Sunday, January 31, 2010


So, having relished the poetry -- and I invite you to keep doing that, the words have a real potency to them (and as I didn't get to post other bits over the weekend, I'll use them in my examples in the days to come) -- let's talk a little bit about how the eucharistic prayer is set up.

There are 10 eucharistic prayers in the sacramentary. And it's a little like having 4 gospels, in that they don't all do things the same way, or in exactly the same order, and it's all good. The diversity is a value, not a problem to be fixed. So, while I'm going to talk about the major dynamics of the eucharistic prayer, how each prayer concretely works them out can be different.

The eucharistic prayer has three main parts: thanksgiving, the institution narrative and petition. You could even say that it has two main parts, thanksgiving and petition, and in the institution narrative a bridge that serves as both thanksgiving and petition.

Today, the first part: Thanksgiving. In a number of the eucharistic prayers, especially the ones we tend to hear (prayers II & III) the first section of the prayer recalls how God has been good to us.

From Mass of Reconciliation I:
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise.
You never cease to call us to a new and more abundant life.

God of love and mercy,
you are always ready to forgive;
we are sinners,
and you invite us to trust in your mercy.

Time and again
we broke your covenant,
but you did not abandon us.
Instead, through your Son, Jesus our Lord,
you bound yourself even more closely to the human family
by a bond that can never be broken.
God has called us to a better life, he has forgiven us, he has not abandoned us, he has bound himself closely to us. These are the deeds we recall. For them we are thankful.

Eucharistic Prayer III has no first part of its own; instead it allows us to choose from a variety of prefaces, each which has its own particular thrust. Some prefaces recall Jesus' birth, others his resurrection, others such things as Pentecost, Jesus overcoming temptation, the Annunciation, the Sacred Heart, marriage, death, the example of the saints and apostles, creation. Every major feast of the church or sacramental event in our lives has a special preface written for it, as do major figures of the church like Mary, Joseph, Peter and Paul, John the Baptist. Countries will have special prefaces for national holidays as well; so in the U.S. we have a preface for Thanksgiving and Independence Day. I'm sure someone somewhere has a preface for St. Patrick's Day (although one of the prefaces for holy men and women would probably suffice).

Why have all of these additional texts? Well, because thanksgiving is specific. Our sense of who God is and what we can expect from him emerges from very specific experiences, both in scripture and in our lives. If you want an analogy, think of your relationship with someone else that's important to you, perhaps your parents or a partner. Your gratitude for them is grounded in seriously concrete moments, isn't it? My dad worked three jobs at one point to help put me and my siblings through school, and my mom took on another one in addition to driving us around and providing for us at home. When I turned 40, my sister made a book filled with photographs and letters from friends from all parts of my life. In October I spent a day with my aunt Kathleen and Uncle Stan wandering around where our ancestors are buried.

And when I was home at Christmas, I got to see where my brother works and hang out with him, and I got to go back and sit quietly in the theater where he and I used to be in plays. I also got to go to a movie and lunch with my nephew Jimmy, I got to paint ornaments with two of my nieces, I got to spend time playing with my other nephew and nieces and hold my littlest nephew, I got to have lunch with one of my aunts and see my cousin get married... When I think of how I love all of them, it's concrete moments like these, like literally sitting and watching each of my nieces paint an ornament, or the smell of the theater, that come to mind.

So, that's the first major beat you'll find in the eucharistic prayers (although sometimes not in the first section) -- remembrance and thanksgiving. God has been good to us, and so we offer our thanks. It's a little like what we do at the dinner table -- before we eat, we give thanks. Sometimes I even encourage people, if you get distracted during the early part of the prayer, offer up some concrete event or person that you're grateful for right now.

Tomorrow: Petition, and then we'll go back and talk about the institution.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Eucharistic Prayer as Poetry, Friday TwoFer

For Friday, two options to choose from. Here's the end of Eucharistic Prayer II:
Remember our brothers and sisters
who have gone to their rest
in the hope of rising again;
bring them and all the departed
into the light of your presence.
Have mercy on us all;
make us worthy to share eternal life
with Mary, the Virgin Mother of God,
with the apostles, and with all the saints
who have done your will throughout the ages.
May we praise you in union with them,
and give you glory
through your Son, Jesus Christ.

And here's a lovely version of this section used in Masses of the dead from Eucharistic Prayer III:
Remember ____.
In baptism, he/she died with Christ:
may he/she also share his resurrection,
when Christ will raise our mortal bodies
and make them like his own in glory.

Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters,
and all who have left this world in your friendship.
There we hope to share in your glory
when every tear will be wiped away.
On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are.

We shall become like you
and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord,
from whom all good things come.
Isn't that nice?

Over the weekend I'm going to post a couple parts of Eucharistic Prayer III that I skipped. And as we go forward, I'll try to insert little bits from other Eucharistic prayers at the bottom of posts. Hope it's been rewarding to sit and pray with them a little bit.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Eucharistic Prayer as Poetry, Day Three

[For Losties: At Pop Culture Priest today, a tongue-in-cheek Lost timeline.]

I'm going to skip the institution narrative for now -- and the reason I do is because by and large this is the part of the eucharistic prayer that stands out. It's got a story, there's choreography, it's liturgically very significant -- you might not be able to recite the words from memory, but you could tell me exactly what's happening there.

So we'll come back to that later. Here's what follows the institution narrative -- and this time, I'm drawing on Eucharistic Prayer 1 (I thought I'd mix it up a bit, just to give a taste of a different version.)
In memory of his death and resurrection,
we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread,
this saving cup.
We thank you for counting us worthy
to stand in your presence and serve you.
May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ
be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.

Lord, remember your church throughout the world;
make us grow in love,
together with ___ our Pope,
___ our bishop, and all the clergy.

Every time I read this section what touches me most deeply is that hunger that we all might be one in some way, that our divisions won't defeat us, and that together we might grow in love. Above all I love that phrase -- "make us grow in love."

Try reading it to yourself a bit, see what affects you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Eucharistic Prayer as Poetry: Day Two

After the preface, Eucharistic Prayer III begins with creation praising God, and God gathering.
Father, you are holy indeed,
and all creation rightly gives you praise.
All life, all holiness comes from you
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
From age to age you gather a people to yourself,
so that from the rising of the sun to its setting
a perfect offering may be made
to the glory of your name.

All creation giving God praise is a great example of an abstract image that invites you to make it concrete and personal. For me, praise entails not only offers conscious thanks to God, but living your life to the fullest, savoring the world in all its wonders, laughing, playing, striving. I imagine sitting before the ocean on a red sand beach; watching my nieces paint ornaments at Christmas; listening to the song of birds as the sun sets; dinner with friends; a Verdi or Puccini opera; celebrating Mass; working hard; writing stories.

What does "the praise of creation" look like to you? If you have some time today, take a few moments to recall a few of those experiences and savor them once again.

7 Days to LOST!

Ok, we interrupt this blog to inform you that the final season of LOST begins in 7 days. If you're into LOST, check out my pop culture blog (Pop Culture Priest) for some musings on the coming final season...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sweet: Finally, Time to Figure Out My Grocery List!

Let's be honest: the eucharistic prayer is prime space-out real estate. Generally, it's one of a couple different rote prayers that we've heard a million times, and with little opportunity for response. When you add in we've just heard three readings and a homily -- definitely time for a little daydreaming.

Mmm. Brunch.

Now when it came to the homily, I said daydream away. But when it comes to the eucharistic prayer, I think daydreaming's got a place, but it can be a missed opportunity, too. Because the eucharistic prayer isn't the prayer of the priest, it's the prayer of the community -- it's meant for all of us. And it's filled with rich imagery.

Not that we who preside necessarily notice it, either, truth be told. If there's ever a place where a priest is liable to go into autopilot, it's here. You can see it happen -- suddenly there are all these sort of rhythmic cadences we've heard priests use since we were little, but have little to do with the actual words being said. Or the afterburners kick in and the presider is suddenly talking like he's doing a rosary, the words coming fast and jumbled together: hailmaryfulovgracthelordiswiththee [breath], blessedruamongstwomenndblesedisthefrutofthywomJesus. [breath]

When I say the eucharistic prayer, I try to let it be a moment where the words have the chance to be heard and to resonate. At my best, I treat it like poetry, or like scripture -- something that needs time and space so it can be savored.

I've got plenty to say about the eucharistic prayer, but I thought maybe before all that it would be best to take a couple days and just print the prayer. There are actually 10 different eucharistic prayers in a normal sacramentary, so we have a lot of options to choose from. But on a Sunday (for reasons I'll explain later), often the presider uses Eucharistic Prayer III. So over the course of the rest of the week I'll print that piece, by piece. And I'd just invite you to read it to yourself a couple times; read it silently, slowly; read it out loud a couple times; and then just sit with it. Give those words a little space to resonate within you. As I said, this is a prayer, our prayer, and it's meant to be lovely.

