Don’t Think…..Look! A Brief Meditation on the Sacred Liturgy

I want to give two thumbs up for good old fashioned experience, just experiencing life to its top…..just having an experience!  Too often in today’s hurried age, and also in this time of frantic 24 hour news cycles, we rush past experience to analysis. Too often we insist on knowing immediately what something “means”  and what to think about it. This rush to think and analyze often happens before the experience is even over. And, of course,  analyzing something before all the data is in leads to limited and poor analysis. Two old sayings come to mind:

  1. Don’t Think…Look! – We miss so much of life when we retreat into our brains for immediate analysis. I recently went to an art exhibit called the “Sacred Made Real” and as you walk in they hand you a thick pamphlet describing each work. This is fine I thought but before I read a word I wandered through and gazed upon each marvelous work first. Some of the works were mysterious to me, “Who was this?,” I thought. But the mystery was part of the experience. Later I went back and read on each work.  I also noticed many people buried in their little pamphlet barely looking at the actual artwork, beyond an occasional glance. Most of their time was spent reading. There were others who had headphones on which provide a better look but still fills your head with information too soon. Another variant on this saying is “Don’t Think….Listen!” So often when listening to others. They may get a few words or a sentence out and zap, our mind lights up as we think how to answer them and we miss most of the experience of what they are saying to us. 
  2. Do just do something, stand there. – In all of our activism we seldom savor life. Few people take a Sabbath rest anymore. Few eat dinner with their family. Few even know how to chill and just relax. Even many vacations are packed with activities and destinations which allow little real to actually experience what one is doing. I live near the U.S. Capitol and observe how some people are so busy taking pictures of the Capitol, I wonder if they ever really “see” or experience the Capitol.

I’d like to focus this insight of the importance of real experience on the Liturgy. And rather than give lots of discursive commentary I’d like to give some random “snapshots” and ponder our need to get back to experience more purely and simply.

  1. It’s First Communion, or perhaps a wedding. As children come down the aisle, or perhaps the bride, hundreds of cameras and cell phones are held aloft, annoying flashes go off creating a strobe effect. People scramble to get into better positions for a picture. In recent years I have had to forbid the use of cameras. The Bride and Groom  are permitted to hire a professional photographer, and we also permit one professional photographer to take pictures at First Holy Communion and Confirmation. But otherwise I instruct the assembled people that the point of the Liturgy is to worship God, to pray and to experience the Lord’s ministry to us. I insist that they put away their camera and and actually experience the Sacrament being celebrated and the mysteries unfolding before them.
  2. Some months ago I was privileged to be among the chief clergy for a Solemn High Pontifical Mass in the Old Latin Form at the Basilica here in DC. The liturgy was quite complicated to be sure. We rehearsed the day before and as the rehearsal drew to a close I said to whole crew of clergy and servers, “OK, Tomorrow during the Mass, Don’t forget to worship God!” We all laughed because it is possible to get so wrapped up in thinking what is next and what  I have to do, that we forget to pray! The next day I told God that no matter what, I was here to worship him. I am grateful that he gave me a true spirit of recollection in that Mass. I did mix up a minor detail, but in the end, I experienced God and did not forget to worship him. Success. Thank you Lord!
  3. The Mass is underway in a typical Catholic Parish. Something remarkable is about to happen, the Lord Jesus is going to speak through the Deacon who ascends the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Yes, that’s right, Jesus himself will announce the Gospel to us. As the Deacon introduces the Gospel all are standing out of respect. And 500 hundred pairs of eyes are riveted……on the Deacon? No! For many their eyes are riveted on a missalette. Half way through the  Gospel the Church swims with the sound of hundreds of people turning the page of their missalettes, one or two of them drop them in the process. Sadly, most lose the experience of the proclamation of God’s  Word with their heads buried in a missalette. They may as well have read it on their own. Some will argue that this helps them understand the reading better. But the Liturgy is meant to be experienced as a communal hearing of the Word proclaimed. And as for understanding, “Don’t think…..Listen!” Understanding and reflection comes later. In the homily the Lord will speak to us of something and give us what we need to hear and He will grant understanding. It’s all part of the “experience.”
  4. I celebrate a good number of Wedding Masses in the Old Latin Form. Some years ago a couple prepared a very elaborate booklet so that people could follow along and understand every detail of the Old Latin Mass. Of itself,  it was a valuable resource. They asked me, prior to the Mass to briefly describe the booklet and how to use it. I went ahead and did so but concluded my brief tour of the book by saying, “This is a very nice book and will surely make a great memento of today’s wedding. But if you want my advice, put it aside now and just experience a very beautiful Mass with all its mystery. If you have your head in a book you may miss it and forget to pray. Later on you can read it and study what you have experienced.”     In other words, “Don’t think….Look!”
  5. In the ancient Church the Catechumens were initiated into the “Mysteries,” (the Sacraments of Initiation) with very little prior instruction as to what would happen. They had surely been catechized in the fundamental teachings of the faith but the actual details of the celebration of the Sacraments were not disclosed. They were Sacred Mysteries and the disciplina arcanis (the discipline of the secret) was observed. Hence they simply experienced these things and where instructed as to their deeper meaning in the weeks that followed in a process known as mystagogia. Hence, experience preceded analysis, understanding and learning. And the very grace of the experience and the Sacraments provided the foundation for that understanding.

