Thursday, December 3, 2009

Liturgy, Day 2: The Thing Before the Thing

My very first weekend in New York -- my third day in the city, in fact -- another Jesuit very kindly invited me to St. Ignatius Parish, the Jesuit parish on the Upper East Side, as a sort of welcome to the city. And he had done some work at the parish, so lots of people knew him, there were lots of hellos.

We sit down, near the front, with about 10 minutes before Mass. The older couple in the row ahead of us look back, exchange a very warm, friendly greeting with my friend. Then we continue our conversation.

A few minutes later, the man looks back again. He does not look happy. "Are you guys going to shut up?" he says. And I laugh, as does my friend, thinking, he must be kidding. A point he clarified when he looks directly at me and says, "Oh, you think this is funny?"

Stunned silence.

Me, directly after the church shut up.

I was actually quite pleased, on a certain level. A classic New York experience, and I had had it my very third day in the city. And at a church.

Still -- welcome to New York, indeed.

There are two basic operating principles that people about the time between when they enter church and Mass begins -- the thing before the thing. The first is, sit quietly and pray. This time is to settle yourself down and put yourself in the presence of God.

The other is, "Hi!" Time to check in with people, say hello, reconnect. Which can be actually another form of settling down -- the Mass is a communal celebration. Visiting beforehand is people re-forming the community. To quote the prophet Pink, "Let's get this party started."

And while they seem to contradict each other, both of those instincts are important. Regarding the desire for silence: this isn't brunch. We're here to be open to the Lord, and silence is a key movement into that. And at the same time, we're not here alone. We might want to be, but I think that desire is something to be challenged. Look simply at the way the space is arranged -- we don't each have our own pew or individuated cubicle. We sit with one another. And when we talk about where the Lord is to be found at Mass, we talk about not just in the Eucharist, but in the Word of God, in the priest and in the people. La gente, mis amigos, la gente.

Perhaps right before Mass starts, we should invite the congregation into a long moment of silence, preparation. And then the expectations would be clearer. (Plus, when a large group prays quietly together, it can be a profound experience of the Spirit and of that sense of us all being here together.)

On the other hand, I recall my ethics teacher in theology studies, Fr. Jim Keenan, who said one of the fundamental dynamics of the Eucharist is to reveal the ways we're not quite there yet, to uncover the roads we still have yet to walk. In which case, maybe our different expectations rubbing up against one another and revealing our inner, dark RAGE is a gift of the Spirit, is exactly what God wants us to receive. Maybe my friends Mr. and Mrs. Shut Up actually had a religious experience. (And I'm a freaking mystic.)

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