Listening at the Liturgy

REV. BENEDICT J. GROESCHEL

The liturgy exhorts us with beautiful verses to respond to the readings in an enthusiastic way, not only with voice but with mind and heart.

The title “Listening at the Liturgy” may cause many readers to be uncomfortable. To those who grew up before the liturgical reforms following Vatican II, it may suggest a kind of passive piety and highly individualized devotion which, at least from this point in history, looks dreary. To a younger person, the actual meaning of the suggestion, “listening at the liturgy,” may be almost incomprehensible. Liturgy has become an act — something you “do.” When well-done it should involve the active participation of everyone present. Others hold a variety of opinions ranging from those who with great relief would return to the personal silence of the old liturgical usage, to those who are put off by any ritual requirements at all and are uncomfortable with any symbols that speak to us of mystical or unseen reality. Finally, many Christians — who appear to be increasing in number — regard the liturgy as a sacred drama or spectacle. They are enthusiastic about listening, but I am using the word differently. Rather, the purpose of this piece, whatever your liturgical bent might be, is to help you listen at Mass, and respond in prayer.

LISTENING TO THE LITURGY OF THE WORD

The liturgy exhorts us with beautiful verses to respond to the readings in an enthusiastic way, not only with voice but with mind and heart. How rich an experience it can be to cast ourselves into an attitude of listening and responding, especially when we decide to set our minds in the true frame of reference for this event. This means that in the now moment of our lives we hear the words of God Himself, the deeds of His Son, and the call of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christ is truly present and speaks in the sacred liturgy through lector and homilist. The gift of reverence or fear of the Lord is given to those who courteously listen.

One can listen to the Word of God when reading alone or even more powerfully at the Offices of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours. But there is a unique experience of listening and responding which can be found only in the celebration of the Eucharist itself. Without entering into theological controversy, let’s consider what we may listen to and how we may respond in prayer.

The community of believers, the faithful of Christ, should always be represented at the liturgy. There may be only one other person, there may be a handful, there may be thousands in a stadium. But the community always speaks, even if it is with a priest and a single participant representing the community. And the community demands a response. We gather with body, mind, and spirit, with virtues and vices, with the conflicts generated by grace and sin, and with hopes and fears. To fail to listen to the voice of humanity in celebrating the mystery of salvation is to miss the dimension of the Incarnation. From Genesis to Revelation, the message is one of God’s coming to be with His children, of Christ among His brothers and sisters, of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.

Admittedly, when we listen prayerfully to the community, we often hear discordant sounds and receive conflicting messages. It is hardly a choir of angels. So one must listen with a tolerance bordering on humility, and with a sense of reverence for how the Lord is working out the salvation of others, and with an openness to their needs. To be comfortable praying with a community no doubt requires a sense of humor. Humor will help us to pray with, rather than to be disturbed by, the old man who confesses his little sins out loud or the child who keeps asking questions about where God is.

People who try to pray at the liturgy open themselves up in a surprising way, even those most proper and reserved. If their presence is anything more than mere attendance, they are aware that they are publicly witnessing their inmost thoughts, their aspirations for God, and their desire to know and serve Him. Prayerful participation in the liturgy means proclaiming oneself a penitent, a disciple of Christ, and a child of God who hopes for eternal life. But thoughtful and mature prayer at liturgy involves even more: To be present where two or three are gathered in His Name is to be more open to humanity than perhaps at any other time. People need to express this in different ways; none should be superficial and none should be aloof.

THE PASCHAL MYSTERY

The liturgy of the Mass is the celebration of the central mystery of redemption. It is in a way the only event we can participate in whose reality is rooted in both eternity and time, in the domain of being that is beyond time, place, and number, and yet in human history. The liturgy brings the Cenacle, Calvary, the Resurrection, and Pentecost to each of the worshipers. It brings us to the day of eternity, not simply by a consideration of that reality but by a mysterious participation in that once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.

