Worthy Celebration

Some say that there is a special poignancy to praying the Office of Readings in the small hours of the night. I haven’t tried that often, though I did once visit a Cistercian monastery and joined the monks for 3 am prayer. Did it enhance my experience of prayer? No.

I guess for the typical human being, where praying is as much about the emotional side as the rational side, there is a daily rhythm which shapes the emotions and affects the way praying is received. That doesn’t work for me.

A monastery is the acme of liturgical prayer, a community designed to prioritise the worthy celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, day in, day out. For the likes of us secular clergy, we don’t have the luxury of a day relatively free of apostolic work, or a community to chant the Office with us.

Cardinal Sarah has been in the news recently for his quotes on not using an electronic device to pray the Divine Office and not taking photos of the liturgy. I can see what he is getting it. What would be the most perfect way to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy? It would be to perform the prayers with serene recollection from a worthy book set apart for this function alone.

But… saints have been added to the calendar since my breviary was printed. When I prayed the office of the Korean Martyrs on 20 September, I prayed the psalms from my breviary, but found the Proper Second Reading on my iPhone. One of my altar Missals is annotated in pen to remind me to mention St Joseph in the Eucharistic Prayers. Another has the Proper of St John Paul II glued into a blank page. The most perfect way of celebrating the liturgy would be with newly updated volumes, but these do not exist; so I am forced to choose between two kinds of perfection – production quality or completeness of content.

I do recognise that there is something lacking in using an electronic device for prayer – only a few weeks ago I made a conscious decision to use my breviary book more often in preference to the electronic options available, knowing that the electronic glow does create a different “feel”. But there are also times on dark evenings when a self-illuminating tablet disrupts the atmosphere of my chapel less than the impact of putting on the electric light to read from a book. And I often switch to “flight mode” during prayer lest I am distracted by incoming messages.

There are days when I race through one or more hours of the Divine Office because I am trying to squeeze it in between pastoral duties. If I were free to choose, I wouldn’t pray that way; but once I have committed myself to the needs of my parishioners and the activities of my diocese, I do not have total freedom – I am beholden to needs and demands not of my own making. The Gospels make it clear that I honour God less by neglecting the needs of others to pray more fully, when I have an opportunity to attend to the present needs of persons in distress. This also means there is a trade-off between attending to God in the liturgy, and serving God in my neighbour. My ordination vows to pray five rounds of the Divine Office each day were made prior to me entering any pastoral context where those rounds must be accommodated to ministry not entirely under my control.

Must every liturgy aim at “maximum worthiness”? I recognise that there are “protocol occasions” when every gesture must be carefully calibrated, when we mean to communicate something to God and to the congregation present by ensuring that every hierarch processes in the proper order, every saint takes their chronological place in a litany, and each vestment belongs to a matching set. Yet a loving couple will dress in their finest for a black tie dinner while being comfortable slobbing casually in each other’s company for the exact some reason – the love between them. Are there not times when the love that flows between God and us makes it just as appropriate to pray very casually as it does to use liturgical bells and whistles?

I will also plead guilty – sorry, Cardinal Sarah – to sometimes taking photos while concelebrating on a sanctuary. I never use a flash, and I keep my camera discreetly hidden until I need to use it. I only do so at ‘low’ times in the Mass, perhaps when a new priest is receiving his vestments, not when I am meant to be speaking words of concelebration.  Why do I do so at all? Sometimes my position gives my a unique vantage point which enables me to get a shot of a key moment. That photo is intended to be used for evangelisation, promoting the work of the church – not for the satisfaction of my own personal photo album. So I do this out of love for God who commands me to share the Gospel, as well as love for my neighbour who will be enhanced by recieving it.

Cardinal Sarah argues that the purpose of the liturgy is for me to engage in an intense listening to God, demanding my undivided attention. I don’t know how that works for typical human beings, but I know that for me, as an Aspie, I don’t usually sense God speaking to me during liturgy. And on those rare moments when I believe God has inspired a thought, it’s usually about the content of some upcoming sermon or personal dilemma, which needs to be set down in writing as soon as that particular liturgy is over.

For me, going to liturgy is rather like being the paralysed man at the pool of Bethzatha – maybe someone receives a touch of God’s presence, but it’s not me. I haven’t quite been a Catholic for 38 years, but it’s coming close!

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