Who is in the Details?

There’s Always Something 

It is Holy Thursday. The tabernacle is empty. The altar of repose is set up. The ciboria are full of hosts for tonight and Good Friday. The pitcher and bowl are in place for the foot-washing. The towels are ready to dry the feet of the people. The servers are in line. We have checked and double checked the list of details. The cantor announces the hymn. The hymn board has Palm Sunday’s page numbers still listed, not the hymn just announced. There is always something. 

There is always something that is forgotten. We have all been there, no matter how many times you proofread the bulletin, no matter how many eyes reviewed it for accuracy, once the bulletin is published and a thousand copies printed for distribution, it will be at the moment you open it for the first time that you see the wrong date! The 13th of July should be the 23rd. The Monday should read Tuesday. The phone number to call to register for an upcoming event has a typo. It is these finer details that get us all the time. 

It is so frustrating when I see the number board displaying the wrong number or read the wrong phone number or the incorrect date. My first gut reaction is to think that the “devil is in the details’’ and the devil wants me to walk up that aisle on Holy Thursday frustrated and distracted as I start the Triduum. 

Then there is the side of me that loves the details — but I hope that is not because the devil is in them. The finer things, the little touches — these set something apart from the mediocre. “It is all in the presentation,” as any chef preparing a fine meal knows as he arranges the food on the plate or on the buffet. Those details are important. The candles on the table or the proper fold of the napkin all say something. The picture on the wall that has that one unique color that pulls all the colors in the room together says that you have thought about it. The right phrase in the homily — maybe only three words among the hundreds of words spoken — might be just the right three words to capture the message you want people to remember. Attention to these details is important. Attention to details says a lot. Maybe it is really God who is in the details?

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? 

I believe that details can make or break something. We have all read the little reflection books that tell us, “not to sweat the small stuff,’’ but it is hard not to sweat the small stuff when you enjoy making sure everything is exactly right. I guess the balance happens when you are able to give attention to the details without, at the same time, overdoing it. When does too much attention to details become an obsession? We all have a balance of concerns in our lives — that balance between those things that demand attention to detail as well as those things for which detail is not important to us. The things that inspire attentiveness to detail from me may not demand that same level of attentiveness from someone else. The time I may give to something may not inspire that same commitment of time from you! 

When the church decorators are arranging lilies at Easter or poinsettias at Christmas and they keep moving one plant one inch to the left, then two inches to the front, turning it a quarter way clockwise, I know it is time for me to walk away because that is one detail I see as unnecessary. I tend to look at the big picture on those things while the decorators look at the smallest details.  

The Forest and the Trees 

The balance is when do you look at the “forest’’ and when do you look at the “trees.’’ One person’s need for detail complements the other’s need for big picture. Both are important. 

Liturgy and ritual are good reminders to us to give attention to both the “forest’’ and the “trees.’’ How do you give attention to both, knowing that both are necessary for the right balance? The big picture at a baptism may be that we have a Paschal candle lit, a font full of water and a family presenting their firstborn. The details may be the positioning of all these. Is the font placed so that everyone can stand around it without the congregation’s view being blocked? Is the candle so positioned that it is close enough to the water and the font but far enough away that we don’t bump into it? Are the oils within reach, so that moving from one part of the ritual to the next flows well without looking neither rushed nor stilted? 

Well Celebrated Liturgies and Those Others 

We have all attended or even presided at liturgies that are well celebrated — liturgies that are deeply satisfying to both those who attend and those who participate in the celebration. We have heard people say as they leave the celebration, “Father, that was a really great liturgy.” If we asked them why, they might not be able to pinpoint what made it good. When we have been part of a liturgy that was not so great, (sometimes we have been the presider at these, too) and people comment, they can usually say why. When it is good, often it is the whole big picture: everything flowed, all in place; but when it is bad, the bad things tend to be jarring and stand out — details unattended to that can quickly be named. 

The Red Words and Your Gut 

I often find that it can be the delicate balance between the ritual and rubric. When do you pay attention to the red words in the ritual book and when do you pay attention to your gut to make sure each is being respected. If we spend so much energy worrying about the red words, (the trees) that we forget to worry about the flow of the liturgy, (the forest), then we have lost perspective. 

A good image for this reality might be the old filmstrip projector (if you are old enough to remember these). When we focus too much energy on the rubrics (the trees), we get a celebration that looks like we are going frame by frame by frame: a stiff celebration that lacks flow and balance.  

Of Filmstrips and DVDs 

Carrying the analogy further, the image for an ideal celebration would be the DVD. It is not about one frame, but the whole picture!  Everything flows together. The details can still be tended to yet understood through the lens of whole. If we see the whole picture and allow ourselves to step back to see how the whole relates to the parts and vice versa, we have accomplished both attention to each of the details and also to the sum that the details together create. 

It is then we realize that the devil is not in the details, but that God may be the real one there. From the first pages of Scripture we see that God was into the details (and rather meticulously at that!). The whole was a formless waste of void. Then day by day by day, very deliberately, very meticulously, God called into being another detail. As the attention to details continued, the formless chaos became an ordered creation. Maybe it is God who is behind our creative side, calling us to add those little finishing touches that demand our attention.  

God said, “let there be light.” Then, “let there be water.” Then, “let there be living creatures.” Then, “male and female he created them.” And so it all happened. Then God looked at all the work he had done and made it holy. TP

Your Thoughts Sought 

Dear Readers: I want to do a series of articles on pastoring many parishes and wish to hear from you — using this column as a gathering space for thoughts around the country. What has been your experience? What are some of the challenges and solutions you have seen? If there are other topics you would like to discuss, add those. E-mail your ideas to Father Patrick Carrion pcarrion@archbalt

FATHER CARRION is the pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Mt. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is the director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.