Though celebrated hundreds of thousands of times daily in varying circumstances — with pomp in cathedrals and with stealth in concentration camps — there is ultimately only a single celebration which unites all, priest and faithful alike, in that everlasting sacrifice of salvation and praise which is the life of the saints. We begin our life of eternity, our heaven, by participating (such a weak word, but there is no other) in the praise of the Son. Without getting into the theological mechanics of a partial explanation of this reality — for it is a mystery and all explanations must be inadequate — we may identify two key elements in the eternal praise of the Triune God in heaven to which we are called and in which we participate.

One element is the worship of praise and thanksgiving, which we, who are created out of nothing, joyously offer to the infinite and personal Being who created us and called us to share His life, His eternity. This praise is the common element of all authentic prayer and worship of all human beings on earth right now.

The other element is the Paschal Mystery. Briefly, this mystery means that we are a people, fallen, wounded, lost, and then saved by sonship in Christ and promised eternal life; we are united with the Son of God as He offers to His Father the worship of a world redeemed. The worship, praise, and thanksgiving of the human family is thus transformed into a sacrifice of praise, accomplished by the Son on earth, Jesus of Nazareth, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The ramifications of the Paschal Mystery can be overwhelming. Our question here, however, is not how to understand the central mystery of our Faith more intelligently, but rather how to participate in it more prayerfully. How can we listen to this mystical reality, and how can we make our own prayer at the liturgy a true personal participation in it?

Here we must again use the powerful gift of imagination. We have no way of intellectually conceiving what eye has not seen. For this reason, the liturgy is surrounded by symbols. In dealing with symbols, imagination is of great importance. The following technique is an attempt at receptive prayer by using our imagination to help us to become personally involved in the totality of the Paschal Mystery. This should be done without neglecting the reality of the liturgical celebration we are attending at the moment. My structural guide is the Eucharistic Prayer which, like a pyramid, leads us from the Church on earth, to the Church of the holy souls on their journey, to the worship of saints and angels, subsumed and united in the single sacrificial prayer of Christ.

We begin at the top of the pyramid with the great prayer called the Dialogue and Preface, where the whole Church on earth proclaims its debt to Christ, the Redeemer and Savior. Imaginatively we may see Him now in glory, surrounded by the mysterious angelic hosts. He is the Second Person of the Trinity, without beginning or end, the Alpha and the Omega. But still He bear the marks of earthly life. He is of eternity but not a pure spirit. He has a body more real than yours or mine because it cannot corrupt. He has a heart that beats and, unlike any corporeal process of life that we know, it shall never cease. His breath shall never come to an end. His thoughts shall never grow old. It is a body whose mysterious and endless functioning represents our own hope of personal immortality. But there is something apparently discordant about this Person who brings earth and heaven together. He is wounded. In His hands and feet are deep wounds, now glowing and shining with life, present now as they were at the Resurrection. Although He is the Son, united in the Triune Godhead, He is also one of us. To Him we pray as God; with Him we pray as man.

Pause for a moment to imagine this scene symbolically. The red-robed priest is in the shining light described in Revelation. His mother is at His side; she is a being of earth, formed as we are formed. Once a humble, peasant woman who stood by the side of the gibbet of death, she is now all dazzlingly bright. She is queen but no aristocrat, a queen of mercy and love. She is the first of those redeemed by Christ. She is the first member of the Church, and therefore she stands at the head of the choir of innumerable saints making motherly intercession for us.

Although your imagination may fill your mind with a glory and brightness that is unparalleled, there is absolutely nothing aloof about these two figures. They are often depicted as regally distant, but this is simply not true. They reach out, beckon to you with the utmost intimacy. No human love of mother and child, of husband and wife, or of friends is an adequate image of the love which these two persons extend to us. It is individually directed to each of us, although the two mysteriously reach out to countless multitudes. Individuality in multiplicity, unity in diversity — these are abstract terms that have been used to describe the quality of beauty. This love and beauty are not abstract.

Mysteriously, the attention of the High Priest is directed to each person, and yet it is also completely directed in loving communion to the Father and the Holy Spirit, in what can appear to us only as a well of indescribable light.