Today, a preface (the first part of the eucharistic prayer -- and again, I'll explain a little more about what a preface is next week). It's 13 lines, but there's a lot there. You could read just the first six lines and have a lot to savor. Enjoy.

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.

In you we live and move and have our being.
Each day you show us a Father's love;
your Holy Spirit, dwelling within us,
gives us on earth the hope of unending joy.

Your gift of the Spirit,
who raised Jesus from the dead,
is the foretaste and promise
of the paschal feast of heaven.

With thankful praise,
in company with the angels,
we glorify the wonders of your power.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thalored bwethu

Say you were this guy:

Yep, you've finally stopped by that big blue planet you've always marveled at on the trip back to Betelguese from the outer rifts. You strap on the inviso and wander amidst the "hue-mans", as they call themselves. And when your toes or tentacles or whatever you're sporting start to hurt, you stop in at one of the constructs with the cross on it, because hey, everybody seems to be going there, so it must be interesting.

And say you get there just in time for a Mass. Now, you don't know the language and your uni-trans is way out of date, so you really don't know what's going on.

Even so, if you were paying attention, you might get the sense that this ritual has four parts. Because four times, a series of events is repeated: there's a procession of some kind; the group stands (or is standing), and the guy in the shiny dress extends his hands and says "Thalored bwethu," to which the group responds "Anawlso wethu". (Actually, he says "The Lord Be With You", and we say "And also with you", but give a guy a break, it's hard to understand us when you're an outer space alien.)

Do we even notice that repeated sequence? I can't say that I do, other than somewhere in the back of my mind I realize we sure do say "The Lord Be With You"/"And also with you" a lot. And that note is itself interesting -- our ritual form of greeting/welcome is a selfless wish that God would be with present to those we meet. Maybe that sounds sort of obvious. But try just saying it aloud in the privacy of your home a couple times. Or say it to someone who won't immediately laugh at you. I think you'll discover, it's a quite a thing to say to someone.

But no matter whether we notice any of this, that repetition is there as a signpost that we've entered new territory, that something significant is happening. By and large it marks beginnings: we do it at the actual beginning of the liturgy; at the high point of the liturgy of the Word (the Gospel); at the midpoint of the Mass, which is really the beginning of the liturgy of the eucharist; and at the end -- which is actually not for us "the end" but our re-entrance into the larger world. It's the beginning of the rest of our lives. As we processed in, so now we all process out, sent forth to continue what has happened to us here...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

That Voodoo You Do Do

So, the water and the wine: what's up with that?

I'll be honest, I didn't really know myself. So I looked around. And I'll tell you, most of the theological explanations get really expansive and super poetic really fast (which is usually another way of saying, "we have no idea"). Most of what I found doesn't seem to hold much weight.

1) The water and the wine symbolize the intermingling of Jesus' humanity and divinity.
Evaluation: I like the poetry, the whole intermingling thing. And, this loosely jives with the little mumbled prayer the priest says at the time: "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."

But push even a little and there's problems. First of all, what exactly is the mystery of the water and wine? Are we talking about the presence of water with blood coming from his side wound? (And if so, what does that have to do with his humanity and divinity?) Plus, we add just a drop of water, but we believe he's fully human, fully divine.

And the whole thing still begs the question, how exactly did we come to make the intermingling of water and wine mean humanity and divinity? It's certainly not obvious.

2) When Jesus died, water and blood came out of him. Therefore, water and wine.
Evaluation: This argument connects the material that came out of Jesus' side wound with what we consume. But why? There's no necessary connection.

And every article I've seen with this point ends up basically turning back to "because I said so." Not good.

3) At the wedding at Cana, Jesus turned water into wine.
Evaluation: But if that were the point, if that's the mystery, shouldn't we just use water? And that doesn't fit the Last Supper at all.

4) Jews never drank the wine straight at Passover. They always cut it with water.
Evaluation: This, I like. It's rational, it's easy to understand. And rather than add a layer of meaning that seems really unnecessary (and unclear), this interpretation fits the liturgical action. During the eucharistic prayer, we re-present the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. We do so because we want God to be present now in the way he was for Jesus. One very basic way of understanding the eucharistic prayer is as this petition: Hey, you, big guy, do it again. Save us, too. So, adding water to cut the wine, like Jesus would have -- it's still a little flimsy, I admit, but it fits.

