Thursday, February 7, 2008

Reverence misunderstood

I've heard people describe Catholic Mass as extremely boring, as in 'how can you sit through all that recitation every week? Wouldn't you rather go to a service that is 'alive'? Now that I am Catholic I realize that God is mightily present at every Mass, and that is enough for me, but I can understand the sentiment because it used to be mine. Not when it came to considering Mass, but more traditional Protestant services were not appealing to me for the same reasons. I think the reason for this was that I misunderstood the place of reverence in a worship service.

I grew up in a Protestant denomination that tended to emphasize reverence. As a child and teenager, this all too often translated to me as old-fashioned and dull. When I left home for college, I eventually chose to attend contemporary services that had a non-denominational feel. I wanted my church to encourage energy in my relationship to God, and I wanted it to feel relevant to my life. But there was one contemporary service I went to that became too much for me. A few weeks ago, Aimee Milburn posted an interesting piece on visiting a friend's evangelical church service, and I left a comment describing the service I went to. "I sometimes attended a young adult Baptist service in college that was all about jumping up and down praising God as loud as possible, and I HATED it. It hadn't started out like that, which is why I kept going, but the whole tempo of the service felt like GO!GO!GO! I remember telling people that I didn't like it anymore because there was no room in the service to pray and be humble before God, it was so incredibly unbalanced, but yet it was a very popular service."

Although I was glad to stop attending this service, I still preferred casual, contemporary worship services for the next couple years. It wasn't until I began considering Catholicism that traditional style was once again forced on me, and it was much more traditional than anything I had experienced before. But from the beginning of going to Mass, I knew there was something there that was not dispensed in the same dosage at my own Protestant church. That something? I quickly figured out that it was reverence. Shortly after I started attending, a friend asked me how I liked Mass and I responded that I felt I couldn't walk into Mass and slouch in the pews like I did at my church because there was a sense of God's holiness there. I noticed that the sanctuary was quiet beforehand and people prayed upon entering the sanctuary, unlike my church where everyone socialized in the sanctuary beforehand, often pushing up the start time of the service by 15 minutes or so. Frankly, I preferred the quiet.

When I found how reverent Mass was, I was fascinated with my immediate attraction to it. It had an air of the sacred about it, and even though I wasn't partaking of the Eucharist I loved listening to the priest walk us through the last supper and Christ's death and resurrection, and I loved watching everyone go forward to receive the Eucharist. I realize now that I was unsatisfied with the traditional 'reverent' style I grew up with not because reverence itself is boring, but because there wasn't much to be truly reverent about at church. God was there, but we received him by osmosis through the whole package of the service and not directly in the Eucharist like in Mass. Jesus in the flesh inspires reverence, but when the focus of a service is the sermon, it's hard for me to walk away feeling like I met with God. I think this is why today's emerging Protestant churches really try to ramp up the spiritual impact of a service by providing a worshipful, uplifting time of singing, which is the segment of the service usually labeled as worship...people are wanting something more out of church than a good sermon. As a Catholic now, I don't miss these types of services either because they are ultimately lacking in the substance I'm looking for every week, Jesus in the Eucharist.

I had been thinking these things over last weekend and when I went to Mass on Sunday, I thought God is here. Not very profound, but that one little thought deeply impacted how I experienced Mass. I always think of Mass as a time to meet with God, but this time the Lord's presence really hit me. I thought about how being in the presence of God should affect me, and it seemed obvious that it should order all my actions in Mass. Now was not the time to let my mind wander and mentally make the weeks' grocery list. I looked over at the tabernacle and saw the red candle burning and thought wow. The LORD is HERE. I couldn't help but close my eyes and soak in this knowledge and when I did, I felt a change come over me. Suddenly I felt heavier on the pew, confident I would have no trouble sitting there forever. I was aware of a sweet sensation surrounding me that's hard to explain, but it felt sort of like breathing in honey...without the wild coughing and suffocation that would entail in real life. I was overwhelmed with how good it was to be there sitting with Jesus.

Amy left a beautiful comment to her post (the one I linked to above) describing her experience of going from evangelical style worship to Mass that I can identify with, and I thought I would end this post with it:

For me, moving from Evangelical to Catholic worship (and I've been blessed with good-quality Catholic liturgy), it is like going from a big, fun swimming pool with slides and floats and everything to the beautiful, deep blue sea. I did scuba diving years ago, and when diving, one learns to relax, breathe and move slowly and deeply, to conserve oxygen, and ascend slowly, to prevent nitrogen build up and the bends. Nothing is ever hurried and rushed, and one feels almost as if one is moving in slow motion.

Good liturgy is like that for me, moving slowly, diving deeply, ascending gradually, breathing fully and deeply all the while. And what beauties of deeps and reefs and life you see along the way.


Blogversary said...

I am Lutheran, LCMS. And, my church does a very conservative and liturgical type worship.

I appreciate that we follow the same liturgy, but each we have different scripture read and songs sang. There is great peace when the focus is on the Word and not on the ever changing liturgy from week to week that is common in many churches.

Our liturgy is scriptured based, similiar to the Catholic liturgy.

jogger mom said...

thanks for your perspective, I know there is wide variety in how Protestant services are structured. I've been to a couple Lutheran churches (years ago) and enjoyed the communion experience, I liked that it was every week, other than that I don't remember a lot. I find peace as well in repetition and knowing what is coming...

Anonymous said...

Yep, this post just about exactly sums up my own experience. It's amazing how much my perspective has changed on worship and liturgy.