Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Bless us, O Lord...

Bless me, O Lord, with my presence.

That's right: I said "my" presence. Typically, and rightly, Christians pray for God to manifest His Presence among them as they draw to worship Him. Yesterday at Mass, however, as I prepared to receive, it dawned on me how becoming Catholic has tweaked this basic prayer.

In the first place, given the assurance of sacramental grace, I can be confident God is truly and wholly present in each Mass. Rather than working myself into a frenzy of petition, as I did and as I saw others do in Protestant circles, hoping and pleading God *might* deign to bless us with His presence, now I can more serenely and humbly accept the reality of God's presence *as a given*. Rather than fretting whether God will "show up this time", each and every Mass I have is itself the direct action of God to manifest His presence in the world. He has simply promised to "be there" in the Mass, even if we are only barely so.

Which leads me to my second realization at Mass yesterday. Hearing what I just said about the apparent passivity of Mass -- just show up and let the priest do His little thing with God -- it is easy for non-Catholics to think Catholics are passionless about God. Where are the frenzied prayer sessions at most, if not almost all, Masses? How or why do Catholics seemingly "just show up" Mass after Mass, whereas Protestants display such impressive zeal for seeking God's face? How can the Church claim the Mass is the summit of all Christian prayer, devotion, sanctification and mystical union, when by all accounts the majority of Masses are pretty lackluster events?

As I said, the "zeal" of many Catholics consists precisely in showing up so faithfully to Mass. The zeal of a Catholic consists not principally in prayed decibels, prayed sweat or prayed gesticulations; it consists in the simple, unexciting faith to go and be where God has promised to meet us. Catholics, rightly, see no need to get worked up about "summoning" God's presence each and every session precisely because they are rooted, even if unconsciously, in the assurance GOD IS AMONG US in the Mass. The daily, hourly "holy humdrum" of Mass after Mass after Mass all around the world, reaching as far back as the Apostles, is a dumbfounding witness to the faithfulness of God alive IN His Church; it's so dumbfounding a witness, in fact, that most Catholics are found to be dumb witnesses (for better or for worse). In the Catholic Church, there is little spiritual mass hystreria because there is so much spiritual Mass history.

But isn't this a scandal? Doesn't such immensely ecclesial piety put all the weight on the action of "the Church", as a faceless mystical entity, and lift any living devotion off the shoulders of individuals Catholics? Isn't a positive failure on the part of the Church if it breeds such seemingly inert, mute faithful? Well, it certainly is, if the Catholic's faith begins *and ends* in the silent, reverent thankfulness that is the attitude of true worship, never breaking out in clearly speaking the truth, openly standing in the hope and sacrificially showing the love of Christ. But a failure of zeal is not a specifically Catholic problem; embarrassingly enough, battling such apathy comprises much of the New Testament itself.

The irony of the Church's ecclesial, and intensely Eucharistic, piety is how, when properly appreciated, it actually puts *more* responsibility on the individual soul. An "off" worship service at a Protestant service could be attributed to the failure of my own soul just as easily as it could be attributed to the faithlessness of my fellow worshippers, or to the shallowness and sinfulness of the preacher, or, if we're honest, to the fickle opacity of God. Speaking from my own experience, leaving a “failed” worship service – no mystical tingles, no outbreaks of prophecy, no new scriptural insights, no growth in communal intimacy – can leave the soul with a nagging doubt: “Did God ‘show up’ tonight? If so, how did I miss Him? If not, why did He ignore our prayers for His presence? Am I the only one feeling this way?” Paradoxically, by putting so much weight on the zeal of my prayers, or even of our prayers, non-Eucharistic worship tempts us to see in every down moment a possible absence of God’s warmth. Paradoxically, by putting so much weight on the shoulders of the Church, and the priest in Her name, to “perform” the Mass (ex opere operato), the rightly disposed soul is free not to worry about dull or disaffecting moments, but to encounter all the grace he is guaranteed to find.

And this is precisely what hit me last night. Though I wanted to pray, a bit perfunctorily, I admit, for God’s presence, I was suddenly forced to consider my *own* presence. The Mass was underway. God was among us, without doubt. He had guaranteed His presence at the Altar; it was but up to me to meet Him there, to accept His offer. But I was suddenly so aware of how far my heart was from the Altar, from the slain Lamb reigning to redeem me. In an awkward flash, I prayed: “Lord... bless me... with *my* presence. You are here, I know. Am I?” Why should I worry about God showing up or not? To do so was His promise; that was the entire basis for there being a Mass at all. Instead, I needed to worry about my own willingness to be, to be present, to be received by the God I was about to receive. This realization humbled me to the core; it was an immense bath of light which burned away my petty shadows. As if *I* should presume to nudge or convince God to come into *our* presence--! All the while He stands ready to embrace me, waiting, o so patiently, for me to wake up to His perpetually and preveniently offered Presence.

And waking up is the best analogy I have found so far to convey this insight. Every day the sun rises by God’s sovereign goodness; every day He showers us with light. The Bible speaks of this order as a sign of His own nature. And yet, how easily we take this marvel for granted. How easily we greet the light of dawn as a death knell – when morning becomes mourning; or, as Dr. Robert Cook put it, “There are two ways to start the day: ‘Good morning, Lord’ or ‘Good Lord – morning!’.” (I’ll always treasure listening to Dr. Cook’s early morning broadcasts as I drove to high school. “Walk with the King today and be a blessing!”) How easily we lock ourselves behind towering buildings and dingy walls, all the while the sun blazes outside for the life of the world. The sun is there, everyday, ready at, well, sunrise. In the slumber of sin? But where are? The sun shines all day long to give us light and warmth. But, where are we? In the cold darkness? “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45).

So it is for us and the Mass. God assures us everyday to rise again among His people at every Mass. The Mass is the feast of God’s promised presence. But where are we? As the Prophet Malachi (chapter 1) says, “11 ‘My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the LORD Almighty. 12 But you profane it by saying of the Lord's table, 'It is defiled,' and of its food, 'It is contemptible.' 13 And you say, 'What a burden!' and you sniff at it contemptuously,’ says the LORD Almighty.” As difficult, and as refreshing, as it is to open our eyes to the sun, it is even more difficult to open our lives to the burning life of God in the Son, at each Mass.

Bless me, O Lord, with my presence.

May God grant us the grace to show up.

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