Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard | An excerpt from The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard | Part 1 | Part 2
It may also be helpful here if I explain that not only the structure of the Mass itself--the first part, called the Synaxis, which contains all the scriptural readings, and the sermon and the creed and the prayers, and the second part, called the Anaphora, with the Great Thanksgiving and the Communion itself--that not only this structure, but also the very words themselves, go back to the first and second centuries. It is a tremendously moving thing, believe me, to read the texts of what those early Christians said and did when they gathered, and then to hear those same words in the liturgy in your local parish from Sunday to Sunday. A glorious and unbroken continuity unfurls itself: you know that you are linked with the apostles, the Fathers, the martyrs, the bishops and confessors, and the whole company of the faithful from Pentecost to our own day. A Roman Catholic has a difficult time grasping why Christians would wish to set this ancient liturgy on one side in favor of a modern blueprint.
But my guess is that by this time some of you may be murmuring, "Well--it's all very well, the noble antiquity of which you speak. But come: all these Irish plumbers and Sicilian pasta-cooks and Cuban taxi drivers--am I to believe that they are swept into such dizzy heights every time they go to Mass?"
A legitimate question Touché. And the answer, of course, is no--no more than your average Hebrew saw the glory of God every time the Levites blew the trumpets, nor than your average Presbyterian lawyer or Episcopalian CEO or Gordon College undergraduate, sees that glory when the organ, or the guitars, strike up the opening hymn. We mortals don't do very well with this business of worship. Where was your mind--where was min---during the singing of the hymn a few minutes ago? Alas. But all of us, Baptist, Pentecostal, or Catholic, would reach for Saint Augustine's maxim abusus non tollit usus, if some nonreligious friend of ours suggested that we ought to abandon our worship practices since most of the time our minds are wandering anyway. "The abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use." We don't throw in the towel on chapel at Gordon because people's minds wander or they read a magazine in their laps. We soldier on, keeping the gate of the tabernacle open, so to speak, so that good and holy souls may come and offer their offerings, and so that others of us, finding ourselves in these precincts, may perhaps be roused to our duties toward the Divine Majesty.
Let me touch on one other point about Roman Catholic worship and piety that, I think, constitutes a scandal to Protestant Christians. It is this business of the physical. Catholics kneel, and bow, and cross themselves. Some even strike their breast during the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God"). And there is often incense. The celebrant wears elaborate vestments. There are candles, and holy water, and bread and wine. It is not at all the Geneva or Zurich or Edinburgh pattern of things. Isn't it all, really, pagan?
Well, yes, if you mean that pagans use incense and bow and light candles. But the minute we say that we know we are in trouble, since pagans also gather for worship, and pray, and listen to teaching, just as we Christians do. And pagans kneel, the way many of you do at your bedside. Clearly we can't adopt the rule that says, If the pagans do it, we Christians mustn't. The point is, we men bow, and kneel, and gather, and lift up holy hands. The rub comes when you ask which deity is being invoked. If it is Baa! or Osiris, then you have paganism. If it is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then you have Christian worship.
But again--hasn't the New Testament put an end to all ceremony? Isn't worship a matter strictly of the inner man now?
Well, yes, if you mean that the Father seeks those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. But of course, that's not a New Testament innovation: the prophets were forever harrying Israel about the same thing. And John Knox and Jonathan Edwards and Søren Kierkegaard harried the Protestants about their farcical and empty worship rituals. Catholics have no corner on this difficulty.
So--granting that it is always difficult for us mortals to bring together and keep together the outward form (the singing in Gordon chapel of "Crown Him with Many Crowns", say) and the inner reality (my heart actually aspiring thus to crown the mystic Lamb)--granting this severe difficulty, shouldn't we pare things down to a stark minimum so that the danger of mere mumbo-jumbo is diminished?
Possibly so. On the other hand, of course, you and I are not Gnostics. We are not Manicheans. Those were the people who wanted religion to be a matter of our flying off into a vacuous and disembodied ether, jettisoning these embarrassing flesh-and-blood bodies of ours, with all of the sneezing and wheezing they bring along. All of those highminded, nineteenth-century Bostonians like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing, were quasi-Manicheans. They wanted Christianity to be fumigated and cerebral. Sit in your New England church on a wooden pew and think about God. But please--no smells and bells. Please.
You and I would answer Emerson and company by pointing out that Christianity, far from being the religion merely of the Book, like Islam, is profoundly fleshly. But after the altars and lambs and heifers and burned fat of the Old Testament, we get spiritual: right? Wrong. There is a Conceiving--of a babe in the womb of a young girl. There is parturition, and circumcision. There is water to wine at a wedding. And there is your salvation and mine, wrought, not by edicts handed down from the heavens, but by thorns and splinters and nails and gashes. But then we get spiritual--right? Wrong again. A body, out of the sepulchre. And worse yet--that body--our human flesh, taken up at the Ascension into the midmost mysteries of the Holy Trinity. When's the last time you heard a sermon on the implications of the Ascension? And then, of course, not just a book, but Bread and Wine, given to us, day by day, for as long as history lasts. A very physical religion we belong to.
