In my thinking about the spirit of the liturgy I’ve found St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to be insightful, especially Chapters 11-15. These chapters give us an insight into the first communal celebrations of the Church, distant rumors of the seminal beginnings of the formal celebration we call the Mass. I think all liturgists should study it well.
This section is famous for the passage concerning the “greatest spiritual gift” which is Charity, and this passage is very popular at weddings. It is a beautiful description of the nature of Love. But this passage sits in the middle of a larger context in which Paul speaks about the many spiritual gifts such as prophesy, speaking in tongues, teaching, preaching, interpretation, and so on.
It seems, from the context of the letter, that the gathering of the Christians was very charismatic and even a little chaotic, noisy. Paul is concerned about this lack of unity and harmony but he doesn’t want to squash the spirit. He praises the diversity of gifts that they have received but exhorts them to remember that the gifts are of no use if they are not at the service of the whole. In trying to reach a place of reconciliation between the harmony of unity and the spontaneity of the Spirit he gives this advice:
“What am I urging, then, brethren? Why, when you meet together, each of you with a psalm to sing, or some doctrine to impart, or a revelation to give, or ready to speak in strange tongues, or to interpret them, see that all is done to your spiritual advantage.”1 Cor. 14:26
Prior to that, with the same thought in mind, he says:
“Brethren, do not be content to think childish thoughts; keep the innocence of children, with the thoughts of grown men.” 14:20
“Keep the innocence of children” alive in your hearts as a defense against evil.
Throughout the history of the Church we have struggled with this balance between spontaneity and harmony; the Spirit coming in and making us uncomfortable while at the same time calling us to unity.
At different time many have argued that the Roman liturgy is too stoic, formulaic. While I don’t adhere to that sort of thinking; I do see a certain truth in this argument. Our celebration of Mass can be overly sterilized; this visualization of the Mass as this perfect environment with no interruptions.
A prime example of this is the crying baby or the spontaneous outburst of the mentally challenged.
Even among Pastors there seems to be this inability to receive these outbursts; or anything that disturbs, delays, or is irregular in the celebration of the liturgy. It often is expressed by shaming, public reprimands, or losing one’s cool.
While it is an act of charity to attend to the needs of a crying baby in a cry room (or other suitable place or manner); I think it is important for us not to overlook the spiritual advantages of these outbursts. For myself, I like to see them as that charismatic voice ringing out in the church, speaking to us in a different way. They are the Holy Spirit speaking to us in ways we could not have planned or organized with tongues and prophecy.
An example from my own life was at a Good Friday service, when the whole community was silent as the priest laid prostrate upon the ground. As we lay there in silence there was this perfectly timed, wailing cry from a baby as if to remind us of the sadness of this event. It was so perfect, so opportune; reminding us all that this was a truly sad occasion.
How many times has there been a word or action said, omitted, or done outside the norm during the liturgy? What is our interior reaction? Do we recognize the Holy Spirit at work in that moment? When that phrase was said in a different way did the contrast awaken us to the meaning of words we say all the time? Did the contrast help us see it in a new way? During that delay in the liturgy where there should not be one do we become aware of our interior expectations? Do we see that delay as a call to relax and enter into prayer, become more aware of what this is all about?
Consider the worship of Abraham in the Old Testament when he would offer sacrifice to God in thanksgiving. Imagine him sweating in the hot sun with his family and the families of his servants. Everyone is standing around outside in the hot sun watching Abraham build the stone altar with the other men. Babies are crying, some are nursing, sheep and goats are walking around doing what sheep and goats do. The animal of sacrifice is brought to the altar. It is a dirty and messy endeavor. Its no mistake that the word “liturgy” comes from the word for “work.” Its not meant to make us comfortable.
It is true, we shouldn’t strive to make mistakes in the liturgy. We should strive to give our best to God, and give it our highest effort and preparation. However, in the details we can also loose the wider perspective; the communion of the faithful and the worship of God.
This leads us to the cry room, which is the place of charismatic voices; all these children speaking in tongues. What are they saying; “I don’t want to be here!” They are expressing on the outside our own interior struggle as we bring ourselves to prayer. It is a statement of truth and struggle. In the cry room the interior distractions are now exterior and being in union with the greater community is truly challenged. The external aids are removed; it is just you, God, and the prayer of faithfulness.
That being said, while it is true that a crying baby is a distraction in Mass and should be taken to the cry room; perhaps we should turn the lens upon ourselves. Who else is working against the prayer of the community? The man standing with hands in his pockets with disinterestedness written all over his face; the woman walking up for Communion with purse in hand ready to walk out the door; or the people dressed inappropriately for Mass. Perhaps all these people should go to the cry room?
We should all strive to create an environment of harmony and beauty that disposes us to prayer. The crying baby, if possible, should be taken outside, the people should come dressed well, the attitudes and manners should reflect engagement, the priest and ministers should prepare well. This is all true, however, the environment is not an end in itself; it is only an assist to our prayer. When distractions come we can either allow them to disturb our peace or use them to approach our prayer in a more dynamic way.