Sunday, February 7, 2010

Let's Get Physical

So, what, I wonder, did you notice about the institution narrative at Mass this weekend??

Here's one thing I noticed -- it has a certain physicality. Most of the time during the eucharistic prayer, the priest has his arms extended wide in a pose of invitation to God the Father. But during the institution, suddenly he's got a whole bunch of different physical things to do. He extends his hands over the gifts, he lifts each of them up -- sometimes as he speaks he turns with them. Sometimes he looks directly out into the eyes of the congregation. In its own simple way, it's dramatic -- that is, it's not a speech of some kind or your normal talking-to-God kind of prayer. It's a sort of performance.

And that's very important to be aware of, because performances have a unique sort of power. They tap into things that are primal and subconscious in us. They don't call forth intellectual assent or conversation, primarily; they rather are meant to be witnessed, savored, taken in. They evoke. They move.

(A painting by artist Mark Rothko. Very abstract, I know. But try just sitting with it a little while. You might find you actually enjoy it. You can click on it to make it bigger, too.)

Not too long ago a friend was asking me why someone would stay in the Church. I don't agree with the Church's treatment of women or homosexuals, she said. I don't think the people at the top are very in touch with the rank and file. There seems to be a lot of double talk and callousness. Why not find a Church that's better?

And it struck me sort of suddenly, if your only touchstones for Church are these negative sorts of experiences, then yeah, I can't imagine why someone would stay. Or should, for that matter. I don't think God means for any of us to be miserable or repressed.

What allows others with similar frustrations both to stay and to continue to push for change, I think, is the fact that they have a variety of different touchstones for what Church is, and where some may seriously disappoint, others provide the nourishment and challenge they hunger for.

The eucharistic prayer is one such alternate touchstone. It's not debate or policy -- at least, it shouldn't be. As performance, it's rather in the realm of art. It sinks in and affects us (perhaps, like a good movie or play, without us even consciously knowing it). Its words can move us, and so equally can the raise of the glass, the play of the candle light, the arc of the presider's hand.

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