Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! A Brief Consideration of the Importance of Experience

121014I 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 24×7 news, we rush past experience right 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 facts are in leads to limited, often 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.” As you walk in, you are handed a thick pamphlet describing each of the works. This is fine, I thought, but before I read a word I wandered through and gazed upon each marvelous work. Some of the works were mysterious to me: “Who was this?” I thought. But the mystery was part of the experience. Only later did I go back and read about each work. I also noticed many people buried in their little pamphlets 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 allows 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, we pick up a few words or a sentence and then zap!—our mind lights up as we start thinking about how we’re going to answer them and we miss most of what they are saying to us.
  2. Don’t just do something, stand there. – With all of our activism, we seldom savor life. Few people take a Sabbath rest anymore. Few eat dinner with their families. Few even know how to chill and just relax. Even vacations are often packed so full of activities and destinations that there is little time to actually experience what one is doing. I live near the U.S. Capitol, and observing how some people are so busy taking pictures of it, I wonder if they ever really see or experience the Capitol.

Even in the sacred liturgy we get things wrong today. Consider the following:

  1. It’s a First Holy Communion or perhaps a wedding. As the children come down the aisle, or perhaps the bride, dozens 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. For a wedding, the bride and groom are permitted to hire a professional photographer. For First Holy Communion and Confirmation, we permit one professional photographer to take pictures for the entire group. 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 cameras and actually experience the Sacrament being celebrated and the mysteries unfolding before them.
  2. A few 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 D.C. 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 about what is next, and about 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 at 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 five hundred pairs of eyes are riveted … on the deacon? No! Many eyes are in fact riveted on the missalette. Halfway through the Gospel, the Church is filled with the sound of hundreds of people turning the pages of their missalettes (with one or two dropping 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. I know, 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.
  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 if, prior to Mass, I would 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 were 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 ( and will continue to do so. There is a time to study and learn, 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 lives.

Two thumbs up and three cheers for experience.

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

25 Replies to “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! A Brief Consideration of the Importance of Experience”

  1. I love this post, Monsignor Pope. Thank you for protecting, enlightening, and guiding us.

  2. I fear that one has to be of a certain age to be able to appreciate stillness and thought. I had joined a parish last summer. I was gone in a month. They printed out a program for each Sunday liturgy. The Mass, to me, became one loud rustling sound. People were not reciting the Creed, they were reading it. People weren’t listening to the word of God, they were following along and………… turn……………. Oh my. I got so frustrated, I left. I go there now and again and it still makes me crazy.
    When I go to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I want stillness. I want to enter into the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus. I do not look at the priest except during the homily and the consecration. He is leading me to God, bringing God to me, but he is not the focus, it is Jesus. Always sit in the first pew, I know others are sharing this with me, but I am not distracted by them and I know that if I can’t see them, they cannot see me. 🙂

    1. Contemplation is a cultivated art, but I think art, both visual and musical, can affect all ages. See my comment below.

  3. I agree with Anna Msgr. Pope. Thank you for this very absorbing reminder.In the Latin Rite, we learned our responses during Mass, but we were instructed to put our Missals down during the Mass and pray, feeling and spiritually preparing ourselves to receive the true Body and blood of our Lord. During the Gospel Readings, we were taught to listen attentively so we could learn.

    We have forgotten, in our culture that God is found in the silent spaces of our hearts.

  4. Thank you for revealing the truth of how the complicated procedure or rubrics of the “Old Latin Form” of the Mass can get in the way of true worship. All politics aside, this is one reason why I respect and appreciate the Ordinary Form of the Sacrifice of the Mass, which, in the context of its purpose according to the will of the Holy Spirit through the acts of Vatican II, is a true gift.

    As for people reading the Gospel while the deacon reads…have to side with those who do not hear well; they need to see the words, too. But the deacon should be very well prepared to read correctly and clearly in the spirit of the Lord.