His wounded hands are raised in a Son’s intercession and all creation offers thanks to Him. Our human words may somehow suggest the essence of this worship. We know these words so well — offering all creation through the God-Man: “This is My Body; this is My Blood.”

THE INTERCESSION AND PRAYER FOR THE HOLY SPIRIT

If you have been drawn into the Paschal Mystery and have listened to the inexhaustible contents of the words of consecration, you may be a bit startled that they are followed by petitions of a rather down-to-earth sort: for the shepherds of the Church, for the Christian community, and for the vast number of human beings who can be said to be seeking God. Personally, I have come to see these intercessions as a healthy jolt back to the timebound and earthly situation in which we as members of the Body of Christ on earth participate in the Paschal Mystery. We can’t stay in heaven no matter how enticing this prospect may be. Our vocation as Christians in the world binds us very much to the Church and to the whole human family.

Confronted with this reminder of our human condition, of the context of our lives in this real but passing world, we soon turn to the Holy Spirit. It is by His gifts that we are one in the unity of faith and worship, and, if we are willing to let His gifts operate in us, in the unity of charity and mutual concern for each other.

We should pause for a moment to consider the choir of saints in adoration and loving union with the prayer of the High Priest. Don’t be afraid to join with these saints at Mass. Canonized or uncanonized saints are great friends and the best of models. At the liturgy we can join our two realities together — earth and heaven. Both words fall short of expressing what they mysteriously contain. Know that Christ and His saints make intercession for us during our earthly life — an existence that is trying, fascinating, and conflicted, but which has the promise of eternal life.

Finally, as we come to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are reminded that there are those who have not entered our Father’s house but are on their way. Catholic Tradition calls this experience “Purgatory.” We ought to take this experience seriously, because with all our best endeavors we will probably be in it. Let’s simply call these loved ones “those who have gone before us.” They are completing earthly tasks done poorly or left undone. The saints tell us that these have one regret, one pain: they have yet to take their final place in the Kingdom. We sometimes hunger for God; they have this experience in its totality. It can be a most moving part of the day to be together in the reality of the Paschal Mystery with those who have gone before us, to help them and to be helped by them in the prayer of Christ.

The Eucharistic Prayer ends with a simple prayer of glory to the Trinity through our own High Priest. If you have been attentive, it is possible sometimes to catch some of the power of this simple prayer of glory, to experience the hymns of the saints, the longings of those on their way, and the desire of those on earth who seek God.

Following the Eucharistic Prayer, the faithful are invited to continue their prayer to the Father, using the words of His Son. It is as if the heavenly choir pauses in its endless praise and those who have gone before us in their journey, and we, the noisy, conflicted, confused, sinning, and repenting Church, have our moment, our prayer. It has been given to us by the Lord when He walked the earth, and its content, unlike the prayers of glory, is only relevant to this life. There are no other words so simple and solemn that sum up our needs as well. Because of their simplicity we can put into them all that we are and experience. In the liturgy, we offer a single childlike petition for all humanity: for present and future generations.

The prayer, “Deliver us, O Lord,” called the embolism of the Lord’s Prayer, reminds us that the Church on earth is always in travail. Finally, in the peace of Christ, we pray for each other, trying to lay aside our negative feelings and emotions before we receive the Lord in Holy Communion. This prayer for peace should never be said lightly. Symbols of peace which are not true or genuine inject a note of conflict or superficiality into what is most solemn.

We now come to the prayers that prepare us for the sacramental meeting with Christ. These prayers — the Lamb of God and the prayer before Communion — are powerful and deeply personal acts of humility and expressions of dependence on divine mercy. Since the day I thought my death was near, they have taken on a new and heightened meaning: The Agnus Dei has come to express my only hope. At the breaking of the bread, we may meditate on the mystery of Christ’s broken Body being the source of unity, as we, the members of Christ, are joined and nourished as one.

