Cover image: Pope Francis celebrates Mass in the Sistine Chapel on March 14, 2013
(AFP PHOTO/OSSERVATORE ROMANO via Getty Images)
In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty
These words, from the first Eucharistic Prayer – also known as the Roman Canon, one of the most ancient prayers of the Church – will be at least somewhat familiar to the majority of English-speaking practising Catholics.
Older Massgoers, or those who attend traditionally-inclined parishes where priests choose to use Eucharistic Prayer 1 as often as possible, may have heard them thousands of times.
One of the great advantages of formal liturgy is that, over time, it imprints itself on your mind. Even on those Sundays when you are preoccupied with worries or doubts, or whether your children are planning to escape from the pew and cause mayhem in the side aisle, you hear the same glorious words and you make the same responses.
You kneel when you need to, even if some part of you is protesting furiously. You repeat the Our Father, a prayer which Jesus himself gave to us and which has been said by almost every Christian who has ever lived, and the Creed, which Catholics have been saying every Sunday for more than a millennium and a half. It gets into your bones. You don’t have to come up with your own words, or impress anyone with your individual eloquence.
You can simply speak with the Church.
An acquaintance of mine once suggested that the Mass resembles a long free verse poem. I consider this an incredibly fascinating and fruitful insight. After all, what is poetry but the use of words to grapple with things that cannot quite be said? TS Eliot, in the great poem East Coker, calls the poetic endeavour “a raid on the inarticulate”, which is to say we must recognise that there is something else behind words, of which we can nevertheless find little glimpses if we use language with an eye to precision and beauty and transcendence.
For example, in his Church Going, Philip Larkin, speaking as an atheist, says of a Christian church, “A serious house on serious earth it is / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet / Are recognised, and robed as destinies”. You could devote many pages of analysis, or long hours of conversation, to explaining these lines, and still not exhaust their depth of meaning. Larkin had a sort of fascination with the attractive – but to him unattainable – consolations of the faith. His short work Days uses a memorable image:
….Where can we live but days? Ah, solving that question Brings the priest and the doctor In their long coats Running over the fields.
Many great poets who were not religious believers, or had an ambivalent attitude to faith, like Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, often came from religious backgrounds or had exposure to Christian liturgy, with all its richness, its depth and range, in their early lives.
That many aspects of God’s nature and plans remain mysterious, at least during our earthly lives, has been a longstanding theme of Christian writing. It’s what St Paul was getting at in Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass darkly”. In 1 Timothy 6 he uses a different metaphor, describing God as “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath see, nor can see”. St Thomas Aquinas, towards the end of his life, famously had a sublime vision of God which led him to regard all his brilliant, detailed and painstaking theological writings as “mere straw”.
This does not mean that we cannot know for certain anything at all about God, or that the Church’s teachings are mere speculation. Rather, it is a humble recognition that, while we have received certain definite revelations from God, we are creatures and cannot know ourselves or anything as our Creator does.
In the life of the world to come, God will not let us be bound by such limitations. To continue that famous passage from Corinthians, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. John’s first Epistle puts it this way: “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”. For now, here in this world, there are many deep truths that are not easy — not possible — for us to fathom. What does it really mean for God to be the ground of our being, or the fount of all goodness? How can God be both Three and One? How is God really and truly present, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the sacrament of the altar?
This is where poetry can help us, along with the Church’s great heritage of music and mysticism.
As an art form poetry points beyond itself, and helps us to approach difficult truths with the use of allusion and metaphor. In the Mass, when the second Eucharistic Prayer implores God to send the Spirit upon the Communion elements “like the dewfall”, this immediately summons images of fresh, cool mornings, of the purity and glory of nature, of the irresistible and unchanging rhythms of the world. When the third, echoing Revelation, restates the hope that God “will wipe away every tear from our eyes”, this is a powerful image of renewal, hinting at a permanence and completeness to divine justice that simply cannot be matched by our own efforts to establish fairness in this fallen world.
Another part I have always found full of deep significance and resonance, without being able to fully explain why, is the short doxology that concludes the Eucharistic Prayers: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit”. You could meditate on those few simple words for a long time; but equally, you can just enjoy them as an example of concise poetic elegance, as a piece of phrasing which somehow conveys in its very rhythm and sound part of the mystery of which it speaks.
There is a possible criticism of taking what might seem like an artistic pleasure in the Mass: We are not there as aesthetes; we should not have the same kind of experience in church as we would have in a gallery or at a concert. To over-emphasise the poetic pleasures of the liturgy will distract us from its deeper purpose, which is to nourish us with word and sacrament and unite ourselves to God. There is perhaps some merit in this criticism.
What God wants above all is a “humbled, contrite heart”, in the words of Psalm 50. There is little value in being overwhelmed by beauty for an hour on Sunday morning if the rest of our life remains unchanged.
JRR Tolkien, in a letter to one of his sons, advised him as a spiritual exercise to “make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste”, with a “gabbling priest” and an inattentive and irreverent congregation. He insisted that “it will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.”
This is not really an argument against beauty in worship, so much as an argument against beauty in worship being the only thing we care about. Being attuned to the poetry of the Mass can deepen our sense of God’s glory and mystery, and solidify in our hearts and minds a deep and abiding faith.