Nourishment in the Intimacy of the Mass

As priests, we hold in our fragile hands the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We cling with our young or arthritic fingers the Real Presence that transforms our violent and chaotic world. The prayer texts and physical gestures of the Mass become body memory for us as priests. As weavers bent over a loom, our shoulders and hands recall how to lift up the naked prayers of our people. As a master artist who no longer has to think about how to paint, our instincts are keenly attuned to the rhythm of proclamation and silence, of gesture and stillness, of word and sacrament. Our hearts and souls grow into a pattern of tenderness and honesty somewhere in the intersection between human and divine.

As years go by, our bodies grow shorter and our blood pressure higher. Our bodies stand at the altar not bearing the physical strength of the past. However, our souls grow ever slowly into the mystery we celebrate. Even though our bodies have gestured hundreds of times to invite people to pray and sing, all of a sudden our souls may find a new inspiration in our priestly commitments. As any intimate relationship grows and develops and even surprises, so does our relationship with the gestures and prayer texts we perform and pray every day.

On one morning, like a crisp ray of sunlight streaming through the stained glass, a raw flash of insight may hit us as never before, challenging us to celebrate Eucharist in an entirely new and intentional way. On that morning, we feel within our bodies a new and vital strength that we can only claim as divine, as love itself.

Kissing the Altar

Some years ago, I served in an inner-city parish that included people with severe mental illnesses and folks living outside under cardboard or in cramped, filthy, single-room-occupancy hotels. Along with many volunteers, we managed to open up daily gestures of hospitality and physical services to people without health care or families. The sheer brokenness of our people became a solid light of grace for me in how I celebrate Eucharist. I finally realized what it means for me to break bread for a broken world and to allow God to sit with me in my own brokenness and inner pain. Among the marginalized, every gesture counts; every hidden prayer must be whispered; every grace wished for must be prayed in community; every expression of hope must be held in common, because none of us possessed answers or remedies to why people suffer so much in our world.

We priests begin the Mass with a kiss even before we speak any word out loud. This gesture often is perfunctory and unnoticed while our people’s lips sing hymns of praise. We plant our lips on wood or marble or stone with reverence and dignity. We reverence the place where salvation will rest, where a glimpse of the Kingdom in bread and cup will glimmer in daylight. This silent kiss speaks loudly within our lives if we allow intimacy to surprise us in our human and self-assured lives.

One Saturday evening in that simple chapel of refuge, I received an awakening to this silent gesture of the kiss. On that cold evening a group of prostitutes and their children were laughing and eating a meal in our basement under the chapel. We offered a place of welcome for women who were struggling to care for their children while slowing getting help out of their street profession.

The processional hymn began as usual, and I ambled down the short aisle once again. As I approached the small, simple altar, I heard the children laughing and the women singing in the room below the altar. My soul stopped in an instant, and something new washed my senses. I realized in a cacophony of insights that prostitutes are promised many things in life such as shelter, clothing, food and money. However, the one thing a prostitute is not promised is a kiss with real and true intimacy. For the first time in my priesthood, I realized that my kiss on the altar was a kiss for all people in our world who never experience intimacy with compassion, tenderness and respect. The kiss on the altar is for all people who search for the basics of life, for those who desperately wait for hope, for people who live in silent desperation.

Our altar kiss as we begin the Eucharist is not for ourselves, not for our prestige or power or place within our communities. The kiss is not a flimsy gesture. The kiss is not a privilege but a challenge to let God change us. The kiss commands us to faith, a visceral reminder that God longs to be with his people in intimacy, compassion and forgiveness. This kiss is a public covenant to our people that we priests will finally let God work within us, finally give ourselves over to love so that other people will also understand their place in God.

Our kiss is a remembrance that we bring with us all the chaos, violence, confusion and poverty of our world. We turn to the altar of God because we know what is coming next, that it will be the resting place on which salvation presides. Our kiss on the solid altar is not just an acknowledgment of Christ’s housing for a brief moment in the Eucharist, but also a challenge that we are to speak out for people who remain voiceless, uncared for and unhoused, well beyond the altar.

In that Saturday Vigil Mass, another fireball insight shattered my heart. I realized that the kiss on the altar is also about my infidelity. I am unfaithful in many respects because I am human and simply need God.

When we all approach the altar on any given day, we bring with us our fidelity to God’s plan as well as our resistance to it. We are unfaithful to the Paschal Mystery when change makes a home in us and we refute it. We become resistant to conversion, new perspectives and a new vision for seeing the world because we think we already know everything.

One of the illusions about being a pastor is that we get used to controlling everything, including how God is trying to love us. We may think that we are priests in our generation in order to fix the Church that previous priests tried to destroy. This pride grows like weeds within souls, unwieldy attitudes that keep us alone and separate from people. Our country is addicted to painkillers and our addiction to pride numbs us from a true reliance on Christ Jesus. As priests, we need the kiss on the altar more than ever.

Our kiss invites us to move toward humility with God, toward deeper patience for people and ourselves. This humble approach opens us to celebrate the Eucharist with a new heart. Our search for perfection within the liturgy casts a dim shadow over our prayer for a greater humility. Humility affords us with love and not perfectly ironed vestments and stiff collars and fitted cassocks. Our humility needs mending. Our humble awareness of ourselves needs more attention than we may first realize.