    A problem we have in the Church often is that priests and deacons, after years of service, and under strain of workload (or stress which comes with lack of workload) may lose their ability to celebrate the Mass in reverence and deep prayer. This adversely affects the lay faithful who are subjected to this situation. We need to work to help our priests and deacons retain that sense of true reverence consistently ( a task for them and their bishops) and a task for the lay faithful as well.

    1. Taylor, Hope that you are well.

      I disagree with your points.Last week you were worried that you were being targeted for not having children and this was the Priests fault. This week it’s the Priests fault again for the acoustics in the church and he should consider the people that can’t hear. To me everything that you post is sadly the Priests fault!

      The people that I know with hearing aids either sit at the front or read the Gospel before they attend mass so that they have a comprehension of what is going to be said (fact). Having taken an elderly woman to mass on a regular basis who has a hearing aid she sits at the front of the Church is 92 years old and understands our Priest so that sort of defeats your attitude towards those that can’t hear.

      I’m English 42 and I’m not a fluent French speaker but some how understand the homilies of our Priest, maybe dare I say it! The Holy Spirit is doing what he should be doing which is allowing the heart to be open to any language.

      Our Priest recently said that our faith which is the the one true faith btw of the Roman Catholic Church is not a faith of the book and the book type method is for the protestants and the rest of the fractured Christ based faiths.

      Msgr Charles Pope has a very valid point in his article because in France there are many people without hearing aids sitting in the mass staring at their Magnificat.

      Thank you Msgr Charles Pope for your efforts in trying explain what mass should be.

      1. Thank you Monsignor for helping us towards being able to listen to that small quiet voice inside ourselves, the one that tells us (we just don’t listen!) that we need to be still and listen. It is SO hard to do. Every time we get reminder’s like the ones we get from you it helps. Thank you for all your pastoral care and consideration, and all those who try in this effort.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly. Experience is secondary to the recording and sharing of experience for many – acts that, ironically, degrade the very experience people record and share.

    Two practices that work for me: sometimes I deliberately don’t sing a hymn, and just listen to others doing so. And, after my communion prayers, I like to watch the rest of the faithful receive the Eucharist, and give thanks for the broad family God has gathered that day – young and old, beautifully dressed and bedraggled, smiling and troubled, and so on.

  6. I saw that exhibit when I was in DC a number of years ago – very fine Spanish depictions of Christ and various Saints. They seems out of place in a museum rather than a Church but I appreciated them and they were respectfully presented. Definately a show for Advent or Lent.

  7. My parish church is famous in the diocese for having the most beautiful art, unchanged since the 1890s—it’s the goto place for weddings. The church style was typical of the Catholic design in New England at the time. German Romanesque building with Baroque revival art. Every square foot of the wall space contains either stained glass statues, frescos, or oil paintings. There are about 20 large windows and 20 full-size statues that stand above the nave. The stations of the cross are oil painting that measure 3 x 5. There are about 30 Frescos range in size from 10 x 12, down to 5 x 6.

    I have been an usher in my parish church for about 15 years. Standing at the back during the high chanted/polyphany Mass, and notice the body language when newcomers walk in. It’s not easy to miss the reactions: the stares, sometimes for minutes, almost gawking; some people gasp, this is especially true if the sun is not obscured by clouds, since the stained glass projects and extraordinary array of colors.

    Just last Sunday there was a teenage girl who sat with her mother toward the back, and was staring for maybe five minutes—completely transfixed by the visual art; the window that captured her the longest was Jesus preaching to the elders in the Temple (you must be thinking that I dont pray very much ;o). It’s curious that the youth seem more impressed by the visual art, than by the music (admittedly its hard to know without speaking with them and just guessing by their body language) but the traditional chants/polyphany seem to affect them somewhat less. The babies are differential they divert their attention when the chant or polyphony is playing, and they seem to cry less. As I think of it, the infants react more to the music, and less to the visuals.

  8. Msgr. Charles
    The Liturgy can be celebrated worthily if we are still enough, and at peace enough, and humble enough to focus on worshiping God who deserves all our love and attention.

    The Son of Man gave us an example that we are to emulate: He came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45). We are the ones who need to receive His service. First we receive. Then if we have worthily received, then we are made ready to give what we have.

