16 August 2009

Moving around at Mass

Every time I teach Western Theological Tradition at U.D., I am newly impressed with the Catholic tradition of sacramental theology. Where else can you find a solid understanding of how rational creatures can worship their Creator without becoming either materialist-pagans or Platonic spiritualists?

Most Catholics intuitively "get" the use of material things in worship--bread, wine, candles, incense, color, music, etc. What is often not so well understood is the use of gesture and movement--sign of the cross, standing/kneeling, processing, etc.

We've all heard the jokes about "Catholic calisthenics." Up, down, kneel, sit, stand, cross, up, down. Why do we spend so much time moving around? On a recent visit to my parents' community church, I was struck by the fact that we stood at the beginning to sing a hymn and then sat for the rest of the service. The only movement was reaching for the hymnal. They passed a communion tray and a collection plate; other than this simple, utilitarian movement, we sat right where we were for the whole hour. Do I need to contrast this with the typical Catholic Mass? I don't think so.

Why do we move around so much? There are lots of good liturgical reasons for doing so. And there are lots of anthropological reasons as well. But I think the most important reasons are deeply personal--not "personal" as in "me and mine" but personal as in "for the person."

Each of us is a Body/Soul together in an intimate relationship that we call personhood--the state of being a person, whole and entire, created in the image and likeness of God. For the Christian, the goal in this life is to be justified before God through the saving merits of Christ's sacrificial death and then grow in holiness by doing His work with the help of His grace. We are justified by faith and sanctified in works. Both our initial justification and our subsequent sanctification happens because we receive the graces He offers to us.

So, how do we receive grace? Typically, we think of "receiving grace" as little more than having grace given to us. But this only part of the story. God can give us grace all day long. We never have to receive it. His grace is not truly graceful until we take it in as a gift.; that is, His grace only becomes effective for us when we say yes to Him. If we understand grace to be a spiritual energy boost, then we may find ourselves verging toward the Platonic side of the faith and coming to believe that we are only valuable as persons in so far as we are souls. This threatens to ignore the body. When we ignore the body's job in perfecting us as persons, we ignore a basic tenet of the faith, namely, our responsibility to be living signs of Christ for others.

Moving around during the Mass reminds us that we are embodied souls seduced by a loving God to return to Him. The journey of return (the reditus) is graced by God and made by each of us as whole persons. . .not merely as souls on a trip to heaven or as bodies working toward earthly perfection. Liturgical gesture, posture, movement is meant to keep us "in the body" even as we soak up the soulful benefits of the Eucharist.

I've argued in class that our current secular obsession with gym bodies, health food, vitamins, etc. is a postmodern form of the Albigensian heresy St Dominic fought against. While the Albigensians held that the body is evil and the soul good, postmodern Albigensians reverse this and hold that only the body matters. If the soul comes into play at all, it is relegated to a subordinate role as a kind of "peace of mind" or "inner relaxation." What's important is that I feel good; meaning, my body is healthy as an organic machine. Though physical health is vital to the person, spiritual health is not achieved through diet and exercise. Spiritual health requires recognizing and striving for a transcendent purpose, a goal well-beyond the impermanent things of the material world.

Ideally, for Christians, we do not seek a balance of body and soul. We seek a total intergration in the holy person. "Balance" implies a shared purpose, a separate but equal goal of each half of Me. Not so. During the Mass, we pray silently while kneeling. We process up for communion while singing. The priest prays with hands raised; he bows during his private prayer; he blesses with words and the sign of the cross. Each physical act is done with spiritual intent, purpose. There are no "halves" to unite. No parts to bring together.

Imagine for a moment a Mass where there is no gesture. No movement. Everyone remains absolutely still and the Mass is read out loud. Or. . .imagine a Mass with no words, only gesture and movement. What would we think upon exiting the Church after Masses like these? I imagine we would think that we not been to Mass at all, that we have been sorely cheated of what we need as persons to grow in holiness!


  1. FWIW, when I got to the end and read your closing question,
    Imagine for a moment a Mass where there is no gesture. No movement. Everyone remains absolutely still and the Mass is read out loud. Or. . .imagine a Mass with no words, only gesture and movement. What would we think upon exiting the Church after Masses like these?

    my impulse was to say that the silent Mass would have been more ... umm.. Mass-like. Thus proving that we pray with our bodies, I guess. Or at least I do.

    But without the words of the Word or an audible Consecration, it wouldn't have been Mass.

  2. Flambeaux10:41 AM

    Hmm...I was with you until "Mass with no words only gestures and movement" as that could describe some of the EF Masses I've been to...and those were the ones that most profoundly moved me to cooperate with Grace.

    I'll need to ruminate on this, but I think there is a need for far more silence and far less movement than is common in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (even when it is properly celebrated).

    But that is largely off-topic to your post.

  3. oh, okay...and here I thought it was just to make sure you didn't fall asleep in the homily.


  4. Check out the chapter on The Mass in Thomas Howard's On Being Catholic - sublime.