Either way, one of the great suggestions made in the current rules for liturgy is for the priest not to say that little prayer aloud. The reason being, it's a little bit of a distraction from the main action. We're supposed to be offering gifts and now suddenly it looks like the priest is doing a little incantation. Knock it off, or take it all the way.

But enough irreverence for one week. Cheers!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Turn Him Loose

We interrupt this liturgy discussion for an interesting side note.

Today is the feast of St. Fabian.

No, not that guy. This guy:

He was the bishop of Rome in the middle of the 3rd century. (Today they say he was the pope, but it was still a little while before the bishop of Rome was accepted as the Church's international head honcho. As bishop of Rome, though, he had a huge job.) He was apparently a very good man, and martyred after 14 years in office.

And -- he was a lay man. That's right, before becoming the pope he was not a bishop, priest or deacon. In fact, as the story goes he was just some farmer that visited Rome after the death of the prior pope, like people do today, to pay their respects and see who's elected.

The electors in their meeting -- clergy and lay people of Rome -- prayed that God would send them a sign as to who they should elect. And supposedly a dove landed on this man's head.

And so they unanimously elected him their bishop.

Now the circumstances are clearly bizarre. That sort of blind faith (and miraculous sign) is not something we see much today, or would accept as necessarily a wise hiring strategy, for that matter.

But it worked. According to his contemporary Cyprian, who himself was made a saint later, Fabian led his community very well.

One of the great things about daily liturgy is that over the course of the year you get to meet all these interesting people that are part of our history. It's like during the holidays when grandma starts telling stories. Your sense of the church, what it values and who it is, what it means to be in the family, as it were, gets a lot bigger. And you can discover great sources of inspiration and encouragement for your own life, as well.

Next time someone starts intoning about the the "place" of the "lay state", remember our brother and friend, St. Fabian.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It Takes a Steady Hand...

Not much time to blog today. But let me ask you something -- is it me, or when the priest pours the water into the wine during the preparation of the gifts -- oftentimes, he's mumbling something, too, doesn't it sometimes look like he's mixing a magic potion, or alternatively like he's doing some sort of very precise experiment? And if he's not careful, if he pours just a hair too much water, then...

I've seen it happen. Mass wine -- very unstable. (Especially when you cut it with hydroglycerin.)

More on this tomorrow.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bow Out

In recent years I've noticed a trend for the gift bearers to bow after they give the gifts to the presider. It's meant to be an act of reverence before the sanctuary -- the very same sort of gesture that readers are asked to make before entering the sanctuary to break open the Word.

The problem is, it doesn't look like they're bowing to the sanctuary. It looks like they're bowing to the priest. Which is problematic. Because it has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the priest at all. Some parishes try to solve this by having the priest bow back -- but that only seems to make the whole thing less coherent. Why are all these people bowing to each other?
And then the priest headbutted the guy who brought up the gifts.

My question is, do we need to have this bowing in the first place? It's not as though those who bear the gifts ride up on Segways or leave running and screaming (though that would be something). The act of processing forward has its own inbuilt solemnity. People naturally approach the altar at that moment with a certain reverence and care. And once they arrive at the sanctuary, what's the moment "about"? Two things, I'd say -- welcome and reception. The presider welcomes the bearers as sisters and brothers, and through him the Church receives the gifts they bring. The gifts, the gifts we will offer up and which God will transform into nourishment for us.

Bowing doesn't look right here because it doesn't fit with those movements. It's not a gesture of welcome or of reception, but an act of reverence that pulls focus from the gifts and the giving, without even a sense of what's the subject being revered! You see the look on most gift bearers' faces, they have no idea what it's supposed to mean, either. They're just doing what somebody told them to.

In liturgy as in many areas, the simplest procedure is often the right one. Presenting the gifts is a very different sort of moment then entering the sanctuary to read the Word of God. Let it moment be what it is, reverent in its very act of bearing, welcoming and receiving. It's more than enough.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Act Two

We're getting ready to jump into the deep end with the eucharistic prayer. But first, a few more little pieces on the preparation of the gifts.

There's that funny moment right after the petitions where suddenly it doesn't really seem like much of anything is going on -- everybody's sitting down, including the presider and the servers; the sanctuary is pretty much empty of activity; and for a second there's not even music, just papers rustling and guys in the back fumbling with wicker baskets. If it were your first time you might even think oops, somebody's missed a cue. And if it goes too long, well, yes, somebody has. (When I'm presiding, usually that person is me.)

