My thoughts after attending a Catholic Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane.
Remember the days of long ago; think about the generations past. Ask your father, and he will inform you. Inquire of your elders, and they will tell you. -Deuteronomy 32:7
“Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.”
-C.S. Lewis, Excerpt from the Preface to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great
I crossed the Tiber for a Sunday with the intention of exposing my son, who is a choral lover and has a passion for traditional music to a more ancient and traditional expression of the body of Christ. We have raised our kids among the non-denominational, Protestant, Charismatic branches of the Christian tree, so he has been more acquainted with low church than high church. I had previously reached out to a Catholic friend of mine I had met through an inter-faith writing group in Spokane and in him found a tour guide to where he worshipped, Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. I had the Sunday off from my pastorate at Jacob’s Well Church, so I took the opportunity to go on a cross-pollinating adventure across the proverbial Tiber river of Rome.
Below are my observations and contemplations after attending.
A. Recognition of Christ present by bowing and crossing oneself, folded hands, etc:
There is something growing more and more important to me the older I get, the recognition of something as sacred. Living in a postmodern culture, I am witness to the desacralization of everything. Nothing is sacred today except the preeminence of self and secularization. Entering a space of worship that is governed by participations that are bordered by order, rules, and even prohibitions based on theological, historical and cultural traditions is refreshing in a marginless culture.
In a culture that deifies independence and self-reliance, its a profoundly jarring sight to see people kneel today. As a man, there is almost no place or rite where men are called to kneel to anyone or anything. To be confronted with a choice to kneel is an existential decision of the will. To choose to lower one’s self as an act of honor and recognition that there is someone or something above me or greater than me. It is a simple but powerful practice.
C. Saints & Church Fathers & Mothers:
To stand in a cathedral that has stained glass and statues that recognize saints of the past is a witness of solidarity and place that is getting lost in American culture. To stand among and within the flow of church history that is recognized, celebrated and honored in worship and practice is a missing element in the non-denom world I witness around me. Maybe it’s being in a very young country or a leftover anti-catholic attitude, but there seems to be a disdain for the past, for other Christians from different traditions in the circles I have grown up around. The fear of worshipping someone or something other than God has severed us from a meaningful and I think, protective connection to the collective wisdom of the past. To live as if only this moment matters is an illusion of an unenlightened age.
D. Stained glass windows, Sculpture and Architecture:
As an artist, I value aesthetics and the idea of iconography. Place matters to me, even though I have been bullied and bruised by anti-aesthetics in evangelicalism for decades. I recently commissioned an artist to do a mural for our church and the surprise he expressed was sad to me. He told me that most interactions with churches he had has been that they were unwilling to spend money on art. He felt they didn’t value it’s place and couldn’t justify beauty as a good for it’s own sake or to warrant its place in a budget. But for me, all these artistic elements deepen my sense of meaning in a world of microwaves, plastic and warranties. Nothing lasts anymore, marriages, families, friendships, churches, neighborhoods, wild lands, memories, traditions, cultural stories…all are being hacked and slashed for the latest and the supposed greatest. All though people feign piety by their insisting of functionality, avoiding extravagance and the almighty subservience to saving dollars, we have sterilized our sanctuaries of mystery, wonder and awe. There is little to see, hear, taste or touch in our gathered lives as non-denoms and the poverty of soul is pandemic.
E. Inter-generational Participation:
Seeing altar boys of various ages participating and facilitating in the administration of the worship experience was meaningful to me. I witnessed kids, teens, young adults, women, men and elders intermingling throughout the various aspects of the order of service. A young family bringing down the aisle the elements used in celebrating the eucharist, watching young boys holding up the candles while scripture was being read or handing towels to the priest presiding over the eucharist. Seeing young adults and men serving as deacons, presenting the cup of Christ to men and women, listening to the angelic voice of the woman cantor in worship sing back to us the readings from Ezekiel. Seeing mothers and fathers holding their children in the service, listening to crying babies and the exiting footsteps of parents taking them out when it was ratcheting up, all these were reminders that WE are present, not as mere onlookers, but as participants.
F. Cantor and Congregational Singing:
I enjoyed the expertise of the Cantor, her ethereal voice, rhythmic leading of worship was sublime and yet not showy or clouded by performance issues, particularly due to the fact that they were nowhere to be seen, since they were behind us. I liked and needed the grace found in listening to her at times and then participating in response through word or song. I didn’t feel like I was at a concert or a hymn sing, but a gently guided dance that allowed pause and pursuit, reflection and response.
They had an expert trumpet player and hearing him reminded me that there is so much more room for other instruments to join in worship and their absence is sad to me. I will never forget the church I attended that had a flute in its band and how that instrument added so much depth to the music. When the trumpet had notes to shine on Sunday, I found myself experiencing a bit of glee in my soul. A kind of surprise joy that felt like one feels looking out over the ocean and feeling that the world is so much bigger than you let it be in the day to day grind.
H. Theological praxis:
There were a number of times I was able to see the connecting of congregational actions as responses to God’s actions being taught (i.e. we present the gifts of bread and wine to God but God gives back eucharistic participation). Such theological thought matters to me in an era when little has much meaning connected to it.
A Few Critiques:
These are observations from my attendance of one service. They are not offered as an expression of my only concerns but only of the ones, I gently bumped up against in thought from my experience. I not here to defend or attack any of the complex history or theology, but to offer a small bridge of understanding through thoughtful encounter and experience. There is a place for dialogue and debate about bigger matters of faith, doctrine and practice but this is not that kind of article. I believe in ‘Semper Reformanda’ (always reforming) but not at the expense of forgetting or severing limbs from trunks or tree.
I am 47 and my mind and heart are searching for things that I wasn’t searching for as a young man. My ability to process, understand, follow and connect aspects of my experiences, knowledge and appreciation to the service are abilities that I think would be difficult for various people at different stages of life. The need for a tour guide is problematic in some ways to me, when I want people to find the least amount of barriers to exploring faith as possible.
I value deep thought, contemplation and seriousness but I would never want to present our faith as a sour or melancholy family. I am not sure why such formalizations seem to set the atmosphere in a certain rigid posture. If laughter, joy, extroverted expressions of passion or exuberance are out of synch with a gathered community, I would find that suffocating in time. Just as I find the opposite difficult to endure in the ‘happy clappy’ world of evangelicalism. I am too complex to edit or deny the gift of human totality of being. I would hope that places of worship would be authentic as well as sacred.
K. Quick Exits:
Ending and exits that consciously or unconsciously drive people out of the sanctuary and out the doors like some kind of irresistible tiede don’t allow for the multidimensional aspects and opportunities of worship. To be surrounded by so much aesthetics and experiences, I should of been able to feel comfortable exploring the space, taking pictures or staring for a few minutes at all the beauty everywhere in art, sculpture, architecture and light. Altars are for approaching, beauty for beholding and stone for touching. I needed more time and space to extend my worship beyond receiving to digesting in the atmosphere of sacred space.