    To serve worthily, in His name, we must first listen to Him and then to act on what He says and does (Ja 1:22). We learn by paying attention to the Lord, by listening to Him, by watching what we see Him doing, by believing all He says and does, and finally by acting on – carrying out what we hear and understand. All this happens because Liturgy has its rightful place of priority and each one has their rightful place or role.

    Yes Msgr. Charles, we are to love and worship God first and above all in Liturgy. We are not to insert others or ourselves in God’s place. Jesus says that if He finds us with eyes focused on Him – watching and waiting – then truly, He will have us recline at His table and He will be the one who waits upon us (Lk 12:37). Let us be still in order to know who God is (Ps 46:10)!

  9. Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand
    ponder nothing earthly minded for with blessing in his hand
    Christ our God to Earth descended our full homage to demand.

  10. All the hoopla that goes on at weddings, Communions, before and after Mass, etc. is a superficial understanding and ignorance of the faith. No longer do people reverence the Sacraments, even after having received Holy Communion. How many people realize that they are still in the Holy of Holies after Mass and should quake with a holy silence in the presence of Our Loving Savior? How many people realize that the Lord is still physically present within them for at least 15 minutes after the reception of Holy Communion? How many people are capable of looking directly at the Sun and not having their retinas permanently damaged, yet don’t think twice about blaspheming the Lord of Heaven and Earth with garrulous, disrepectful behavior in Church? Lastly, how come it’s quieter in a library than it is in a Church today?

  11. I used to make the mistake of taking pictures during Latin Mass & when I gone on pilgrimages because the Liturgy & the Churches were so beautiful. Then I saw my grave error of not experiencing the beauty itself & merely busy making records of it. I am intending to not take many pictures but really look around & pray during my pilgrimage to Europe next year. Thanks Msgr. Pope for your enlightening posts always. May God continue to bless your ministry!

  12. Father, Many of us in the pews are over 50 and now have hearing losses. I read the Gospel, so i will understand it, since I’m not going to be able to actually hear some of it . I listen attentively to the homily and hope to hear as much as possible. The church i attend on weekdays here in DC has terrible acoustics. And yes I have hearing aids, but I probably listened to way too much very loud music in my youth, and am now paying the price. On the plus side I don’t hear the rustling of pages at all. Elizabeth

    1. I Knew this would cause dismay. Maybe I should have left it out. Nolite timere 🙂

      Advice to all: take what you like and leave the rest. This is NOT that big a deal. I am just using it as an example among many others.

      Use the missalette device if needs be, but just accept the invitation to consider that it might hinder rather than help in some cases a richer experience of liturgy. Liturgically the “Word of the Lord” for which we give thanks is not black marks on a page. It is what is proclaimed and goes forth. Otherwise the clergy might just direct that everyone take up their books and read silently for about ten minutes prior to the homily. Thats all. Do what you please, there is no law against staring at a newsprint version of the proclaimed word. But liturgically the liturgy of the word is meant to be a proclaimed and heard event. Sadly as you point out, not all lectors are trained well, and the ranks are seldom thinned of inadequate readers. Further, sound systems are often a problem. SO I got that, I PROMISE, I got that. No need to make a case for why I am wrong in your case. I propose a general rule. I am not your judge in your case. And no one needs to justify themselves to others in this case. I am just offering something to think about.

  13. “When we really let our minds rest on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by a dreamless sleep… It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together.” -Josef Pieper

  14. Thank you Monsignor. You always have good advice. Having gone to the Latin Mass for forty years now I know the ordinary by heart, or almost so. But I forget to be still. I rarely use a missal. It should be read before Mass. I would like to make one point and it is for priests or deacons. When they read the Gospel it should not be read as a narrative but as if the reader is right there. Inflection, tone, read questions like really questioning. Read slowly with proper pausing. MAKE IT REAL.

  15. “So often when listening to others, we pick up a few words or a sentence and then zap!—our mind lights up as we start thinking about how we’re going to answer them and we miss most of what they are saying to us”–I’ve done that when reading this blog.

