Don’t Think….Look!

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. A couple of years 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.