How to improve your experience of the Mass


Familiarity breeds – well, familiarity; that is, we can seemingly know something so well that our responses to it become dulled, even perfunctory. Nowhere is this truer than in our participation in the greatest act we can experience this side of Heaven: the Mass. Thus, a book on the liturgy that, read carefully, can deepen our understanding and love of this supreme Sacrament is to be welcomed.

A Devotional Journey into The Mass: How Mass can become a time of grace, nourishment and devotion, by Christopher Carstens (Sophia Institute Press) is such a book. I suspect many people attend weekly Mass as they would attend an opera; it is undoubtedly an important aesthetic ritual but nothing more. They may even concentrate rather harder on the opera. Yet as Dan Burke who runs the Avila Institute writes in the foreword, “The truth can change our lives”. It is this truth that Carstens hopes to share with readers. It is, it goes without saying, of a different order of revelation from that experienced by a late friend of mine who once told me, his eyes alight, that discovering Wagner had “completely transformed” his life.

The author takes us through every aspect of that weekly obligatory hour: how we should enter a church building; how to make the sign of the cross as we dip our finger in the holy water stoup; how to pray the opening prayer and listen to the Readings, and so on. At every stage he emphasises the importance of recollection and inner, prayerful silence. (I did think, when musing on chapter one, that our own parish church doors are somehow lacking the grandeur and nobility of the great west doors of Chartres cathedral, then had to remind myself that entering a humble parish church is meant to be a reverential rather than an aesthetic experience.)

At this point some people – traditionalists probably – will point out that the Latin Mass imbues a spirit of prayerful silence much more than the New Rite. Carstens, who is as far from offering a modern “happy clappy” liturgical experience as one could imagine, deliberately chooses not to enter the debate about which form of the Mass is “better” than the other. I think this is because he knows that the New Rite is the regular normal experience of almost all Catholics who still go to Mass, so it is this group, rather than a devout and liturgically highly-educated minority, that he wants to address.

By the same token he does not enter into the on-going controversy about the proper way to receive Holy Communion: whether kneeling and on the tongue or standing and in the hand. Personally I favour the eloquent appeal of Cardinal Robert Sarah in this area; that the former mode is the more reverential and thus to be preferred. But Carstens, not wanting his readers to be distracted by this controversy, sidesteps it in his chapter on “How to receive Communion to the Fullest.”

One of the recommendations Carstens makes which I fear I have not put into practice (though I have often intended to) is to go over the Readings for the following Sunday in advance during the week, so as to become deeply familiar with them. And on that phrase which is so often misinterpreted, i.e. “active participation”, he reminds us that what St Pius X meant by it (before it was taken up by Vatican II) was our conscious and active self-oblation in the supreme sacrifice being enacted on the altar. It does not mean bustling about in the church on self-appointed tasks.

Carstens also makes the obvious point, in case we forget it, that humility is essential for the proper reception of Holy Communion, commenting that “the centurion’s story ought to be a model for our Eucharistic preparation.”

As I occasionally remark on the books that I blog about, there is so much more in the text that I have not space to raise here. I will end with Carstens’ reflection on the “dismissal”, the “Ite missa est.” He reminds us, “The time spent in Jesus’ presence energises us to meet and address the needs of a disfigured, discordant and distressing world amid the spiritual warfare for souls.” What is at stake when we leave the church is not the requirement to prepare Sunday lunch but our obligation to share this supernatural feast, our faith, with others.