This is what is bespoken in the Roman Mass. The Mass is sacramental worship, as they say: that is, the physical is understood as being the nexus between the seen and the unseen; between time and eternity; just as it was on the altars of Israel, and in the flesh of the Incarnate Son of God, and on the Cross, and in the Resurrection and the Ascension. And you and I are more than souls, or intellects. Jesus Christ has saved the whole man, kneecaps, eardrums, nostrils, and all: hence Christians kneel to pray, and play guitars in their worship, and bring incense. It is good for my heart that my knees touch the floor. It is good for my soul that my neck muscles bend a bit when I say grace at lunch. These physical things belong to the seamless personhood that is me. Emerson had it all wrong.
I might wind this up here by mentioning one item that is as sticky as any of the items on the list of questions that good Evangelicals have about Roman Catholic piety. I mean the Rosary.
If anything on earth looks like the vain repetition the Bible warns us against, it would certainly be the Rosary. It entails seemingly endless repetitions of the Hail Mary. That can't possibly be "prayer", surely?
Let me see if I can help you see at least the reason Catholics appreciate the Rosary. First, we all know how terribly difficult it is to fix our minds in Christian meditation. If you have attempted it yourself, you know that your worst enemy is wandering thoughts. You also know that you very quickly run out of things to say when you are pondering one of the Gospel mysteries (and surely if one is a serious Christian one will have as part of one's daily exercises just such meditating and pondering). The Rosary supplies us with a way of tarrying (that is the key word, actually) in a systematic and progressive way, in the presence of all the great events of our salvation, in the company of the one who was most receptive to the Lord, namely, the Virgin Mary, who said, you will remember, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done unto me according to Thy word." Alas--that is what you and I, in our father Adam and our mother Eve did not say in Eden; and it is one way of summing up this whole process of growth in the Christian life we have embarked on. If only I can learn, increasingly, to say, from my heart, "Be it done unto me according to Thy word."
The Rosary presents us with fifteen of the Gospel events--the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and so forth-and, by giving us a sort of refrain to murmur as we place ourselves in conspectu Dei at each scene--the way charismatics will murmur "Jesus! Jesus!" or the way we Evangelicals repeat "Alleluia!" or "Crown him! crown him!" in a hymn--by giving us a quiet refrain to keep on our tongues as we tarry, it helps us to stay in place. The words are like ball bearings, so to speak. They assist our poor scattered faculties to stay in line. And of course, the "Hail Mary" is biblical: we are simply repeating Gabriel's salutation to this woman--we are one of the many generations who want to call her blessed, as she herself sang in the Magnificat. For of course she was the one of us who was taken most intimately into the whole drama of redemption: the patriarchs and prophets and kings and apostles all bore witness to the Word: Mary bore the Word. She is the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. Insofar as we increasingly unite our own aspirations with hers, we move closer and closer into intimate union with the Lord. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord": if only I can learn to say that, in a thousand situations all day long when irritation, or resentment, or lust, or impatience surge up in me. "Be it done unto me according to Thy word." It is a wonderful frame of mind for a Christian to aspire to. The Rosary, day by day, presents to us those events upon which our souls ought to be habitually dwelling and helps us to tarry in those Gospel precincts.
My time is up. I have scarcely touched on this matter of the Virgin Mary and have said nothing of the Pope, or of prayers to the saints, and Purgatory, and so many other things that seem an outrage to ardent Evangelical imagination. As a form of shorthand, I may simply say that every single one of these notions and practices is profoundly centered on Jesus Christ who, says the Roman Catholic Church, echoing Saint Paul, is "the one mediator between God and man".
There are gigantic matters that we could talk about. For my part, I want to say a most fervent and heartfelt thanks to Gordon College or having me here today. All my memories of my fifteen years on the faculty here are good memories. God bless and prosper Gordon College, say I.
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Thomas Howard was raised in a prominent Evangelical home (his sister is well-known author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot), became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age of fifty. Howard is a highly acclaimed writer and scholar, noted for his studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis ( Narnia & Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis [2006, 1987]) and Charles Williams (The Novels of Charles Williams ), as well as books including Christ the Tiger (1967), Chance or the Dance? (1969), Hallowed be This House (1976), Evangelical is Not Enough (1984), If Your Mind Wanders at Mass (1995), On Being Catholic (1997), The Secret of New York Revealed, and Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, the story of his embrace of Catholicism, and Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Read more about and by Thomas Howard here.
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