It's also for many a moment (along with directly after communion) when we're tempted to pull out the bulletin and glance through it. And I think what we're sensing (in both cases, actually) is that we're in a transition. We're moving from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the Eucharist. In musical theater/opera terms, the presentation is sort of like the "entr'acte", the musical interlude that the orchestra plays before Act Two formally begins, a time to readjust ourselves, settle back in, unwrap the candy. It's also like the moment in a submersible bubble right before we're going to go plunge down to see the giant squid.

On second thought, maybe it's really not.

In some Christian denominations this really is presented as a sort of intermission, too; they do the announcements, or the sign of peace (something Catholic liturgists have batted around, as well). At an African American parish I know, the entire congregation comes up row by row at this point to drop off their donations to an usher in the front, while everybody sings. It sounds intimidating -- my first time there I thought, oh God, everybody is going to see what I'm giving (or not giving.) But the tenor of the moment is more like the first hour of a potluck; everybody's arriving, come as they are, with their casseroles and jello molds, tending to their children and spouses and singing out with praise. The practice is unusual, but it yields a very concrete sense of us all being one community, and of our celebration being one that we're all contributing to, one that is all of ours.

All of these innovations are responses to that sense of the moment as a transition. They try to shake out any cobwebs that might have formed and to help people settle into the prayer that is to follow.

The procession forward with the gifts means to do much the same thing. It's a little activity, but nothing too dramatic; if you're into the song you might not even notice that it's happened. The priest takes the gifts, quietly prepares and presents them. And time passes. By the time it's over, there's a clear feeling, we've moved on into something else.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

See You Real Soon

Back on Monday. Have a good weekend!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Presentation of (all) the Gifts

So, yesterday, in summary:

Talk about heart burn! (Yes, that is supposed to be a human heart, courtesy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And the horns are nice, too.)

In Christianity, we conceive of things slightly differently. We, too, make an offering of gifts to God, and we do so out of a sense of our fundamental indebtedness to God. It's a gesture of worship and thanksgiving -- in fact, we call our prayer "a sacrifice of praise".

But it's not just bread and wine we're offering. No, those elements also represent all the fruits of the earth, all the work of our hands -- that is, all that God has given and all that we are striving to do. Presenting the gifts entails offering all that we have and are to God, to be blessed by Him, sanctified and used for the kingdom. It's the first step in the liturgy of the eucharist, whose ultimate goal is the presence of Christ not only in transubstantiated bread and wine, but in our transformed hearts.

In a song, this is our prayer at the presentation: "All of me/Why not take all of me/Can't you see/I'm no good without you."

So, one thing to do during the prayers over the gifts is to consider what gifts of your own (or of the community) -- skills, experiences, relationships -- are you most aware of right now and want to be thankful for? Or, what gifts am I asking God to bless and guide today? Or just to imagine your whole self -- your quirky charms, your ambivalent relationships, your sagging waistline, all of it -- being lifted up to God.

It's the other half of the petitions, in a way -- there we offered up our needs. Here we offer up our blessings.

What has filled my bowl?

Offertory, Old School Style

What makes God god? Or to put it another way, what makes a group of people cast their lot with a given god? Today we might answer that question in terms of a spiritual connection, a sense of personal or social communion of some kind. I'm a Buddhist or a Catholic or a Lutheran because that's where I find God present, or am nourished, or feel welcome.

In the ancient world, the answer would be this: we worship God X, they'd say, because he has done great things for us. To use the slang of today, he's not only promised to get our back, but in the thick of things, he's had our back. He's helped us out. What makes God god are his saving acts.

The Google maps shot of the Red Sea parting. Even then, Google was there.

And when a group committed to a god, that had certain responsibilities. They had to act in a way befitting their new status as vassals of this god. And hey, he's god right? That's like, way cooler than a human king. Better offer him the choicest of choice gifts, too.

So you have this tradition in so many different religions and cultures of sacrificing animals, objects, even people to the gods. Sometimes this was a way of appeasing what was interpreted to be an angry god. (How do we know he's angry? Things are not going the way we want.) That's when things get crazy -- normally we kill a hundred goats; this time, let's kill a thousand virgins! But usually this was just part of the system. He's the lord, you're the vassal. Everything you receive is really his. So when the harvest comes due or the trade deal succeeds, you make sure that the first thing you do is to give him the best parts. And in exchange, he's got your back. (And if you don't, well, make sure you've got a thousand virgins.)

