If you come to Mass with me, I won’t be surprised if you complain that we Catholics recite a lot of things from memory, leaving you at a disadvantage. The written prayers and liturgical responses we use are generally a sticking point with Protestants, and are one of their big objections to the Catholic form of worship. Written prayers are bogus! When I was in high school, my best friend’s father, a deacon in the Church of Christ, waited until all heads were bowed and eyes were closed before he pulled a prepared prayer out of his pocket and read it aloud. His daughter was scandalized (she had peeked). Many Protestants would look askance at reading a prayer; they believe that anything written down is “canned” and therefore insincere – true worship is spontaneous. That would certainly be news to Jesus Who, after all, said: “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation'” (Lk 11:2-4). Jesus and his disciples prayed the Psalms, which are written prayers (just as Catholics pray a Psalm at every Mass). And of course, many, many hymns are written prayers set to music – Be Thou My Vision, How Great Thou Art, Take My Life and Let it Be – Protestants sing many written prayers. Catholics do the same, but we don’t share this odd insistence that written prayers always be set to music.
At Protestant churches you never know what you’re going to hear, and a lot of people like it like that. Spontaneity! The movement of the Spirit! But spontaneity can be synonymous with foolishness and the spewing of large volumes of tripe. At my mom’s charismatic assembly, the leaders once had to take a “prophetess” outside for a little chat – “Thus saith the Lord!” she had spontaneously claimed, warning that His return was imminent and that He was coming “with a sword” to deal with those in the assembly who persisted in their sins. Chastened, she apologized, claiming that she was merely repeating what she thought she had heard the Spirit saying. Prayers can be as unpredictable as prophecy. Spontaneous prayers can range from the misguided to the gossip-ridden to the inane, as in the cartoon quip that Mark Shea likes to quote: “Oh Lord, I just really want to just really pray that you would just really touch me, Lord, in a special way right now, and that you would just really take the words ‘just’ and ‘really’ out of my prayer vocabulary!” “In a special way” can go, too, as far as I’m concerned.
Having certain prayers prepared beforehand makes sense from a Catholic perspective, on the understanding that God the Holy Spirit can inspire the contents of a prayer ahead of time just as well as on the spur of the moment, and that most people do better when not under pressure to “perform.” Prepared prayers reduce the “tripe” factor to nil, because as a reader of this blog, LizB, points out, they are “perfected prayers.” The Gloria that we pray after the Penitential Rite has been recited by Christians at Mass since the 4th century – it brilliantly expresses the cry of Christian hearts. The Liturgy is replete with Biblical references, with layer upon layer of meaning in each phrase and in each action. Man-made attempts to develop “relevant worship” are shallow exactly because of the ties that bind that worship to the events and trends of the day. My own attempts to produce adequate prayers, prayers that express all the longings, fears, needs, hopes and love of my heart, are similarly inadequate because of the ties binding me to my own narrow interests. In other words, my prayers in my own words are sincere, but I recognize that they could use some help. My spontaneous prayers predictably run on their own little hamster wheel of my selfish concerns, i.e., I need… I want…
I’m worried… What if… Help me… Don’t let this happen… Don’t let that happen… Oh, please, God! Please! Please! Please! Even when I am able to praise and worship, that praise and worship is limited to what my tiny mind and stunted heart can come up with. I need help. St. Paul promised that the Holy Spirit will pray for us in our weakness, and thank God He does. He is there with us at Mass, teaching us to pray, lifting up our minds and hearts through participation in the Liturgy, up to the Throne where our perfected prayers are being poured out. There is a chasm between my puny efforts at worship, and the worship going on in Heaven, and that chasm makes the Grand Canyon look like a gopher hole. The Mass bridges the chasm, because the Mass is actually a participation in the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God. As Revelation 4 tells us, St. John was caught up in spirit and saw:
A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat One Whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. Around the throne was a halo as brilliant as an emerald. Surrounding the throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads…. In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back…. Day and night they do not stop exclaiming: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the One who sits on the throne, Who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before the One who sits on the throne and worship Him, Who lives forever and ever. They throw down their crowns before the throne, exclaiming: “Worthy are You, Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things; because of Your will they came to be and were created.”
…Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. He had seven horns and seven eyes; these are the [seven] spirits of God sent out into the whole world. He came and received the scroll from the right hand of the One who sat on the throne. When He took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. They sang a new hymn:
“Worthy are You to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for You were slain and with Your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.”
I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”
There seems to be a great deal of repetition going on in the heavenly worship! Notice, too – worship quite clearly is corporate. St. John reports that certain worshippers all cry out the same thing at the same time. Had he visited a charismatic Heaven, he would not have been able to report much more than “There was quite a cacophony when the Lamb received the scroll!” As it is, he knows exactly what the worshippers said, because they cried out in unison. They responded as one.
And at Mass we lift up our voices in unison to become part of that “one voice.” As the Catechism puts it:
In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle.
Three chapters of the ancient Christian document, the “Didache” (written between 60 and 110 A.D.) deal with the liturgy, so an innovation it is not. Christians have always attended Mass to devote themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). But Catholics don’t merely “attend” Mass. We “assist at” Mass. This is what the emphasis on “fully conscious and active participation” in the Mass is all about. Just mouthing the words gets us nowhere – we have to make those words our own. The prayer of the saints before the Throne must become the prayer of our hearts. We must learn the language of Heaven.
Sometimes “worship” in the Protestant sense boils down to “an awesome experience of God.” It must be that – but it mustn’t end there. Going to Mass is a part of our formation as Christians. We are there to learn how to worship more completely, and much of what we need to learn is contained in the words of the Mass, the greatest prayer the Church can offer. Every one of the words and the actions of the liturgy is there for a reason – to glorify God and to teach us how to glorify God. Every Mass can bring you that much closer to Him as you learn to speak the words of the language of Heaven, the words the Church is teaching your heart to pronounce.
On the memorial of St. Leo the Great
Deo omnis gloria!