Well, I realize that this post will not be without some controversy. Let me be clear about one point, Catechesis is important but so is experience. And if we rush to analyze and decode everything we miss a lot. I have taught on the liturgy extensively in this blog (here: ) and will continue to do so. There is a time to do so, but there is also a  time just to be still and experience what God is actually doing in every liturgy, indeed, in every moment of our life.

Two thumbs up and three cheers for experience.

I realize that some further distinctions out to be made but I want to leave that for you who comment. Have at it.

30 Replies to “Don’t Think…..Look! A Brief Meditation on the Sacred Liturgy”

  1. Yes, Yes, and Yes! What I tend to do is study before and after the experience. For me, the Rite of Acceptance remains one of the most powerful rites … to have each of my senses blessed and to know what they are for, not one bit of it was diminished by reading about it beforehand. I am often moved to tears in Church as we pray the Communion prayers and am terribly embarrassed but if I cannot come to my Lord as I am, naked and vulnerable and open, then I might as well not come. This is why I find covering myself fully to be such a gift.

    Thank you for a most lovely reminder to “be still and know that I am God.”

  2. your post put me in mind of this poem:

    What is this life if full of care
    We have no time to stand and stare?
    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep, or cows.
    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.
    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.
    A poor life this, if full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    William Henry Davies 1871 – 1940

  3. On point 3…

    Sorry, no. I’ve tried this and just can’t do it. If I don’t have the text of the readings in front of me, it’s almost impossible for me to hear them—they’re almost just random words. (And, yes, I know that some big names—eg, Guardini—strongly recommend listening to the readings rather than reading along with them.)

    I do follow along with the readings on my ipod, rather than the missalette, thus avoiding the communal page-flip, but introducing the question on the part of the priest of whether I’m checking my email during the Gospel. 🙂

    1. Yes, I realize that some folks are going to be very opposed to # 3. Yes, too, it takes time for folks to adjust to seeing others use new technology in new ways!

      1. I totally understand your problem, and experience the same difficulty. One solution I try to use is to read the readings before Mass, and pray on them. This leads to kind of a triple experience of the Liturgy of the Word- once on my own with my own thoughts and reflections, once proclaimed, and a third time as explained in the homily.

    2. For me, the missal helps me to stay focused on the words and prayers. Following the readings, and even the Eucharistic Prayer sometimes, has helped me focus on the liturgy I’m experiencing instead of planning the next several hours or replaying part of my day.

    3. I forgot my Missal yesterday and, so, had to just listen. Listening to the Gospel was fine, because Fr. read it clearly, but I lost a lot of the First Reading and the Responsorial Psalm because the woman who did the readings swallowed some words and did not project her words well. Even with a microphone, if people speak back in their throat or through their noses, their words will not be clear.

      And no, it’s not as if I was reading it on my own. I follow the words as they are being said – which helps them to penetrate by brain!

      1. Maybe this will help? Clearly everyone posting here has internet access? The readings for the day can be accessed at any time before or after Mass at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website:

  4. I just sit and listen too and people look at me like I’m dumb or something (can she read?).

    Last Sunday at our parish, which is run by Dominicans, it was the Solemnity of St. Dominic. Even though an announcement was made that the readings would be different because of this, many people were rustling their missals and looking dismayed.

    We need to slow down to medieval speed in church. I learned this at a recent retreat on lectio divina. I discovered that the reason I had been spinning my wheels was that I had been reading for content as do modern people in a technological society. Since then I have been reading the Bible in Latin (any foreign language was suggested, just to slow us down) and it is going much better. Oh, now I get it about having a liturgical language! (that little light bulb over my head is going zzt zzt zzt…).

    I am also hard of hearing and just listening can be a chore but I figure if God wants me to hear it, He will see to it that I at least understand a few words that are necessary for me to hear.

    We can always read the readings beforehand too.

    I loved this article today. Sorry to ramble. Me go now…

      1. Loved Ohio Annie’s comments because they remind me of a modern paradox. We’ve made virtually every kind of work (gathering, refining, manufacturing, distributing…) so much more productive and efficient and seem to have less time as we progress. How many of us buy ready made meals instead of cooking from scratch; purchase socks instead of knitting; cut with an electric circular saw instead of one powered by a good old armstrong motor; etc. etc. All because there just isn’t the time we had back when grain was cut by hand and carried to a horse drawn wagon instead of pouring out of a combine in massive volume. And now Msgr. Pope reminds us to take the time to experience the liturgy. Bravo to him for that.

  5. This is interesting as I have been in parishes that had missals and those that didn’t have them. I think I prefer to read along with the reader actually. I think this better imprints the words in my mind and I can better remember their context later. Also, when the sermon is being given, if I want to look back at the missal for a quick reference, there it is!

