An Argument For Short Services and Briefer Sermons

No, it’s not about convenience. Nor is it about people’s busy schedules. It’s about the power of ritual, the power of rehearsal, about staying on track.

For all my time in my part of the Boston area, the South Shore, where Roman Catholics exercise religious hegemony, I have heard Protestants satirize the brevity and roteness of the RC Mass. Even the RC laity join in. They joke that it is a religious version of “In and Out Burger.”

With all the joking and complaining, the fact is that loads of people continue to participate in it. The RCs are the ones in our area with full parking lots and overworked Pastors.

So what’s up with the short services, brief sermons and rote rituals? Ronald Rolheiser has a guess. I think he is right, particularly so since I have personally my own deep immersion in the recovery community.

Here are his words out of “The Holy Longing.”

Who does come to daily mass? In my experience no single category does justice here. On the surface at least, it appears that there is little in common among those who attend daily mass. There is no similarity of character among them, but there is something amoem that is held in common, mainly, in the end, they are all there for the same reason. What is that reason? It is something that is deeper and less obvious than is immediately evident simply put. People who go to mass daily are there in order to not fall apart. They go to mass because they know that, without mass, they would either inflate or become depressed and be unable to handle their own lives.

Daily mass is a ritual, a deep powerful one that sustains a person in the same way that the habit of attending an AA meeting sustains a man or woman seeking sobriety.

A recovering alcoholic friend once explained to me why he goes regularly to AA meetings. “I know, and know for sure, that if I don’t go to meetings regularly, I’ll begin to drink again. It’s funny, the meetings are always the same, the same things get said over and over again. Everything is totally predictable; I know everything that will be said. Everyone coming there knows it too. Also I don’t go to those meetings to be a nice person. I go there to stay alive. I go there because, if I don’t, I will eventually destroy myself!”

What is true about AA meetings is also true for those who go to daily Eucharist. It is a ritual, a container, a sustainer, a coming together which keeps us, in ways that we cannot explain rationally, from falling apart.

Significant, too, is a second thing that is common among those who attend daily mass. They do not want a service that is too long or too creative. They want a clear ritual, a predictable one, and a short one. Because of this they are often at the mercy of critics who look at this and, simplistically, see nothing other than empty ritual, rote prayer, and people going through the mechanics of worship seemingly without heart. Nothing could be further from the truth and this type of accusation betrays the misunderstanding not just of an outsider but also of somebody who was ritually tone deaf.

There are rituals, especially initiation rituals, that one undergoes only once, where t transformative power works partly by overstimulating the psyche and by heating the emotions to a new fever. But the rituals that are meant to sustain our daily lives do not work that way. In fact, they work the opposite way. They are not meant to be an experience of high energy and creativity, but are meant precisely to be predictable, repetitive, simple, straightforward, and brief. Any community or family that has sustained a daily life of common prayer, common meals, and common fellowship for any length of time knows this – as do all monks. The rituals that sustain our daily lives do not work the novelty or by seeking to raise our psychic temperature. What they try to affect is not novelty, that rhythm; not the current, but the timeless; and not the emotional, but the  archetypal.

Not novelty, but rhythm. I think that says it, that gets to the thing itself. I for the most part agree with it. I belong to the “teaching branch” of Christianity, Evangelical Protestantism. We love words. We love lots of words. Any sermon that does not last at least 30 minutes is held in suspicion. We go to every service expecting the unusual, waiting for the crescendo, looking for the transformative moment to arrive. Alas, as a matter of course, it does not. We try not to blame the Pastor. Of course, we say to ourselves, the Pastor cannot hit a home run every week. And the music can’t contain our favorites every Sunday. And. And. And.

The older I get (and this might go along with getting older) the less novelty I need. What I want is to burrow into the paths I have been taught to walk. I want to drink from the wells that have sustained generations-and me over 66 years. I don’t really need a new song. What I need is to sustain my memory, focus on the great truths, pray, and be supported in a community zeroing in on the cross. I don’t need lots of words, but clear words, said together and said to me. I don’t want to sit and watch. I want to do this together. I don’t want to judge how the service went because it is not a performance, anymore than an AA meeting. I desire to keep my hands on the handrails and not loosen my grip. Every service I want to hear the words, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” I want to say those words-with you, with anybody.

And then I want to go back to my world. For another day. Another 24 hours. Another seven days. Before I do it again. So I don’t fall apart!

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