Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Transcendence


"Something vital was lost on the pilgrimage from the Second Vatican Council," writes Father William O'Malley, S. J., in a recent issue of America. "Amid all the attempts—laudable or lamentable—to reform a feudal church, what got lost on the trek was the transcendent God."

I don't have a history with the Latin Mass. The last one I remember was in a beautiful cathedral somewhere in Belgium, where a half dozen of American Protestants worshipped with barely a half-dozen Belgians, all of them old, and all of them women, as I remember. Seemingly, we sat a hundred yards away from the priest at the altar.

I came away from that Sunday morning worship understanding a great deal more about my Protestant heritage. What was remarkable to me was that, for the most part, the priest went about attending the elements as if almost disregarding those few of us who'd gathered. We were, it seemed to me, merely spectators, blessed, supposedly, simply by attending the sacred rites performed way up front in that ancient, beautiful cathedral.

While that may be true, I can't help but believe that O'Malley is somehow right. He says that what Roman Catholics miss in worship is some sense of God's transcendence, moments like that experienced by Job at the end of the book, when an immensely omniscient God tells him that he and and his friends and their combined reach comes nowhere near to his.

"Such immensity tempts one to humble one's intelligence, like Eastern mystics before the ultimate--before whom all words fail," O'Malley says. And then, "If bishops wonder why Catholics are not coming to church, this is the reason: They don't find there a personal connection to that enthralling God, which is what the word religion means: to connect."

O'Malley isn't wrong about today's populist Protestantism either. We too have decided that church should be more democratic, worship itself something of a variety show, the performers moving on and off-stage before us. We'll keep people in church by giving them each their own ten minutes of stage time, and we brandish new songs weekly to keep ourselves fresh.

But so much of that--and so understandably--is about us, not God. So much of that is about getting our precious needs met.

And all of that is understandable--and not wrong. Life is immensely democratic these days--anyone can publish a book, anyone can be a photographer, anyone can create a magazine like this one. Who on earth would like to go to a church where we don't really matter?

But then there's this: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" God says to Job.

And so much more:

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?

What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?

Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no man lives,
a desert with no one in it,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?

I think Father O'Malley is right and not just about his own faith tradition. The immense changes in worship styles in the last few decades have done wonders to make God's imminence vital and clear. But what we've lost in the switch--and will continue to as long as the fashion lives--is the immense touch of his transcendence.

We miss awe. We're good at imminence, not good at all at transcendence. In this me-centered world, we need to know and to feel that we don't matter, that only He does.

I find something of that reality on Saturday morning in the country, but not much of it on Sunday morning in church.

"Nothing is so obscure or contemptible, even in the smallest corners of the earth, that it cannot display of the power and wisdom of God," Calvin says. Or how about this: "When we behold the heavens, we cannot help but be elevated by what we see to him who is their great Creator, and find in those marvelous heavens evident proof of his providence." Or this: "We need not stare above the clouds to find God. He meets us in his world and is everywhere we look, offering us scenes that rob us of the very breath we might use to describe him."

"Liturgies that make the community as important as its Host miss a crucial truth; so we ought not limit ourselves with the Good Shepherd," O'Malley says. We need to be "connected into an Inexhaustible Energy whose infusion ought to make us recognizably more alive the rest of our week."

I think he's right.

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