Saturday, June 12, 2010

How to Pray the Mass: Part 1, The Attitude of Stillness


WHEN Holy Mass is properly celebrated there are moments in which the voices of both priest and faithful become silent. The priest continues to officiate as the rubrics indicate, speaking very softly or refraining from vocal prayer; the congregation follows in watchful, prayerful participation.[1] What do these intervals of quiet signify? What must we do with them? What does stillness really imply?

It implies above all that speech end and silence prevail, that no other sounds of movements, of turning pages, of coughing and throat-clearing be audible. There is no need to exaggerate. Men live, and living things move; a forced outward conformity is no better than restlessness. Nevertheless, stillness is still, and it comes only if seriously desired. If we value it, it brings us joy; if not, discomfort. People are often heard to say: "But I can't help coughing" or "I can't kneel quietly"; yet once stirred by a concert or lecture they forget all about coughing and fidgeting. That stillness proper to the most beautiful things in existence dominates, a quiet area of attentiveness in which the beautiful and truly important reign. We must earnestly desire stillness and be willing to give something for it; then it will be ours. Once we have experienced it, we will be astounded that we were able to live without it.

Moreover, stillness must not be superficial, as it is when there is neither speaking nor squirming; our thoughts, our feelings, our hearts must also find repose. Then genuine stillness permeates us, spreading ever deeper through the seemingly plumbless world within.

Once we try to achieve such profound stillness, we realize that it cannot be accomplished all at once. The mere desire for it is not enough; we must practice it. The minutes before Holy Mass are best; but in order to have them for genuine preparation we must arrive early. They are not a time for gazing or day-dreaming or for unnecessary thumbing of pages, but for inwardly collecting and calming ourselves.[2] It would be still better to begin on our way to church. After all, we are going to a sacred celebration. Why not let the way there be an exercise in composure, a kind of overture to what is to come? I would even suggest that preparation for holy stillness really begins the day before. Liturgically, Saturday evening already belongs to the Sunday. If for instance, after suitable reading we were to collect ourselves for a brief period of composure, its effects the next day would be evident.

Thus far we have discussed stillness negatively: no speech, no sound. But it is much more than the absence of these, a mere gap, as it were, between words and sounds: stillness itself is something positive. Of course we must be able to appreciate it as such. There is sometimes a pause in the midst of a lecture or a service or some public function. Almost invariably someone promptly coughs or clears his throat. He is experiencing stillness as a breach in the unwinding road of speech and sound, which he attempts to fill with something, anything. For him the stillness was only a lacuna, a void which gave him a sense of disorder and discomfort. Actually, it is something rich and brimming.

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being "all there," receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.

Attentiveness that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God.

What then is a church? It is, to be sure, a building having walls, pillars, space. But these express only part of the word "church," its shell. When we say that Holy Mass is celebrated "in church," we are including something more, the congregation. "Congregation," not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual "space" around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary. It is important to understand this. Church buildings may be lost or destroyed; then everything depends on whether or not the faithful are capable of forming congregations that erect indestructible "churches" wherever they happen to find themselves, no matter how poor or dreary their quarters. We must learn and practice the art of constructing spiritual cathedrals.

We cannot take stillness too seriously. Not for nothing do these reflections on the liturgy open with it. If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain. Our understanding of stillness is nothing strange or aesthetic. Were we to approach stillness on the level of aesthetics of mere withdrawal into the ego we should spoil everything. What we are striving for is something very grave, very important, and unfortunately sorely neglected; the prerequisite of the liturgical holy act.

1. At this point attention must be drawn to a subject which, though only indirectly related to this chapter, is nevertheless essential to the book as a whole. We mentioned moments of stillness in the continuity of the sacred action; hence the question automatically arises: when do such moments come into being? There are many forms of the liturgy, but we are discussing this question in relation to one particular form: to the spoken (rather than the sung) Mass. But even the spoken Mass has several forms. Thus when we say that at a certain moment there is silence, this is meant as a suggestion as to how such a Mass should be celebrated, and it should be accepted as such, even though it is impossible in a limited space to present the reasons behind the suggestion, which must be left to a future opportunity.

First of all, the opening prayer at the foot of the altar should be prayed silently. In the recited Mass it is usually spoken aloud by the priest and congregation. There are certain advantages to this, but when the practice continues over a long period of time, disadvantages become apparent. Strictly speaking, the prayer at the foot of the altar does not really belong to the Mass at all; it is the priest's personal preparation and formerly was prayed in the sacristy. Its significance seems clearest when it is prayed in genuine silence. A similar silence should also fill the brief interval between each oremus and the formal prayer which follows; there should be a real pause, in which everyone present places his intentions before God, to be gathered up by the priest in the oratio. The Offertory, too, should take place in the profoundest possible stillness. Essentially it is a preparation for the sacred meal and hence should keep in the background. This is mostly simply effected by allowing silence to reign from the Offertory to the Preface, also in the moments after the Agnus Dei and during Communion. Finally, the Last Gospel is similarly best read silently. After the "Ite, Missa est" and blessing, the sacred action is essentially over. The prologue to St. John's Gospel was added later, for more or less incidental historical reasons.

This order shifts in the sung Mass: likewise in the High Mass, in which certain texts are sung by the choir. We cannot go into the question of when silence is best here; but in the sung Mass, too, periods of stillness are an absolute necessity. Lengthy, unbroken singing is objectionable, as is continuous organ music, which drives stillness from its last possible refuge. In the course of these meditations we shall see that the periods of silence are not mere interruptions of speech and song, but something essential to the sacred act as a whole and almost as important as the periods of speech.

2. The importance of stillness can hardly be exaggerated. In my book, Wille und Wahrheit (Mainz, 1938), I attempted to show its significance for our religious life and for all personal existence, as well as to suggest how it may be attained. The book also contains other passages relevant to these meditations.


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