  6. It isn’t via the missalette or bulletin that I’ve missed the proclamation of God’s word…

    “Mommy I want a drink of water”
    “Mommy I need to go to the bathroom”
    *tap thunk tap thunk* (from swinging her foot against the pew)
    “Mommy do I get to light a candle after Mass?”
    *scribble scribble scribble scribble*
    “Mommy how does the next song go?”

    “Mommy HOW MUCH LONGER is he going to talk because I’m HUNGRY”

    1. My favorite is right before the homily: “Daddy, tell Fr. Bechtel to stop talking. He talks too much and I’m bored.”

  7. As a lector, I prepare myself days in advance, but I discovered, that I was so caught up into perfection that I never stopped to understand the message that God is using me to proclaim, by the weekend, I have discovered some time back, that my focus as a lector was reading, reading practicing and perfecting and after I finish proclaiming communion I could not recall what I read. Now, I am reading, listening, perfecting, and listen an when I read now, when im on the alter proclaiming, I now I now I can really experience what I am proclaiming. Its the same when reading the bible, if I just read, read, read and do not stop listen and ponder, the next night I end up reading the same chapter and not realizing it until the end. I agree, the missal is a handicap for me, I really want to experience Jesus in the lituragy! So lets Launch! the Missal. That’s a Go for me!

  8. I try to “just listen” to the Gospel readings, but I find the Responsorial Psalms nearly impossible without the written text. Also, I have to admit that I sometimes find it interesting to contrast the readings as contained in the missalette with the form being read from the Lectionary.

    As an aside, there is no excuse for the lectors not knowing how to pronounce words, particularly when the Passion is being read. I’ve heard “Golgotha” and “Sanhedrin” thoroughly butchered, not to mention the verb “prophesy” being pronounced as the noun “prophecy”.

    1. Fortunately the cantor who usually serves at the Mass we attend is very good, and has excellent diction.

      Otherwise, without the written text one would think that all Psalm responses were along the lines of “the mmpsh and blah mpthth Lord”

  9. We try (don’t always succeed) to get to Mass about 5 minutes before the scheduled time. This allows time to look at the readings (at least on Sunday, when they are printed in the missalette);
    If I have reviewed the readings BEFORE mass starts, I find it much easier to just listen when the Word is being read. Most of the time, it is read, not proclaimed.
    Yesterday’s Gospel (Thursday, Aug. 12) was about forgiveness – the servant who was forgiven a huge debt (sixty thousand years’ at the minimum wage) – who refused to forgive his fellow servant a debt of fifty days at the minimum wage. As one gets older, all gospel readings do become familiar. But the lector sort of rushed the last portion of the reading from Ezekiel, so I got little from that.
    Thanks for your columns. They provide good material for reflection.

  10. You are so right Msgr. I know the parts of the Mass inside out (I’m not young). And it is indeed important to listen. Now that I can catch a Latin Mass ever so often (especially via EWTN), I am amazed how I can breeze through it without a dual missal. I should not say I amaze myself, rather I don’t understand how people my age have forgotten and want no part of it. Yes, I spotted you at the Basilica. It was a wonderful experience to watch this Pontifical Mass.

  11. Thanks for this. Watching and listening more at the Latin mass, but with bad hearing and wandering attention, sometimes I read, watch, listen, then read again!

    My favorite mom quote: “Mommy, which one is God?”

  12. Thank you Monsingor for this lovely peice. I am sure it will help my journey from “head to heart”. I guess it is not only the question of readings, but also looking at the Altar during the liturgy – especially Offeretory and Eucharistic rite – we let the rich and profound symbolism “speak” to our hearts intutively. We miss all that, with a head buried in the book! It is precisely for this reason the Holy Father reccomends all decorative accessories (candles, flowers etc) may not be installed on the Altar, but around it.

  13. For CornerStone:
    Agree with you absolutely, however I’m not so sure the Holy Father is against candles on the altar.
    Every priest doing his daily Mass in private has a lit candle on the table. All Latin Masses I go to or see on TV have candles on the altar.

  14. In order to illustrate a point I will be a little bold in paraphrasing to, don’t think…feel! I found that uncomfortable thoughts were much easier to bear than uncomfortable feelings and gradually shifted my focus from thoughts to feeling because it was safer. Then it became too safe. Sometimes the discomfort had nothing to do with harm or risk but, was only due to something new being so unfamiliar. By not feeling this discomfort I missed out on many wondrous (and possibly miraculous) experiences. Then about 7 1/2 years ago counsellor told me; “feel your feelings, nobody died of a feeling.” When acting on this advice I occasionally thought I would prove her wrong by dying of some feelings but, I survived. A few months ago I began a committment to a daily observance of the rosary and have learned to set aside my thoughts in order to experience the feelings which I experience. This makes me so grateful to the counsellor. God gave me the gift of an intellect to be used but, not abused. I can use or abuse abilities to think, to look and to feel. The appropriate time and place can be found by seeking His guidance and being receptive to what He offers in many ways, including ‘blogs like this. I have so much to be grateful to God.

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