Opinion: Mass should be more scary
At 9:55 on Sunday night, about forty pairs of slippers, flip-flops, or bare feet make their way into Welsh Family Hall’s Kateri Tekakwitha Chapel for 10 o’clock Mass. Their owners fill the nondescript yet homey room with laughter, the light buzz of conversation about the upcoming week, and the thump of song books onto cushioned chairs. The beloved Father Greg gets the girls’ attention in order to begin Mass, and the dormmates sing and pray with full heart and voice. They all hold hands during the Our Father, and they hug each one of their fellow mass-goers during the jubilant sign of peace.
I think my dorm community is beautiful, and I think it’s beautiful that we gather together to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection several times a week. I feel incomparably blessed to be able to go to a school where I can find Christ in the chapel just down the hall.
I worry, however, that I have become complacent about this weekly gift. Each Sunday, I meander down to the chapel in my pajamas at the last minute, chatting with my friends like we’re about to paint our nails together. Do I ever stop to reflect that I’m about to receive the all-powerful, ever-living Lord of heaven and earth into my body and soul? Do I ever remind myself that I am about to hold in my hands he who holds me in existence, he who marshalls the regions of the universe and one day will stand over me in judgment? Do I ever beg that he not burn me with his divine fire for presuming to receive him under my roof? The Eucharist is scary.
The Orthodox Church makes it easier to be conscious of the intensity and danger of our weekly adventure. In the Russian Orthodox Old Rite, preparation for Sunday-morning communion involves a recent confession, an hour’s worth of pre-communion prayers, attendance at a Saturday-night service, and a fast in the morning. Or perhaps it’s easiest to see the sacredness of the Eucharist from a context of unfamiliarity. In a well-worn homily anecdote, a Protestant, when first introduced to the concept of transubstantiation, exclaims: “If I believed that, I would crawl up the aisle for communion on my knees!”
Similarly, Annie Dillard, in one of her short stories, says that Mass should be as terrifying as a polar expedition or an execution.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Notre Dame tour guides brag about the familiar dorm masses and the tight-knit communities that they engender. It’s easy to feel that emotional bond when the entire chapel is united in a swell of clenched hands during the Our Father, or engulfed in a storm of peace-be-with-you hugs. Yet it’s important to remember that the unity we seek comes from our joint participation in the Body of Christ, from which our relationships with each other stem. The Catechism says that “the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion”(CCC 1382). We are united not primarily through the peace or conversation we exchange, but through the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.
In my home dorm, we stand and throng around the altar as the priest says the words of consecration. If we were more aware of what we were doing, we would kneel, or lie prostrate, or cower under our chairs like those who know that an earthquake is coming. Instead of chatting before Mass, we would beg mercy of the God poised to descend.
What could I and my fellow Notre Dame students do to be more conscious of what we do when we receive the Eucharist? We should get to Mass earlier, and spend the time before Mass praying. Before we automatically file out of our pews and cup our hands, we should carefully examine our souls, mindful of Paul’s statement that “a person should examine himself” before communion. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself”(I Cor 11:29). And we should fearfully and hopefully pray with St. John Chrysostom that God “let not the communion of Thy holy Mysteries be to my condemnation, but rather unto the cleansing and hallowing of my soul and body, and unto the acquisition of the life and kingdom to come.”
Natalie Casal is a sophomore. If you have any liturgical insights or extra flex points that you would like to offer her, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.