March 30, 2005
Communing through the Mass?
Today I found another Monk on the Blog, one Fr Matthew, a Benedictine who blogs under the name of Sodakmonk. His thoughts on their Easter Mass are worth a read and sparked a train of thought in my own mind concerning the various styles of worship I have encountered at different times and in some strange and wonderful places.
The human soul craves beauty, at least I can be sure that mine does. This is one good reason why I have difficulty understanding people who scrawl graffitti and deface or destroy things. It is also one reason why I prefer the glorious riot of sight, sound, and stimulation of all the senses in the formality of a Sung High Mass. It's like the difference between eating at MacDonald's all one's life, and then discovering haute quisine! The burgers are fine, allegedly nutricious, and taste reasonable, but they do not inspire the senses in the same way that, say, a perfectly grilled steak, with chasseur sauce, sauted mushrooms, and all the trimmings does.
Worship is food for the soul; it refreshes ones soul to be able to take part in the creation of something which stimulates the senses, sight, sound, mind and body in ways that reach deep inside you and carry you into areas of thought and self expression we seldom have time for these days. This is, in essence what Sodakmonk is saying about the role of beauty in the Mass. It provides a focus and provokes the senses. Naturally, it also needs to be appropriate to the setting and the occassion.
One of the things I have found difficult in the forty odd years since I first became committed to my Faith, is that, in many of the more Evangelical churches I have visited, the communion is a sort of ritual to be got through while avoiding any suggestion that it might have a deeper or more important meaning than being simply an occassion at which we break bread and share a cup of wine. I find the little "shot" glasses at some churches really off-putting, and the lack of reverence in disposing of the remains of the bread even more so. In some I have been served blackcurrant juice instead of wine, and that is even worse.
What is the communion all about in these places? If you aren't going to do it in the Gospel sense, then why do it at all?
Most Christians agree on the fact that it was instituted at the "Last Supper" by our Lord Himself. He took the traditional breaking of bread of fellowship and the cup and made them a special memorial of His last meal with His friends. In the process it became something much more important to us all, for it became our link directly to Him. Even across all the years between that final meal and now, even with all the accretion of rituals and non-rituals, that is its function; it links us all to those at that table, those who followed, and across the span of the years linking us to the Saints and to those whom we have known, loved, and are now separated from. That is the Communion of the Saints!
If we are to celebrate it at all, then surely we should do this to the best of our ability, sharing the beauty and the joy that flows from doing it well? We can no longer do as the early church did, incorporate it into a shared meal; our congregations are too large, for one thing, a problem the early churches faced within a hundred years of institution. That is why it became an act of worship in its own right, usually celebrated preceding a meal shared by as many as possible, even if it meant going to a number of different houses and homes. Very early, the vessels used became decorated and special, dedicated to this purpose only, and equally, the whole act was treated with great reverence. This is why it is very sad to see it celebrated badly.
Many "evangelical" Christians hold fast to celebrating the Communion whilestanding or kneeling at the North side of the "Table" and will not consider facing West or East - averring that this is "Catholic" or "standing between God and the people". To my eyes it has always looked extremely awkward and, in some instances deliberately ugly, and it is really a perpetuation of the rather odd anti-Catholic aversion expressed in the 1554 Prayer Book rubrics for the "Commemoration of the Last Supper of Our Lord". This directed that the "Table" was to be placed in the midst of the Quire, lengthwise, and the Priest or Minister to stand upon the North side. Mind you this is the rubric that also required the Minister to stand at the gate to the Quire and examine each person who wished to take the Communion as to the state of their soul and to refuse entry to any he deemed unfit or unprepared! No wonder the records of Parishes in the late 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries show communicant numbers of one's and two'! Usually the Lord of the Manor and his Lady! God forbid that any of the great unwashed should sully the Communion!
The Communion Service, when celebrated well, is a thing of beauty in its own right. Even celebrated in the bush in the heat of Africa, using a camping table as an Altar and utensils appropriate to the occassion (usually plain and simple, but still special!) it is a moving and wonderful exerience. It is,in part, the focus on the table and the elements of the Communion itself, but even more so, it is the participation of everyone present! It is the congregation of friends, families, colleagues,and acquaintances that bring the soul to a state of readiness to appreciate the plays of sunlight and shade, the blur of wings as birds share the bushes,and the buzz of insects in the grass with the sigh of the breeze in the grass and the bushes.
The Communion is special - it is the food of the soul - it is right that, in our great stone churches and even in the great Abbey Church I am so privileged to minister in, we should try to bring in the beauty and the joy, and create the inspiration for the soul.
Amen, Sodakmonk! Amen.
Posted by The Gray Monk at March 30, 2005 09:05 AM