  16. Msgr. Charles
    We see the difference between the intellectualized ways in which we respond to God’s mysteries when compared with the stillness of heart of the Virgin Mother who ponders these mysteries in her heart. It takes humility. She is the most humble of God’s children. “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” – Lk. 2:19.

    Even the response of the shepherds to the mysteries speaks to us, for they, “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” – Lk. 2:20. These mysteries unfold in our sight and hearing at every Mass. Who among us is open to them?

  17. I usually agree with you, but some of this post I either am not sure about, or have a problem with. I just want to go to Mass to be with the Lord. Period. I do not worry about the “experience”. I want to do what he asked, and worship Him. I tire of the over emphasis on the “Community”. Our new priest o has taken away the missalettes and told us not to bring missals. I feel like a drug dealer smuggling my missal to Mass! Forgive me Father I have used a missal. I do not like watching people read, because my mind fades off into what they are wearing, their appearance, how they pronounce things, etc… I have been a Catholic for about as long as you, and have never noticed the pages turning, or dropped missalettes . If that is such a big issue then keep all kids out of Mass, or somebody who has a cough should not come, or whatever else. You are not the first priest to say such things, so this must be thing being passed around at workshops in order to make changes. I just don’t see it as a big deal. The same priest who took away the missalettes, also refuses to elevate the Host and Chalice at the “Behold the Lamb of God.” So I can not bring what the church permits, a missal, but he can do what he wants. During weekday Mass he has his dog laying up front of the first pew. No problem with distractions there! We also are not permitted to kneel down from the Great Amen, until after everyone in the church receives Communion. This is to show Community! I guess receiving Our Lord, does not show Community enough! He told us we were mistakenly taught that Communion is about Me and Jesus. I guess we are just soldiers to be ordered around, as Cardinal Arinze said some priests treat people. I also feel like I am a leper when I receive Communion on the tongue. He acts like I have Ebola and basically throws it in my mouth. I am soooo tired of the continual changes every time we get a new priest, or bishop. Makes one think about going over to the Pius X Parishes. Something is truly wrong with the new form of the Mass, that we are constantly changing it just within one persons life of 57 years. What’s the latest fad? Why don’t we stop worrying about every little issue, like pages turning, and just let the Lord do His work. We don’t trust Him enough. As Cardinal Arinze has said, “Let people alone, and let them in peace, not in pieces! ” Sorry, but all of this is plain ridiculous. Here is a video where talks about Communion. It is well worth the watch:

