and so the man can be saved. St. Paul was doing this sort of things as he says in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in my suffering for you, and I fill up the things lacking of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church." Of course, Christ the Head as an individual did not lack any suffering - but His members may lack, through their own fault. Yet, thanks to the goodness of our Father, someone else could make up for them, so they would be saved.
If one has a relative or friend who is in hopeless spiritual state, such an extraordinary grace is probably needed. To get it, more than ordinary work is needed: heroic work, joined to the sufferings of Christ can bring the result. It is precisely to the Mass that we should bring such offerings in union with the sufferings of Christ. We read in the lives of the Saints that when one of them went after a hardened sinner, the sinner was usually converted. That is because the Saint did such extraordinary prayer and penance as to call for an extraordinary grace. St. Augustine's Mother did that for him.
So there is much indeed to be done at Mass.
As we said, we are to join our wills, that is, our obedience to the Father, to that of Christ at the Mass. It would be good to take a few moments before a Mass and ask ourselves; What have I done since the last Mass in fulfilling the will of the Father? If I have done well, I have something to join to the offering of Christ the Head. If I have been deficient, I must beg pardon. But I can also look ahead to the near future after the Mass. Not always, but sometimes, I will see something that is coming up, in which I know well enough what He wills - but I am not so much inclined to do it. Then I ask: Do I really mean to do it? If not, this is not the place for me.
So Mass in this way becomes the focus into which the past and the future are both channeled. It dominates all of life. That is hardly dull.
To what point in the Mass do I bring my offering? To the very point at which Christ Himself makes His offering, namely, the double consecration, which is the very means He Himself used in the first Mass, on Holy Thursday. It is not the kiss of peace, nor the great Amen, nor the Our Father - it is simply this one moment. These other things especially the prayers after the consecration can be as it were an extension of that one critical moment, to help us to have more time to join.
One tragic missalette in the month of May said that at Mass we must leave Blessed Mother aside. How far from the truth! Vatican II (On Liturgy §10) said that the Mass is the renewal of the new covenant, in the making of which she had so great a part. Vatican II taught (Lumen gentium §61): "... in suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls." The redemption included three aspects: it was a sacrifice, but she, by her obedience to the Father, joined in that obedience, even to obediently willing His death at that time; it was a new covenant, as we said, in which the essential condition was and is obedience; it is the repayment of the debt or rebalance of the objective order, in which Jesus gave up more than all sinners had taken from the scales, and she joined with Him in doing that. Pope Benedict XV wrote of her(March 22, 1918): "Together with Christ she has redeemed the human race."
Every soul is required to will positively what the soul knows the Father wills. At the cross, she knew all too well what the Father willed: that He die, die then, die so horribly. So she was called on to positively will that, in spite of her love which was so great that as Pius IX wrote in 1854 (Ineffabilis Deus): "None greater under God can be thought of, and only God can comprehend it." (Speaking of her holiness, which is the same as love). So her suffering, her cost was beyond the ability of any actually existing creature to comprehend: only God Himself can do that!
She did this not as just a private person looking on, but "by design of divine providence" as Vatican II said twice (LG §§ 58 &61), as the New Eve sharing with the New Adam in the "struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son"(Pius XII, in the document defining the Assumption).
At Mass, the body and blood being offered are still the same that she provided. The interior offering of His obedience is that in which she joined her obedience, and still joins in from heaven, as we have said. Vatican II three times in Lumen gentium (§§56 and 61) spoke of her obedience as her cooperation. So she does have a role in each Mass.
Therefore it is no rhetoric, but sober theology to say:The more we are united with Christ in each Mass, the more we are united with her; and the more we are united with her, the more we are united with Him. Even if we do not think of the fact, yet it is objectively true, and it is good that we do think on it.
Rightly then did Pope John Paul II tell a crowd assembled in St. Peter's Square on February 12, 1984: "Every liturgical action... is an occasion of communion... and in a particular way with Mary.... Because the Liturgy is the action of Christ and of the Church... she is inseparable from one and the other…. Mary is present in the memorial - the liturgical action - because she was present at the saving event.... She is at every altar where the memorial of the Passion and Resurrection is celebrated, because she was present, faithful with her whole being to the Father's plan, at the historic salvific occasion of Christ's death."