Friday, September 11, 2015

The Stability of Ritual: When Your World is Chaos,Turn to the Mass

In Thursday night's Late Show interview with Stephen Colbert, Vice President Joe Biden, speaking about the role of his Catholic faith in dealing with the loss of his son, said this about the Mass, the Rosary and the comfort he derives from the regular practice of his faith:

“Some of it relates to ritual, some if relates to just comfort and what you’ve done your whole life.”

Bingo. When your whole world is sliding into emotional chaos, the familiar ritual of the Mass can be an island of calm - an anchor in a stormy sea. While Biden might not be able to name why this is so, he knows it in his heart.

I first discovered this truth while attending Mass each week during my RCIA experience, I quickly grew to love the ritual words and actions. I felt I had come "home." For an hour, I could leave my cares behind and enter into a time outside of time. It simply felt "right." Later, I stumbled into the Sunday morning choir Mass one day after my husband had asked for a divorce and received solace not only from fellow choir members, but from participating in the familiar postures, gestures, words and song of the Mass. There was definitely something healing in that experience  for me that day.

In other times of loss or transition through the years, I have similarly found relief in the Mass, most notably six years ago, when the man I loved died suddenly. For the first few months, I remember fighting tears often as song lyrics and Mass prayers caused me emotional turmoil, but I also remember a strong sense of the Mass as a trustworthy anchor in which I felt the presence of God.

The human need for ritual has been well-documented by anthropologists - and more recently, scientists. It's so strong, that even those who don't attend church tend to gravitate toward activities that involve ritual elements (such as sports) or to create "new traditions."

Yet the Mass, as divine ritual, is so much more than mere human rituals. Imbued with the very person of Jesus Christ, present in the gathered people, the person of the priest, the Word and the Eucharist, the Mass joins us to all times, places and believers, including those in Heaven. In remembering Jesus's Paschal Mystery, we discover its power among us today, and taste its future glory. We hear the words of the one who was, is and always will be the Word. We dine at the Eucharistic banquet along with angels, saints and holy ones gathered at the heavenly banquet.

The Mass is quite simply the Ritual of Rituals. It is the summit, the highest form of solemn ceremony, because its roots are in the words and actions of Jesus and his Apostles. So, when Joe Biden says he found "comfort" in the ritual elements of his faith, it's nothing to sneeze at. The spiritual consolations we receive from the Mass are real and important. They are certainly not the only reason we go to Mass, but they may be, in part, what gets people to repeat their participation.

Joe Biden, like many Catholics, rediscovers his center at the Mass, even while suffering the deep grief of a parent who has lost a child. “I go to Mass, and I’m able to be just alone, even in a crowd,”he said. While this is possibly not fully articulated, he appears to be trying to express the holiness and peace he finds, even while part of the gathered assembly. We are one with God, at the same time we are one with each other. In that, we find our deepest selves.

The Mass affords us all an opportunity to experience the dependable love of God, which like the ritual through which it is expressed, is unchanging. May all Catholics who struggle, like Joe Biden, find their peace and hope in the power of the Mass.

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