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The Grip of Ritual

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 7:00 AM Comments (108)

Whether or not the recently deceased Cardinal Martini was mistranslated in his instantly infamous final interview, these words of his, especially, struck me as sad and thin:

Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and ... our rituals and our cassocks are pompous.

How can someone who has worn holy vestments say this?  How can someone whose hands have held the living body of Our Lord say this?

I suppose I'm lucky that this sort of thing still shocks me. I am immensely grateful that the priests in my parish and surrounding area are faithful.  We never have to give those damage control sermons on the way home from church:  "Now, kids, I know Father Spazz said such-and-such, but that's not Church teaching.  Let's remember to pray for him.  Here's what the Catechism says . . . "  No, our priests know their stuff, and they don't mess around.

Priests are under a huge amount of pressure, from every side.  I remember reading how the fictional Don Camillo  would pray before Mass, something like, "Lord, if I need to blow my nose, please let me do it in a way that will not scandalize anyone."  These days, both the left and the right (God help us that there are such factions within the same Church!) are on the prowl for any infringement of their right to be culturally edified:  "Did he say 'sisters and brothers' instead of 'brothers and sisters?'  I guess the feminazis have really taken over!  No check in the basket this week!" Or, "He went right into the sacristy after Mass, instead of standing by the door to shake hands!  My God is a God of love.  I'm joining the Unitarians."

It's not reverent or fair to nitpick and criticize and second guess everything a priest does.  No matter how many graces he receives, he's just a man, and neither is he perfect, nor can he offer the perfect response to every need of every parishioner.  I get it.  And this is why I've never, to my memory, written anything that criticizes a priest.

But I can't stop thinking about last Sunday.

A visiting priest  recounted during his homily what Jesus said to the Pharisees in the Gospel reading:

Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.

With visible disdain (very reminiscent of Cardinal Martini's words, above), the priest described the behavior which he considered to be foolish, outdated, unnecessary, even wicked ritual:  the new translation of the liturgy, the faithful repetition of certain gestures and prayers during Mass, and even the thorough cleansing of the sacred vessels after the consecrated hosts and precious blood are distributed.  "We rub and rub and rub the cup," he said with a little grimace.

All of these behaviors, he said, were "things that enter one from outside."  He said that what was more important than these outward signs was what went on inside a person's heart.  He's right about that.  But he went further.  He implied that ritual itself defiled us -- distracted us, made us unable to encounter Christ intimately and authentically.

I was mulling these things over uneasily in my head, wondering if this visiting priest was onto something -- if he was delivering a much-needed counterbalance to a world which is too prone to lying with our bodies.  It's very easy to feel holy by doing the right things:  genuflecting deeply, reeling off novenas, getting all the ritualized motions right, while on the inside, we're faithless, rotten, trivial, alone.  Maybe, I thought, he's right:  maybe it wouldn't hurt us to loosen up on these rituals, and give ourselves a chance to just be with God.

And then?  The priest dropped the Host. 

He dropped a handful of consecrated Hosts as he transferred them from one ciborium to the other, because he was rushing.  Thanks be to God, they fell onto the altar, and not onto the floor -- but they fell and scattered, like a handful of poker chips, or a serving of Cheerios.  And then, he did it again -- rushed, fumbled, scrambled to clean up the mess and get on with it.

Here's the thing:  Maybe I totally misread what happened there.  Maybe he has a hand tremor, and has been begging his superior to take him off active duty (or whatever you call it for parish priests), because he's been afraid of something like this happening.  Maybe he's going to through some horrible interior crisis, and hasn't slept in four days.  Maybe -- no, definitely -- I don't know the first thing about this man's motives and intentions.

But here's what I do know:  there was a message there for me.   There's a reminder that ritual, that formally scripted motions, words, and behaviors -- these are indispensable.  It is through them that we get a grip on our faith.  It is through them that God gets a grip on us.  They are not the entirety of our faith; but they are not optional.

We learn through what we do with our hands, with our voices, with our bodies.  At very least, we learn obedience.  But at most, we learn something about the Incarnation:  about how the body does the work of the divine.  And this is a lesson that, I think, will take a lifetime; and when I'm near the end, I hope I have more to say than to remark on how pompous and empty our ritualized gestures are.  I hope that my body will be worn out with ritual,  rubbed smooth with the repetitive motion of kneeling, crossing, blessing, saturated to the bone with the grace of the sacraments.

I have a lot of work ahead of me.

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.