Every mosque has a fountain in its yard, so that the worshiper can fulfill the requirements of ritual ablutions before entering Allah’s house. There is an order to the washing of hands, face, mouth, nose, neck and the feet. With every action of physical washing, there is an accompanying prayer.
The reverence that starts well before the Muslim enters the Mosque only intensifies once inside. All superfluous and frivolous activities cease, only hushed whispers could be heard. During the prayers, the imam turns to Kaaba with everyone else to genuflect before Allah who is the ultimate master, the unreachable judge.
The same ablution is necessary before one touches the Quran. The holy book, the eternal word of Allah is to be treated with utmost respect, always holding the tome above one’s heart. That is why you can only find Quranic verses framed high above in Muslim homes. The reverence, no doubt originating from servile fear, pulls many a young Muslim, men and women, to stand before someone who is bigger than mere human beings. Islam portrays a god before whom even the powerful and strong fall to their faces in worship.
The desire to please Allah is so strong that every year, for an entire month, observant Muslims refrain from drinking and eating from dawn till dusk. No food, no water, no smoking, not even a piece of gum. Consider their sacrifice during the summer months when the sun is up until almost nine o’clock.
All of this, for a manmade religion.
Catholics, on the other hand, have the Real Presence of Christ in every single church. The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the One True Triune God. It is unbelievable, because it is miraculous. For almost two millennia, churches attempted to provide a worthy dwelling with beautiful stained glass windows, painstakingly carved statues and breathtaking altars. The goal was to create a timeless atmosphere where Christ’s sacrifice quieted our busy minds and reached our stubborn hearts. We needed the beauty, the labor, the solemnity in the physical world to make our souls receptive. Everything pointed, or should point, to the Eucharist.
That awe and sense wonder that made us fall to our knees in silence diminishes when we decide to make the priest, not Christ, the center of attention and allow everyone to touch the Eucharist. Even the misguided Muslims understand that the one who leads the worship should first and foremost face the One that is worshipped. Centuries ago, they tapped in something we have lost recently.
The fundamental difference between a Protestant worship service and a Catholic Mass is the Eucharist. The encounter with the Divine is the ultimate end, not the side show. From the moment we enter the church, we should orient ourselves towards that encounter. The priest should fade into the background of the Eucharist, not stand out. The homily, which could be edifying, is neither essential nor indispensable. The Catholic priest is not a Protestant pastor who should have a stage presence. The priest’s power comes not from his oratorical skill but from the Holy Orders. He himself is nothing but a man, and is powerless to give us the Bread of Life without his ordination. Therefore, he should, just like everyone else, direct his worship and attention to the Lord.
Men need a God before whom he can fall to his knees. Instead of being humbled before the Creator of the Universe, we pull Him down. Incarnation is unbelievable, because the God who breathed the cosmos into existence became one of His creations. He has emptied Himself to save us, but we have neither the right nor the capacity to humble Him without exalting ourselves. When we turn to each other instead of the Lord, all we do is to put ourselves before God. We talk to the priest who has as much need of a Savior as we do. The Priest talks back to us who are at Mass to partake in the Divine, not to be patted on the back. It is a closed and barren circle.
A similar observation can be made regarding the reception of the Eucharist and the Friday abstinence. Receiving the Eucharist in the hand and leaving the Friday penance to individuals diminish their purpose. When we can touch a thing, it loses its mystery. It becomes boring and trivial. The Eucharist lost its value and centrality not long after everyone, whether worthy or not, could touch the Precious Body. It was, once again, all about us, but not God.
In the middle of a trade route, there is little doubt that early Muslims were exposed to Jews and Christians, since their customs of worship is a hodgepodge of Jewish and Catholic rituals.
The Muslims know not to touch the Quran without a physical and spiritual purification. When The Quran is read, there is absolute silence. Many a day and night, I listened to hours-long recitation with the utmost attention, even though I do not speak Arabic. How much more reverent, then, a Catholic should be when approaching the Real Presence of Christ? If I cannot touch the crown jewels in the Tower of London; or if I am offended when random people touch my pregnant belly, shouldn’t I be more careful in how I treat the Body and Blood of the Son of God?
Fasting and abstinence all but disappeared from communal practice as well. Before vegans were vegans, Christians everywhere abstained from all animal products for Lent. Reading Kristin Lavransdatter’s description of the Lenten sacrifice of the faithful makes Ramadan look positively gluttonous. Not long ago, everyone knew that Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays. It was simple and easy. Our unwavering practice even bent the market and the culture by introducing many a meat-free alternative. But when the decision was left to the individual, the practice of penance on Friday and sacrifice during Lent either vanished or diminished to giving up chocolate.
Is it any wonder that many youth do not respond to the fluffy worship and watered-down doctrine? As far as they are concerned, Catholicism does not offer anything different from the secular culture or Protestant churches. Is it any wonder that many in prison convert to Islam? In that falsehood, these men who are already compromised and detached find someone bigger and stronger than themselves, someone who would give them purpose and community, and someone that would fulfill the desire of their sinful hearts.
The human person is forever inclined to put himself in the center to become like God, but he is also forever unsatisfied by his own unworthiness. Our hearts search for the Divine. Our knees want to bend before a worthy king.
Muslims saw the Jews and the Catholics worship that inspired praying five times a day, turning to Kaaba, fasting for a month and sacrifice. They did not come up with these ideas themselves. Instead, they imitated whatever would inspire more obedience and awe among the worshipers, and then filled the gaps with paralyzing fear.
Even the Muslims get the importance of posture, prayer and penance. Why then do we shy away from making the Lord the center of our lives, not only as individuals but as a community? The allure of reverence attract so many to a false belief, how many more would flock to the One True God, if we could only muster up the courage to humble ourselves and turn to the Lord?
Raise the standard, and we will rise up to reach it.