(And make sure they don't have rifles.)

Personally, listening to the Old Testament stories where they're killing the fatted calf, I can never quite get past the part where they incinerate the meat. It's a significant gesture, to destroy that which is most valued or precious as a way of indicating your own vassal-ness. But it seems like such a waste, too! (Admittedly, I am a greedy foodie.)

Some passages suggest what pleases God is the smell -- and really, what God doesn't love the smell of roasted meat in the morning? Incense was likewise used in various cultures because people believed their gods liked it. (Apparently the eyes of gods do not water as easily as our own...)

It also seems likely that some believed that via incineration the food was in effect teleported into their god's hands. Yep, that's right, after a hearty sacrifice God's up there pounding the burgers, beef juice dribbling down his hands and the sides of his face. It seems to take the whole "God is king" idea a bit too literally, but at the same time, it shows a real appreciation for the sensory, God as a being that delights, that savors physically even more than we do. Maybe he or she even emits the occasional satisfied belch.

Even though it emerges out of this history, our own practice is in some ways quite different. But we'll leave that until tomorrow. Today's assignment: be like those old school gods and relish the taste of something you eat today. Let those juices run!


Monday, January 11, 2010

Petitions -- An Idea for Sundays

One last little intercessions thing. For those who go to Mass mostly on Sundays, some of what we've been talking about is probably a little moot. I don't know a lot of places where parishioners get the opportunity to actually share their prayers aloud on Sunday. Too many people, too big a space. Rather, somebody up front reads a set of petitions, and if you're lucky maybe they mention something about other prayers "in the silence of our hearts."

But -- if your parish staff is interested -- there are ways of still bringing people's individual prayers in. For instance, after the speaker prays for the sick and/or the dead, instead of moving right into the response, some places offer a long pause, maybe even step back from the ambo for a moment. The idea being, this is the moment where you can silently add your own prayers for those you know who are sick or have died.

And in other places, the congregation is invited to quietly say aloud the names of those they're thinking of who are sick or have died. If you've never been a part of something like that, it might seem a little kooky. And it seems from the outside like a little bit of a risk, saying a name aloud. But when a group gives themselves to it, even as individuals might overlap one another, it really does create a sense of us all participating in the prayer, offering our own thoughts and concerns. It's a little like wind passing through tree branches. They each sound as the wind moves through, but it's not the individual creaks or hush that you notice from below, but the loveliness of the overall.

Maybe you've seen other practices that work well.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Happens When We Pray?

So, we're about ready to move on to the offeratory, but let me ask you one more question about petitions before we do: when you make a petition, what exactly are you doing?

If you're like me, your immediate answer is, I'm asking God to help in a situation. To make a change. Or maybe just to pay attention.

But think about that for a second. If we are correct that God is all-loving and omniscient, shouldn't he already know about whatever the thing is we're praying for? In fact, shouldn't he already be doing something about it?

If you look at the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, you'll see that this question wasn't a problem for the Jews. God's omniscience and all-powerful-ness was all the more reason to pray, because... well, look around. Things aren't going so well, are they? Which means God has turned his back on us.

Sometimes they leave it right there, with a sort of implication that God is being a jerk. But a lot of other times, they take it a step further: the only rational reason God would abandon us is because we abandoned him. Not exactly a one-size-fits-all argument today... are we going to blame the death of a loved one on our sinfulness? As they say on British TV, not bloody likely.

But in that precise case, what's going on? Why hasn't God intervened? Why should our prayers matter more? Think of all those right now... right now... who no one is praying for, no one knows about. Are we saying, lacking the petitions of others, they've been forgotten by God? Again: not bloody likely.

It's all sort of a mystery, isn't it?

And yet, when we take a few minutes for the people that we've promised to pray for, saying their names quietly to God, is it just me or do we feel so much more grounded and in touch?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Secret Origin

You know that point in the film where they suddenly back up in time, shift the color palette to more sepia and b/w and tell you the origin of the character? The kind of stuff that if you put at the beginning it would seem sort of obvious and perfunctory, but put in the late middle, after lots of hints without explanation, and you think "OH, COOL!"

In comic book parlance, we call this the "Secret Origin."