Quiet, Powerful Prayers

The Mass invites priests to read some prayer texts silently. These texts also are among the prayers that carve a deep place of humility within us. During the washing of the hands, we all whisper to heaven, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” Each time, we extend our hands and lives to these simple waters as a memorial of our baptism. There are days that I wish I could wash out my soul as well. Perhaps Jesus could wash our feet again. Every time I immerse my hands in the shallow water, I hear Peter arguing with Jesus, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” This simple ritual moment and the quiet prayer from our lips settles us into a deep tradition of humility among those who followed Jesus with dirty, wet feet and clumsy conversations about who is most important. Our hands drip with hope as we lift them and our prayer toward heaven.

Deacon Chuck Waugh and Father Adrian Piotrowski, OSC, kiss the altar at St. Stephen’s Church in Anoka, Minn. ©The Crosiers/Gene Plaisted, OSC

Recently, I read the prayer before reception of Communion with great intentionality, just after we all sang the “Lamb of God.” These words settled deeply into my heart and I almost wanted to stop the liturgy to invite people to ponder the message: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your death gave life to the world, free me by this, your most holy body and blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments and never let me be parted from you.”

I realized in a new breath of insight that I am so bound by pride. Even though I have celebrated the Eucharist thousands of times, I am not sure if I ever have given myself away to Jesus. I still protect myself from love. I hesitate to give myself fully to God. Perhaps I still believe somewhere down deep that I do not belong among the ranks of men standing at altar tables.

Pride keeps us self-protected as clergy. Our defenses are solid and rigid. We emotionally and spiritually protect ourselves because so often there is no one else to trust with the real truth of who we are in the world. Pride ripples restlessness and confusion within us. Pride suggests that our ways of creating community and running a parish will fix the turmoil in the Church today. As I listened to this prayer, my heart ran in circles trying once again to rest in love and not in the chaos I always plan for myself.

Silent Reflection

The silent prayer texts within the Mass offer us all a way into a life of prayer. The texts become like beads of prayer that we hold each day within great silence. These texts need to be more deeply explored by all of us. They are words that lead us into conversion and integrity. As priests, we need to find the key to our loneliness, the doorway into genuine love and a new honesty about our roles within the Church. As I reflect on these simple, silent prayers that rattle our souls each day, these prayers hold between the words a genuine place of love. Within these prayers, we are on the right track to deeper communion with the divine.

As we break the sacred host, we all pray, “May this mingling of the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.” Here, our assent is far greater than to ritual or to dogma or to the institution of the Church. For this is our place within the love of God, finally giving our lives to the person of Christ Jesus. Our faith is not about our control or what we think we should be getting out of it, but about offering our souls to be loved. The love in return will remove the calluses from our stubborn hearts, open up our imaginations about God’s actions within us and finally call us to rest in the assurance of grace. This mingling of the body and blood of Jesus continues the sacred mix within us so that we can feed on a deeper humility in God and not the food of power, greed and prestige. Perhaps we can reflect together on the mystery we hold in our human hands. If we do this, our Church and our world might become a very different place.

Never 'Merely Habitual Attendance'
In a July 1990 Angelus address, Pope St. John Paul II offered the following advice to seminarians regarding the importance of the Mass:

The silent prayer texts designed for the lips, heart and soul of the priest might very well be extracted from our daily Mass and used for greater reflection. These texts could become the center of conversation and prayer for some sessions in a priest support group. Phrases of these prayers might become a prayer mantra for early morning silence and reflection on the Scriptures. These texts might easily become a source of reflection for a weeklong retreat or the beginning of the yearly conversation between a priest and his bishop or provincial. The texts are nuggets of not only theology but of real conversion for us.

The solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (June 3) also might be a time when we reflect more seriously on the silent gestures and words within the Mass. We do this so as to live well beyond our sanctuaries the mystery of God’s redeeming love and grace. We reflect on what is most important in silence so as to speak with vigilance to our people about living these mysteries in our daily lives.

These prayer texts also rouse risk within us. They do not lead easily to following only the comfort and consolation of God. These texts for priests challenge us to actually live the mystery we celebrate. This mystery begins with letting go, surrendering to the place of the Cross of Christ within our lives. The silent gestures of the Mass and the words offered for silent prayer all speak boldly to release us from the control we all want to place upon our faith.

When the Mass is authentically celebrated, it cracks open our cynicism, mistrust, anger and our apathy. The Mass encourages us to go deeper into the mystery of Jesus so not to live on the surface of life. For many of us priests, organizing the liturgy becomes our faith because it is also our profession. There is more that lovingly awaits us as we explore the silent gestures and prayers embedded within the Mass.

Profound Journey

The Mass is a journey into silence, words and music, into gesture and dialogue. The Eucharist most essentially is a profound journey into our salvation story and genuine faith. Perhaps as we reflect even more on the silent gestures and prayers designed for priests, we will all hear the laughter of children and the singing of mothers. Perhaps the sounds of worldly violence will ring in our ears as we wash our hands and feel the challenge to wash the feet of people who most need us. As we break the Bread of Life, we might risk everything to discover how the Eucharist becomes nourishment in our own lives and how, then, to work for justice for those who live in helplessness. When we kiss the altar again, we might even discover our own need for Jesus and give our lives to him completely — an intimacy with great and profound love.

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He hosts “On the Margins,” a weekly radio Scripture commentary on Mater Dei Radio in Portland, Oregon.