If one takes the sacramental Communion with Christ seriously, it is especially important to live through these prayers and savor every emotion they stir up. I often wish that a longer pause were permitted at this point in the Mass, so that we might prepare ourselves with greater recollection. In the words of the great Hymn of Preparation prior to the great entrance in the Byzantine Liturgy, we should “lay aside all earthly care as we prepare to welcome the King of All.” If one ponders seriously what is about to take place in Holy Communion, the only sentiments that are mentally healthy and help us adjust to this reality are humility and confidence in God’s mercy.

THE SACRAMENT

For the most prayerful Catholics listening at the liturgy means meeting Christ the Savior in an intimate, if mysterious, way. The act of adoration to the reserved Sacrament on entering the church, a devotion very much related to St. Francis of Assisi and his personal love of Christ, is the actual beginning of prayerful listening for most of us. Those who are uninformed concerning devotion to the Real Presence are deprived of a powerful psychological help in preparing themselves for prayerful listening. If one has prepared by signs of reverence on entering the church, and during the liturgy, then receiving Christ in Communion should be the communal and personal climax of the Mass, and a time of internal listening.

This experience or participation is best considered as a whole, rather than as a series of events competing with one another for importance. At times, a confused emphasis on the reception of the Eucharist has caused some people to regard the liturgy as a machine for producing consecrated Hosts. This is a most unfortunate distortion. One listens and responds to Christ prayerfully during the entire liturgy, even though for psychological reasons the reception of Holy Communion followed by the quiet awareness of union with Christ may seem to be most moving. Certainly the time of recollection and thanksgiving after Communion should open us to listen to the Son of God as He acts in our lives. It should call forth prayerful sentiments, generosity, trust, repentance, and love. It is not simply a time to listen — it is the time to listen.

People often ask: “How do I listen to Christ at these precious moments? How do I respond to this most holy and intimate part of my spiritual life?” Common, too, are these thoughts: “Here I am in my difficult and unimportant life in the presence of the Word of God, the living Savior by whom all things are made. It is the most cherished moment of my day. Never at any moment, even with my loved ones, will I be more loved than I am right now in the presence of Love itself and I can’t say anything. I cannot keep my mind from distractions, from meaningless or even unruly thoughts.”

This is a familiar experience. In fact, it is my suspicion that the period of silence after Holy Communion is often unduly shortened or taken up with inappropriate singing because people are unconsciously trying to escape from the uncomfortable experience of failure to pray in an intimate way. Instead of being a beautiful communal expression of interior listening to Christ, the hymn becomes a denial of our failure. On the other hand, a solemn reverent hymn after an appropriate silence can be most powerful.

What can be done about this spiritually depressing failure to really pray during Communion? Perhaps the great mistake is to begin with the expectation that the sacramental meeting with Christ must involve the emotional trappings and sensations we experience when meeting some famous person. We expect some spontaneous emotional reaction. We feel we should be impressed, moved, or touched without any apparent effort on our part as we might be if we met a famous government official or well-known prelate. We are disappointed. There is no “roar of the crowd.” We don’t feel elation spontaneously.

We are also distressed in the presence of Christ by our own shortcomings and failures. None of us loves with a pure heart, nor have we overcome completely our darker side. Here we are in the presence, veiled though it be, of Infinite Purity and Love. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, personality hides in the leaves and trees of distraction. Christ waits quietly in the shadow of the inner temple of our being. He does not intrude. Faith, like a flickering sanctuary lamp, tells us He is there. But unless we focus on His silent presence which reflects the humility of God, we shall not really listen to Christ in His sacramental Presence.

Most devout people try earnestly to speak to Christ with some formalized prayer, often taken from the psalms. More adventurous souls speak to Christ in spontaneous words of love and gratitude, praise, and petition. Both activities are a great step forward. Then, choral or instrumental music will serve as either a backdrop for prayer or as a final communal expression of adoration. An even better prayer at this time is “to listen” to Christ in the manner already discussed.

Those who seek to pray in this way must take into account the following: (1) shortness of time; (2) the psychological reactions of fear, guilt, or resentment which the proximity of the Son of God may unconsciously stir up, and; (3) the anxiety of having to “make the most” of this time.