Well, this very short piece is my secret origin for this whole series... and I tell it now because it's related to the petitions.

About two years ago -- almost to the day, actually -- I travelled to Sydney, Australia for 7 months of Jesuit work. (If you're new to this blog and go back to its very beginnings, starting here, you can read many stories of my experience there).

And along with the many wonderful surprises of living in another country was little unexpected alterations in the liturgy. The one I noticed right away: they introduced the petitions differently. In the States, after each petition we tend to say, "We pray to the Lord...", inviting the community to join us in addressing God directly: "Lord, hear our prayer."

In Australia, on the other hand, their introduction into the response was also focused solely on God. They'd say, "Lord, hear us." And everyone still responds, "Lord, hear our prayer."

It's a small thing. And it sort of grated on me for a while. What's all this, then?, I thought, in a very thick fake English accent, twirling my baton and pushing around the notorious riff-raff.

Bringing out my inner bobby.

But eventually I just fell head over heels in love with "Lord, hear us." It seemed much more true to the events of the moment. What are we doing in the intercessions? We're addressing God, and what we want -- oh God do we ever want it -- is for him to hear us. That is, to act.

Our own version seemed instead to step out of the moment for an unnecessary stage directions. We're all adults here, been doing this a long time we have. No need to guide us; eyes front and center, you know? (I think I've been watching too much British TV...)

Now we can go round and round about whether I overinterpreted the heck out of that concept or what. (I will say, it's interesting to listen to how the petitions themselves are formulated for Sunday Mass. Sometimes they are us asking God for help: "we pray that God may..."; "we ask God to...". Other times -- take for instance the common formula, "Let us pray that we may be better able to do X, Y, or Z" -- is it me, or do we almost -- not quite, but almost -- take God out of the equation? What's front and center? Not God, but us, what we should do, how we need to change. The sentiment may be spot on, but to my mind that formulation needs work, or the intercessions become a sort of bully pulpit of the parish staff or the Mass version of the "advice" from an Irish mother. "Let us pray that my son Joe who sits right here with us will make something of himself." Yeah, that will definitely motivate positive change...

But no matter where you stand on all of that -- the real gift of experiencing the Australian liturgical practice was that it made me look at my own country's practices with greater objectivity and a new curiosity.

And that's what got me thinking about how we "do" liturgy.

The Secret origin. There you have it...

The next few days I'm seeing a good friend who is on his way to Australia, so probably I'll be off the airwaves until Monday.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Petitions: The SHAME!

Have you ever said you'd pray for someone... and then you realized days, weeks (months) later that you didn't?

It's an awful feeling, isn't it? Like, you had to do just that one thing, just that one little thing, and probably no one even asked you to do it, you just said you would. And then you didn't. You... scumbag! You...loser! You...Seinfeld cast reject!

No soup for you!

That's the tape that goes through my head, anyway.

A couple months I got to thinking about all that. And the idea that came to me was, do you have to be consciously intending to pray to be praying? Like, do you have to stop and literally say someone's name to God, or say something about them to God, for a prayer you promised to happen? Does prayer require your self-awareness?

What if instead, once you agree to pray for someone, you're carrying them in your heart from that point on, whether you're aware of them all the time or not? Like the prayer isn't in the words, it's embodied in you.

Could it be that the act of saying we will pray for someone opens a door inside us, and once it's open, we are the expression of the prayer.

I don't know. Could be a cop-out, I guess. Probably is, for me, in some cases. But something to think about.

Petition Do's and Don'ts

Yesterday's post about petitions reminded me of a post I did a while back on a how-to lecture I once heard as a Jesuit novice about offering petitions at mass.

We were given five basic guidelines about offering petitions:

1) In your petition, try to include the specific and the general. So, for instance, if you're praying for a sick friend, instead of praying only for him or her, include all that are sick. So, for example, "I'd like to pray for my friend Rex, who has cancer, and for all those who are struggling with cancer." The idea is a propos of my post yesterday: our petitions mean to draw us all, including the speaker, beyond our own worlds into the larger world of needs.

Of course, it can get silly, too. "I'd like to pray for my brother-in-law and all brothers-in-law. We pray to the Lord..." "I'd like to pray that my cousin can find a house, and that all cousins can find houses. We pray to the Lord..." "I'd like to pray for my sister, who will be having an ultrasound today, and for all those having ultrasounds today, we pray to the Lord...."

