I was reading my dad’s Civil War Times Illustrated the other day. It’s an excellent magazine that’s been around just about forever, and suits both scholarly and amateur tastes. They usually include excerpts from at least one Civil War diary every issue. In the issue I was reading, they had the journal of a Chicago minister. He seemed like a pretty good guy, but I don’t know why he visited other churches. He never liked them. Some were laughably emotional, some were too serious, and the Catholic Church he went to was full of empty ritual and had nothing of God. (Though he was apparently okay with the music, which took hits in most of his church service reviews.)
When you’re Catholic, you hear this criticism a lot: we are a church of empty ritual and tradition that keeps people from achieving a one-on-one relationship with God. The problem is that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on. You can literally hear the swoosh as the whole Mass goes right over the outsider’s head. To be fair, though, there are a lot of Catholics who miss this too, since it often seems so obvious to teachers and parents that nobody really explains it out loud. Since this assumption often makes the unclued turn into ex-Catholics and prevents non-Catholics from seeing the Church as it is, I really think more needs to be said.
First off, when it comes to worship or any kind of public business, I have to say I’m in favor of as much of that supposedly “empty” ritual as possible. It’s annoying when people make up something new every week, because you end up paying attention to the good and bad bits of the framework rather than what’s actually going on. Like most kids who went through the boredom of ever-changing liturgy in the name of Vatican II, I appreciate the virtues of finding something that works and sticking to it.
(In my opinion, ritual should be just absorbing enough to draw people in and keep the kids quiet, without being so overwhelming as to demand catharsis every week. I am suspicious of continual catharsis and emotionalism. It suggests that there’s no place in religion for brainwork. Moreover, it turns off the half of the audience that doesn’t see the world solely through their emotions. (And no, this isn’t a male/female thing. There are plenty of emotional guys and intellectual women, thank you.) I am equally suspicious of getting rid of all emotion, since we aren’t computers. Whenever people fool around with the liturgy or any normal ritual, they’re usually turning up the dials on one while ignoring the other. This is always painfully lame. When I add that new speeches and responses designed to be fresh and free of cliche always are beyond their freshness date by that very intention, you may begin to realize why my opinion of these needless innovations usually is not high.)
The purpose of ritual of any kind is to give people a script, draw them together into a common framework, and thus free their minds from outside distractions. Wipe your shoes off at the front door, take said shoes off, hug the relatives inside, and you are home. The rest of the world is outside the ritual; you need only pay attention to what’s inside it. Do you really care that the hugs are much the same as all the hugs you’ve given those relatives before? No, of course not. If you want, you can make minor variations — squeezing harder, kissing cheeks, telling kids how much they’ve grown. But the basic script is the same. It will be slightly different in every family on the block — maybe a lot different in families with a different ethnic background from mine. But within each family, it will be the more or less the same from year to year. Over long spans of time – say, fifty or a hundred years — the tiny cumulative changes may cause large differences. But everybody involved will still know the script. The only time things become really original is when the family is joined by members with very different family customs (in which case they usually try their best to follow others’ lead), or when the family suffers a feud or breakdown so harsh that the normal script is ignored. Even then, most people feel that they can at least follow the script at the beginning. It may seem hypocritical, but not following the script is often seen as a worse and more deliberate offense than whatever has folks torqued off in the first place. People need that continuity of family identity encapsulated in the script, especially when grief or anger is tearing the family apart. To reject the script is to reject the family itself.
So tampering with any ritual too violently is pretty much bound to torque many people off, and even more so when it comes to religious rituals. There are a zillion versions of the Rosary and all Catholics have free choice to pray one or not. It’s just one way to pray privately. But when the Pope announced his support of a fourth set of Rosary mysteries (events in the lives of Jesus, Mary and the Church upon which one meditates while saying the Rosary prayers), I was just one of the many who became upset. It wasn’t a bad idea to have more overtly Christ-centered mysteries; a lot of folks had proposed similar things, and the “Luminous Mysteries” the Pope instituted had been tried and tested for many years. But it was tampering with a dozen other things. I can remember when I was tiny that my mother showed me the sets of rosary beads that would belong to my brothers and I when we were old enough, as she talked wistfully of Sister Mary Herman who’d made them — the dead great-aunt I’d never met. I remember kneeling in childhood at my bedside, and staying up all night as a teenager in frantic pleas to escape the suicidal darkness in my soul. The instinctive response when someone suggests a change to something already working fine for you, with a hundred good associations for you, is that you feel the person’s saying all of those memories and prayers and help from God weren’t good enough. It wasn’t what the Pope was saying, of course, and his well-known love of the Rosary was the impetus for the change. So people dealt with it, and some folks are getting very attached to the Luminous Mysteries. But nobody can get attached to something that changes all the time.
So what was I doing when I prayed the Rosary, anyway? If you were watching me, maybe you’d think I was just mouthing and mumbling empty strings of Hail Marys, with an occasional Our Father and Glory Be thrown in to escape the tedium. But what I was really doing was using those strings of prayers known by heart and repeated over and over to stop my thoughts from rattling along their normal rut. With my body bent in prayer, my fingers occupied with beads, and my lips moving in a task not requiring much conscious direction, I could finally pay attention to God.
But there are always times when you can’t concentrate on prayer. When that happens, I can use ritual as a crutch until I’m in a better frame of mind. If I can’t think of my own words, at least I’ve got the old familiar ones to fall back on. If all I accomplish while saying the Rosary is to say so many Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Bes…well, at least I’ve done that. It shows willing, as they say.
So if a Catholic can get so much out of a little popular devotion like the Rosary, imagine the riches to be found in the Jesus-instituted ritual of the Mass! There are small changes for each liturgical season and for certain other occasions, and a different set of readings for every day in the year — three years’ worth, in fact. There is a different homily, of course, and different hymns too. But these variations are designed simply to point up the inexhaustible wealth of meaning and grace in the Eucharist itself. The massgoer who is paying attention finds God speaking in painfully personal ways through the impersonal words of ritual. Common gestures, responses and body movements invite individual meditation. Common gestures, responses and body movements invite individual meditation on God’s Word and one’s own life. Then each person individually is called to the foot of the altar, not just to see God face to face but to take Him in!
If this is empty ritual, how can mere humans bear what is full?