Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
When I first became a believer, it was in the context of a small non-denominational group of Evangelical charismatics who lived on my dorm floor. I knew from nothing about Christianity when I became a believer, having never attended Church when I was growing up. My total information pool about the Christian tradition consisted of Sunday school on the Air Force base where I was born (from which the only thing I remembered was the notion I somehow formed that you were not supposed to say Jesus’ Name out loud). In addition to this, there was A Charlie Brown Christmas, some Bible movies like The Robe and Ben-Hur, a few Chick tracts I picked up at Halloween, and my stab at reading the Bible as a young teen (I started at Genesis 1 and plowed on through to Genesis 3, where I gave up). Oh, and there was my abortive attempt to read Revelation at age 13 and “crack the code”. Epic fail.
So when I became a Christian with the help of the Holy Spirit and my fellow Evangelical non-denom charismatics, I took it for granted that I was not in a good position to lecture other Christians on what “real Christian worship” should look like. What did I know? Therefore, when worship was presented to me as All of Us Singing Together Around the Guy with The Guitar (as the apostles surely must have done), I joined in with a full heart, giving God my best (I have a decent tenor voice if you want to know).
Catholics of a Traditionalist sensibility may well roll their eyes here. Having seen the Mass reduced to (sometimes) little more than Crooning with the Guy with the Guitar, they have some rather wounded sensibilities in the matter, just as a rich man reduced to penury might well not share the hobo’s enthusiasm for the meal of thin gruel after a lifetime of beef, wine, and chocolate. But I would ask those inclined to roll their eyes to recall that I was taking a step forward toward communion with Holy Church, not away from it. In becoming a Christian, I became an Evangelical, not a Protestant, for I was not protesting anything.
But surely I knew something about the Catholic Church? Well, “knew” is an awfully strong word. I “knew”, in this milieu, that worship was supposed to be “simple” and that the archetypal ossification and complexification of the Simple Christian Worship that must have been practiced by the apostles (you know, with the overhead projector full of praise and worship lyrics and St. Peter with the guitar) was to be found in those dusty old Churches like the Catholic Church. There you would find not “worship in the Spirit” but mere liturgy—a thing bent and hobbled by an encrustation of rules, regulations, empty gestures and meaningless repetitive prayers stiff with arthritis and devoid of spiritual life. In contrast, we congratulated ourselves on our spirit-filled worship that was lithe, limber, open to the movement of God and free—utterly free—from the forms and structures which fallen man always creates to box in the spirit and keep God caged.
I believed this right up until I read Thomas Howard’s invaluable book Evangelical is Not Enough which did more than anything else to help me see that the choice was not between liturgy and freeform “spiritual” worship, but between rich liturgy and impoverished liturgy. As time had gone on, we had developed the latter in my little church, for liturgy we did indeed have. It consisted of three fast songs, three medium songs, three slow songs, a time of prayer and prophecy (and speaking in tongues), followed by an hour long Bible study/sermon, followed by prayer, an altar call, and “personal ministry”. Then we all broke for coffee and donuts. It was invariable. It was weekly (plus Wednesdays). And it was emphatically liturgical.
What Howard showed me what that this pattern, already aggressively asserting itself in my own little church was not a sign of decay and fossilization, but of normal healthy humanity. Indeed, it could hardly help but be so, for a public encounter with God requires some sort of form since God is the author of order, not chaos. I was discovering a fact of the Christian life: that true spirituality cries out to be embodied, not disembodied, because Christians worship the Word made flesh.
The liturgical way of worship turns out to be, not the development of arthritis by a once-limber Body of Christ that used to “move with the Spirit”, but the perfectly normal way in which Christians have always approached God. And no wonder, since the first Christians were Jews and Jews knew no other way to engage in the worship of God than via liturgy. The paradox this creates in the early Church is perhaps best illustrated in the wild dervish energy and imaginative verve of the book of Revelation, which simultaneously pours forth a cataract of dazzling and disorienting images, yet does so in the context of the liturgy I had been taught to regard as the last bastion of stuffy dullness. For the book of Revelation is unintelligible apart from the liturgy upon which it is modeled.
Consider: it begins with the seer “in the Spirit” on “the Lord’s Day”. In other words, he was at Mass and it was Sunday. It moves on to a series of seven letters to seven churches full of rebuke, counsel, correction and the exhortation to repent. In short, a penitential rite. Then it moves on to the opening of scrolls which are unintelligible until the Lamb looking as if had been slain opens them—as he alone can do. Translation: “If you want to understand Moses and the Prophets then get this: they are all about Jesus. In short, we are looking at the Liturgy of the Word and seeing how the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New. Finally, the book climaxes with “the Marriage Supper of the Lamb”.
Hmmm… where have we heard that language before? That’s right: the Eucharist. Revelation ends like the liturgy does: with the Bridegroom and the Bride at the Wedding Feast. And the Wedding Feast includes the whole wedding party in festal procession both on earth and in heaven. How can the Church perform the same prodigy that Revelation does and be simultaneously liturgical and full of a riot of saints down through the ages? Because liturgy is not the enemy of spiritual freedom any more than an intact and healthy skeletal system is the enemy of a gifted gymnast. It is the slug without any skeleton that has difficulty experiencing the joys of the lithe and limber athlete.
The Mass is called the Divine Liturgy because it is our participation—right now, here and on earth—in what is eternally going on in Heaven. The Son offers Himself eternally to the Father and, with Himself, all that is in Him, which includes all creation itself. It is not our participation in that self-offering in the Liturgy that makes it Holy and Divine, it is His. Apart from Him you can do nothing. In the Divine Liturgy, we are nourished by the Vine along with all the hosts of heaven and all the saints on earth.