  18. +I CORINTHIANS 14:26-27

    “How is it then, brethren? WHEN YOU COME TOGETHER, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation: LET ALL THINGS BE DONE TO EDIFICATION. If any speak with a tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and in course, and LET ONE INTERPRET.” +
    THE HOLY MASS in its totality in the Spirit of our Holy God is a profound mystical prayer experience come down to us from our LORD JESUS the Blessed Christ from heaven above and lest there be any confusion I personally love and am greatly blest in both the extraordinary and ordinary celebration forms of the Holy Mass when they are prayerfully and reverently celebrated
    This said however while being often and regularly blessed by many of Monsignor’s sharings after prayerfully considering Monsignor’s sharing for this day with much of the sharing my soul was profoundly drawn AWAY from agreement with several portions of what was shared and into contemplation upon the below wise and beautiful JUDGEMENTS gifted to us by the Sweet Spirit of our Holy GOD contained in the portions of Sacred Scripture quoted above and below.
    My particular soul simply cannot and does NOT embrace the truly odd idea that the lector ALONE and only he/she should READ GOD’S Holy Thoughts contained in Sacred Scripture and the words otherwise spoken during the celebration of the Mass and I don’t find Sacred Scripture or church teaching support for this aberrant notion in any way whatsoever. And the idea that the congregation should be only content with the being spoon fed same like helpless infants to my soul in light of the Scriptural revelation below seems to me to be utterly counterproductive re the salvation, growth and development into maturity of the souls of GOD’S children in the grace and knowledge of our LORD Jesus Christ as well as re the souls being drawn to salvation through BELIEF in Christ. And the rustling of the pages containing these Holy Thoughts of GOD and our Holy Mother Church’s Liturgy of the Holy Mass to my mind is no less holy that the noisy rising for the Gospel reading and then being seated again or the even noisier reverent up and then down kneeling for prayerful times during Mass and then rising and again being seated from same
    During my teachers training at the University here in our city we were taught the very realistic tried, tested and found profoundly true TRUTH that people remember and absorb a rather considerably SMALL percentage ONLY of what they HEAR but combine this hearing with the reading of the same material the remembrance and absorption of the material rises dramatically and is ABUNDANTLY more fruitful I cannot imagine the Sweet Spirit of our Holy GOD NOT blessing the effort taken by GOD’S children to concentrate in their taking the full experience of the Holy Mass both to HEART and to MIND through the careful following along through reading and study of the Thoughts of GOD and written liturgy portions during worship rather than receiving and then forgetting much of the riches offered through the limitation of hearing only it defies imagination to try to consider that GOD is limited in any way whatsoever re the gift of the pouring out the depth of sweet profound Kindness of His Holy Presence With Us just because His children are absorbing during their worship of Him through the written word as well as the hearing of same during our liturgical worship and Eucharistic experience with Him
    And I’m sorry Father but giving permission to that bride and groom to take all the time, effort and expense to carefully prepare an interpretation & guidance booklet re the Holy Mass for their guests some-of-whom if not many-of-whom might have benefited greatly from same and then deliberately disrespecting their judgment and request and dishonoring your word and permission by imposing your personal will independent of the couple’s desire and your given word of permission and encouraging the congregation NOT to use the guide was MOST disrespectful to put it mildly! and unless you sought their forgiveness for so transgressing your permission for the booklet’s distribution and use during their wedding their trust in your integrity to kindly care for their souls and the precious GOD given gift of their free will of choice and deliberately dishonoring your given word of permission as their priest certainly wasn’t an act of integrity and whether consciously or subconsciously your actions had to have had more than just a little diminished and undermined theirs (and others who knew of your transgression) trust in you as a caring priest and pastor of their souls in the LORD. Certainly you had the “legal right” to do as you pleased as their priest but the moral or ethical right in the related individual circumstance ? if you didn’t want the material used as requested then this should have been settled with the bride and groom prior to the wedding not sprung on them during the worship service
    +I CORINTHIANS 14:7-17

    [7] Even things without life that give sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction of sounds, HOW SHALL IT BE KNOWN what is piped or harped?

    [8] For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

    [9] So likewise you, EXCEPT YOU UTTER BY THE TONGUE PLAIN SPEECH, HOW SHALL IT BE KNOW WHAT IS SAID? For you shall be speaking into the air.

    [10] There are, for example, so many kinds of tongues in this world; and none is without voice.

    [11] If then I know not the power of the voice, I shall be to him to whom I speak a barbarian; and he that speaketh, a barbarian to me.

    [12] So you also, forasmuch as you are zealous of spirits, SEEK TO ABOUND UNTO THE EDIFYING OF THE CHURCH.

    [13] And therefore he that speaketh by a tongue, LET HIM PRAY THAT HE MAY INTERPRET.

    [14] For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but MY UNDERSTANDING IS WITHOUT FRUIT.

    [15] What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, I WILL PRAY ALSO WITH THE UNDERSANDING; I will sing with the spirit, I WILL SING ALSO WITH THE UNDERSTANDING.

    [16] Else if thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that holdeth the place of the unlearned say, Amen, to thy blessing? because he KNOWETH NOT what thou sayest.

    [17] For thou indeed givest thanks well, but THE OTHER IS NOT EDIFIED.

    . . . all for Jesus+

  19. We have 2 foreign priests, one from Nigeria and one from Spain. They are both truly Men of God and I love them for it. However, English is not their first language, so I have been bringing my missal to Mass. I must admit that it did not occur to me to read the Gospel ahead of time. For the NO Latin Mass, however, I need the missal for the Latin responses….

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