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Aug 20, 2019

Is the Way Catholics Worship Weird or Wonderful?

Dr. James Merrick

I love to hike. The feeling of physical exertion and challenge, the splendor and surprise of lovely landscapes, most of all, that moment when you crest a mountain and your soul’s breath is taken away by a majestic vista; all of this I just love.

Scrambling the craggy, gray rocks as fog glazed across Lochnagar in North East Scotland is one of my fondest memories. Feeling the exhilaration as I scurried up the mountain that overlooks St. Francis’ hometown of Assisi—to watch a downpour roll in like an ocean wave—still stays with me. I can recall being speechless before the glistening lakes set amidst rolling hills lined with stone fences like zippers that held together the bounding countryside of the Lake District in England. The depths and desert purples, reds, tans, and oranges of the southern rim of the Grand Canyon dazzled me when I saw them with my own eyes. I wish I could once again be warmed by the rich autumnal reds, oranges, and yellows in mountains of Vermont in October.

Perhaps you too have been arrested and awestruck by natural beauty. Or, if not a hiker, maybe you’ve had a similar experience at a musical performance or sporting event. You know what it’s like to witness something so intensely excellent that you instinctively jump to your feet. It causes you to cheer, clap, or—well—praise the performer. You want to tell your friends and neighbors. You’ve felt that urge to shout in response, to lift up your hands. There’s suddenly an impulse to pause wide-eyed for a moment to take it in. Or, as is commonly the case today, you may want to take a selfie and send off a text message or social media post. You can’t help yourself.

Natural Praise

The Mass is an act of worship, and worship is most basically the celebration of excellence. In the Mass, we lovingly adore the incomparable goodness of God through acts of praise, thanksgiving, and reverence. One of the reasons we’ve opted for a muted Mass in modern times is that we have lost a feel for worship. Therefore we try to minimize the awkwardness. In previous centuries, people were daily familiar with bowing before and paying homage to gods. They also showed homage to kings, emperors, nobility, civic leaders, and priests bedecked in jewels and elaborate garments.

After the Reformation and Enlightenment, however, modern societies rejected this honor-based culture. They replaced it with a more democratic and meritocratic understanding. Worship cuts against so much of what we believe in today, our materialism, relativism, individualism, and egalitarianism. 

Yet as we saw at the outset, we are all familiar with the act of praising on some level. C.S. Lewis saw this clearly in his Reflections on the Psalms:

“The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising their countryside, players praising their favorite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars” (Lewis 94).

He pointed out, “the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least” (Lewis 94). There is something unmistakably good about our world, despite the evil and suffering. To be well-adjusted is to be free in thanksgiving and praise. 

I’m Not Feeling It

What is so wrong with us that we can find it so easy and natural to praise the creation, yet find it so embarrassing, foolish, boring, awkward, arcane, and arduous to praise the Creator? I know there are some reading all of the above and thinking: “But I’m not moved in the Mass the way I am atop a mountain!” Indeed, we’re all aware of those who say they can praise God better on a hike than in a church. 

Thinking about this will do us some good. First, because we aren’t instinctively moved to praise God at Mass the way we are on top of a mountain, church buildings have been magnificently designed and beautifully decorated, the music has been either contemplative or energetic. As Catholics are fond of saying, we are physical beings and our physical environments matter to our experience and understanding. It is right to help the faithful “lift up [their] hearts” through the architecture and adornment of churches.

At the same time, the main reason we find it difficult to worship the Creator and yet easy to worship the creation is because of sin. Sin has disordered the human soul. One major consequence of this disorder is that, in our minds and hearts, created things are more compelling and immediate than the Creator. What should have been the most intuitive activity—to adore God through the use of his creation—now becomes the most foreign and seemingly unnatural activity. And this means we need to guard against being more excited about the aesthetics or music of Mass than we are about the One to whom they point. 

The Duty to Worship

This alerts us to one fundamental difference between the worship of God and the praise of created things. We only adore our fellow humans when we feel like it or are provoked by something they have done. Not so with God. We owe him our praise regardless of how much we’re feeling it. The first three commandments establish our duty to praise God properly. Even pagan philosophers recognized that justice demands piety toward divinity. It would be unjust not to praise the God who is infinitely perfect and is the source of every good thing. Thus we say at Mass, “It is right and just…our duty and our salvation” to give him thanks and praise.

Stupid Losers

That God commands us to worship can be off-putting, and there are many who think it is quite ridiculous that God does so. How egocentric, how insecure, or how unimpressive must this Almighty Creator be if he has to run around and tell everyone to praise him? This very thought was a barrier to Lewis’ own conversion from atheism to Christianity.

What changed his mind was his recognition that praise has to do with truth and truth is good for us. Reflecting upon why it is right to admire a painting, he observed that if we fail to appreciate or admire a beautiful work of art then we “shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers” having remained ignorant of something valuable and good. This allowed him to see that worshipping God amounts to the truest acknowledgement of reality, remarking:

“He is that Object to admire which … is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all” (Lewis 92). 

Praise Should Put Petitions in Perspective

If we are to recover our love for the Eucharist—the aspiration with which we began this series—then we need to appreciate that we offer the Eucharist in order to worship God. It is all too common to think we receive the Eucharist for our own benefit. And it is true that the Eucharist is God’s gift to us. But it is first and foremost worship, specifically, Christ’s offering to the Father (about which we will have more to say later). We receive the Eucharist first for the sake of God, to give him thanks, to praise his name, to fulfill the demand of justice. 

We should enter the church not thinking so much about our qualms or quibbles, our frustrations or fears, but about the greatness and goodness of God. The praise of God must put into proper perspective our priorities and petitions. We must see our concerns in the light of God’s glory and mission. In this way do we “enter the real world,” to use Lewis’ expression. In this way can the Mass be a converting experience like that of a landscape, concert, or work of art. 

Let’s be clear. For us to be successful, we must have a firmer grip upon God’s glory than we do on our own goals. This is best done when we do two things: First, meditate daily upon the character and attributes of God. Second, note all the things in our lives for which we can give God thanks. If we are regularly setting ourselves before the reality of God and keeping attentive to his gifts, then we can go to Mass with hearts full of love rather than heads full of frustration. 

You May Also Like:

Toward Recovering a Love for the Eucharist

The Problem with Celebrity Worship (Bobby Angel video)

‘They Worshiped, but They Doubted’

Altaration: The Mystery of the Mass Revealed (study program)

About Dr. James Merrick

Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Before entering the Church with his wife and five children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. 

Featured photo by Felix Mittermeier from Pexels

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