2) Beware of using a petition to try and "answer" another petition. You'll get this at daily mass sometimes: one person prays for an end to the war in Iraq, and then the next prays "that the citizens of the United States might better appreciate the sacrifice our troops are making to ensure our freedom." Someone prays for the unborn, and someone else prays for women.

Hello, axe. Care for a grind?

3) A corollary: Your prayers should not be inflammatory. A petition is not a statement of position. It's a prayer to God. If you're unsure whether you might be going too far, YOU PROBABLY ARE. Reformulate your words.

4) My favorite: In community, sometimes a petition, despite all good intentions, amounts to "Guess what I just heard?" "I'd like to pray for Mike, who was just diagnosed with a rare skin disease." "I'd like to pray for the 417 people in Milwaukee who are being held hostage as we speak by armed gunmen." "I'd like to pray for our community member Randy, who has decided to leave the Society." There can be a genuine motivation in offering such a prayer; but if you know something sensational that nobody else does, consider offering the prayer silently until you can give them a heads up.

5) Be careful about praying for yourself. If you've got something serious going on in your life, of course you can ask everyone to pray for you, and should! But if you find yourself doing it somewhat regularly, pay attention. Therein lies a slippery slope. (But enough about me. What do you think of me?)

The bottom line is, when in doubt, be discerning. Our prayers are meant to express the desires of our hearts and to draw us -- all of us -- closer into the presence of God, for whom we are yearning.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Petitions 1: Broken Stones

An interesting experience: last summer I spent a month in China with another Jesuit shooting a one hour documentary about the journeys of Jesuit Matteo Ricci (and others) in China in the 16th century and beyond. It was, in a word, amazing, and maybe when I've finished this set of posts on the Mass I'll write a little bit about it all. We were in 11 cities in 29 days, staying in cheap hotels and filming all of these locations important to the history of the Catholic Church in China. (Ricci was not the first priest in China by any means, but he was the one that was finally able to establish relations with the Chinese, over many many years. Today he's a revered figure in China -- and there aren't many foreigners that are!)

Anyway, while we were there this other Jesuit and I would celebrate Mass from time to time. And a lot of the time it was just the two of us -- which for me is sort of weird. I think of Mass as a communal experience, and that means... well, definitely more than two. Three. Or 7.

Then again, the Gospel line is "where 2 or 3 are gathered," and that was our experience. We'd come home from these exhausting days of lugging our equipment and shooting, and the last thing you'd want to do is have a Mass.

One of the most amazing places we had Mass: on the 12th floor of a hotel, overlooking the Yangtze River at sunset.

And frankly, we were so pooped some nights that when Mass was over, we really didn't have much to say to each other. It was just go to dinner and stare. But during the Mass, something would happen, an upswell of feeling.

And it always happened during the petitions. We'd each have noticed people over the course of the day -- a lady cooking lunch for her kids in a shop; old men playing Chinese chess on a street corner; the taxi driver; a guy lugging huge boxes of full water bottles up and down a million stairs...

I kid you not, these were the stairs he'd climb, a million times a day, delivering fresh bottles of water to the salesmen at the top on this scorching day. When we saw him, he was drenched.

Sometimes we'd have both noticed them; sometimes not. Or the other guy would mention them and you'd realize, oh my God I did see that guy but I didn't even know I did.

So, we'd each bring these people to the petitions, and it was very moving somehow. It was like we were sharing from our hearts.

Now, I don't mean to say that hearing the petitions is necessarily supposed to create this tidal wave of emotion. On a Sunday you're just listening to what the pastoral team has come up with, and offering your own quietly. If there's a swell of emotion, it's often because of the people whose needs we're carrying with us.

But there are times when we hear someone or something prayed for and it resounds in us, there's a feeling, or maybe in the case of a sick person a desire to reach out and talk to their family, if we know them, to show support or maybe we just carry them with us as we leave.

When we offer prayers of petition, we do so hoping that God will hear our prayers and bring aid to the people in question. But perhaps petitions also serve the function of changing us who hear them, by expanding our mental and emotional horizons beyond the boundaries that we might have set. Ezekiel talks about having his heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh. I wonder if the prayers of others aren't one way that the stony places in our hearts get broken open.

One of the many amazing people we met in China, a teenage girl working at a restaurant, waiting to go back to college. Everywhere you go in China, most of the people serving you or working at the hotels or as guards are kids just like her. I couldn't understand a word she said, but something about her smile really touched me. I prayed for her a lot.