“Listening” under such circumstances implies that we make a specific conscious resolution simply to be with Christ. Christ is with us throughout the day and night. He is before us, behind us, above us, and below us, as we are reminded in the beautiful ancient Irish hymn. “The Deer’s Cry,” often called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” When receiving Holy Communion we ought simply to accept, focus on, and — if I may use the phrase — let ourselves be submerged in the presence of Christ. Just be!

Soon enough, unless you are rather advanced in prayer, distracting thoughts will enter your mind and unwanted emotions will surface. Instead of trying to shake these off, I have found it beneficial to try to grasp one of these thoughts and look at it in the presence of Christ who seeks my sanctification more than I can ever imagine. Perhaps the distracting thought is a fear that has been troubling me. Silently I present it to my Savior, who overcame the fear of the Cross. I share my fear with Him in silence. Sometimes He answers me in a very subtle way. In my mind, I can see a wounded hand, pierced with a nail. Sometimes I struggle with an unruly thought — an unresolved anger, resentment, or passion. In ways that human words are not able to express, He reminds me that He once lived in this world, that He experienced these things Himself, or saw His friends and disciples struggle with them. The Christ who waits in the silence of the Eucharist is mysteriously a Christ of flesh and blood. Thus He is revealed; thus He is experienced: “This is My Body.” This is such a profound moment in the liturgy that the Roman Missal stresses the importance of a silent period of reflection at this time.

If you are one of those tarred with the brush of modern psychological skepticism (and I feel sorry if you have been so tainted), you will no doubt say, “All this sounds like auto-suggestion and a projection of my need to be close to someone.” To be sure, except in the rare case of a genuine mystical apparition, we do not have the mental equipment to be directly in touch with a presence that exists outside the world of material things.

To be in touch with Christ’s presence, we must make use of what our intelligence and memory tell us — the truths of Faith and, in this case, the mystery of the Holy Eucharist — and of our own pattern of response to others. This means that to some indefinable degree the Christ we meet in interior prayer will bear the stamp of our own perceptions and personality. But the objective teachings of Faith with a vibrant apprehension of the historical Christ, along with our participation in the worship of the Christian community, will converge to make our experience more authentic.

By allowing the real issues of the interior life — our emotions, needs, conflicts, joys, and sorrows — to surface in His presence, we may be able to make our Savior’s words operative in our own lives. Once we express these concerns of Him, they become silent within us. It stands to reason that the more silent we are, the more deeply we can be aware of our needs. At the same time, to the degree that we put anxiety to rest, the reality of Christ will speak to us in every dimension of our inner being.

THE FINAL PRAYERS

The final prayers of the liturgy after the personal thanksgiving must appear a bit anticlimactic. What else is to be said? Indeed, this may explain the brevity of the conclusion of Mass.

Perhaps the best attitude is summed up in the dismissal and blessing. It should be a joyful — or at least hopeful — experience. The final prayers should prepare us for what is ahead, and the blessing should be a special reminder that the Lord is with us as we go about our duties, enjoying our blessings and facing our trials. These prayers and blessing are obviously very communal. Following the very personal experience of Communion, they recall that we are, above all, members of the Church — the community of God and the Body of Christ.

WHAT DOES THE CATECHISM SAY?

The Eucharist, the sacrament of our salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross, is also a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for the work of creation. In the Eucharistic sacrifice the whole of creation loved by God is presented to the Father through the death and the Resurrection of Christ. Through Christ the Church can offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for all that God has made good, beautiful, and just in creation and in humanity.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all His benefits, for all that He has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all “thanksgiving.”

The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of praise by which the Church sings the glory of God in the name of all creation. This sacrifice of praise is possible only through Christ: He unites the faithful to His person, to His praise, and to His intercession, so that the sacrifice of praise to the Father is offered through Christ and with Him, to be accepted in Him.

— Catechism, nos. 1359-61

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Groeschel, C.F.R., Rev. Benedict J. “Listening at the Liturgy.” Lay Witness (October 1996).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R. is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and author of many books.

This article originally appeared as a chapter in Fr. Groeschel’s book Listening at Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984). It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and publisher.

Copyright 1996 LayWitness


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