The Mass and the Recovery of Transcendence

Imagine a young woman named “Kathryn” taking a morning bus ride to a major metropolitan area where she works as a middle manager in a successful graphic arts company. It is the day after the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex “marriage” and about three years after the Court upheld the vote of Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care). As a devout Catholic, she is both confused and disappointed and the reality that she is living in a post-Christian America is hammered home with great ferocity.

The movie she watched the night before with her husband, that received such glowing reviews from the city’s leading newspaper, left both of them feeling empty. The bus rumbles on towards a landscape of concrete, glass, and steel, all under leaden skies and intermittent rain. Gritty back alleys and storefronts washed in gray hues come to the fore. Surely, she thinks, this can’t be what her priest Father Flynn meant, in a recent homily, when he talked about how the invisible attributes of God—his power and divinity—are revealed in the creation.

A young man in a black leather jacket in his early 20s with numerous tattoos and piercings sits in front of her. The music leaking out of his IPOD sounds angry and nihilistic, a kind of death metal baptized in despair. Her gaze falls on a nearby intersection where a gang—related double homicide took place just last week. The bus then slowly passes a Planned Parenthood and she shudders to think what damage is being done there today to the Imago Dei. It feels like the temperature in the bus just dropped ten degrees.

About a mile west of her workplace, a few homeless people are huddled in front of the most prosperous investment banking firm in the city. The contrast is not lost on her. A minute later the bus passes the city’s internationally famous Center for Modern Art. A strange, unclassifiable sculpture, ten-feet high and five-feet wide, called The Void by a well-known French sculptor, stands near the entrance. Kathryn has looked at it least a half-dozen times on her lunch breaks, both up close and from a distance, and it has no more meaning for her than if she was looking at nothing at all. Perhaps that’s the point she muses: The Void.

Such is the experience of many orthodox Christians who can go long stretches in their daily lives without experiencing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The Transcendent is absent, the light of heaven seems eclipsed, and the Shadowlands that C.S. Lewis wrote about seem a little darker today than yesterday. Undoubtedly much of this God-forsaken, soul-deadening ethos is rooted in the fact that we live in Arnold Toynbee’s twenty-first civilization that he described in his magisterial A Study of History. He makes the point that the first twenty civilizations appealed to some religious metanarrative for guidance while the twenty-first has tied its wagon to the Star of Secularism. Secularism by definition excludes God from every area of life so the loss of transcendence is not surprising.

One common and laudatory response by Christian leadership to this loss of transcendence is a clarion call to engage the culture. Mission statements are drafted, organizations are launched, money is raised. Planned Parenthood is countered with the pro-life movement. Homeless shelters are built where they are most needed. Those who labor in the vineyards of art, music, literature, and film are exhorted to bring the Good, the True, and the Beautiful to their craft. Public intellectuals battle in the marketplace of ideas and in the public square. Believers are encouraged to vote for politicians whose policies will leaven the culture with righteousness. The list goes on.

What’s discouraging for Kathryn is that many people inside the Church are becoming conformed to the mores of the outside culture. She read a recent study from the Pew Research Center and the findings concerning American Catholics that attend Mass weekly were alarming: only 42 percent believed divorced and remarried Catholics should not receive Communion and a mere 48 percent were convinced that cohabitating Catholics should not partake. The latter statistic is not surprising since only 46 percent believe that living together outside of wedlock is wrong.

Because she has to daily navigate a world marked by a loss of transcendence, she is more motivated to be actively engaged in a robust faith that she discovers is brimming with it. Celebrating Mass at least once a week is central.

A religion brimming with transcendence begins with a priesthood celebrating the Mass who have been touched by heaven. As the leadership goes, so goes the people, an unmistakable principle writ large in the Book of Judges, in the history of the kings of Israel, and everywhere in contemporary life. Kathryn is fortunate to have a priest like Father Flynn, who is radiant with devotion and fidelity to his vows and to the teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Other priests call him “a John Paul II kind of priest.” She thinks he is other-worldly but in a good kind of way. His faithfulness to his vows gives him an eschatological dimension.

His adherence to the vow of celibacy configures him to Christ and our final condition in heaven where none of us will be married (Matthew 22:30). His fidelity to the vows of poverty and obedience make a clear statement: “I will not pursue riches and power in a world that is disordered and passing away. I’m looking for a City whose Builder and Architect is God.”

Thus, Kathryn’s workaday world, where the light of heaven often feels blocked out, is contrasted with Father Flynn whose life is configured and directed to eternity. Is it any coincidence that the three vows correspond in a redemptive manner to the three temptations common to man—Money, Sex, and Power? A rhetorical question, no doubt. In a world that has often become one large billboard that promotes these three temptations, a faithful priest can become like a signpost to our true homeland, a human advertisement for storing up treasure in heaven.

Kathryn arrives for the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday morning with Father Flynn officiating in a holy precinct where past, present, and future converge, where the saints in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory unite—a place where time intersects with eternity and the winds of heaven blow. For years she was not really aware what was going on during Mass beyond the broadest contours, but her understanding has been greatly enhanced in recent months by a book recommended by Father Flynn called What Happens at Mass, by Jeremy Driscoll, OSB. For her it has been an illuminating guide that highlights how much the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass transports the believer to the halls of heaven. We may be citizens of the United States or perhaps some other country, but, as the apostle Paul says, our true citizenship is in heaven.

Kathryn has highlighted certain portions of Father Driscoll’s book in yellow: “The whole Church has gathered; the Church on heaven and on earth, the Church across the centuries”; and “The altar is nothing less than the throne of God and of the Lamb.” She sees that the Mass begins with an Entrance Chant that echoes in heaven where the saints who have gone on to their reward and an innumerable company of angels join the assembled parishioners in singing. It culminates in the worshipper consuming the Eucharist, the Bread from Heaven, in heaven and being sent out as Bread to be broken for a hungry and hurting world. In between, amidst the readings of Scripture, ascending incense, and the Eucharistic Prayer, the believer is touched by the Good, the Beautiful, and the True—by Christ himself. In the Eucharist the worshippers behold Christ, and, in “beholding the glory of the Lord, [they] are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another…” (II Cor. 3:18 RSV).

When the Mass is celebrated in Latin today, the last words are “Ite missa est.” Reverends John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti are on-target in pointing out that the correct translation is something like, “Go, the [congregation] is sent,” instead of “Go, the Mass is ended.” Kathryn sees this as the commission of the gathered assembly to be sent out as salt and light to the world. The Ite missa est, among many other things, is a bridge between religion and culture: the believer who has been touched by transcendence (Christ) in the Mass is called to engage a secular culture that has suffered a great loss of transcendence. Engagement in the Mass is a most necessary and salutary preparation for engagement with the culture.

Words like transcendence can sometimes seem ethereal, elusive, and abstract. Kathryn finds Driscoll’s book very helpful in commenting on the Communion Rite: “What is happening here? What is revealed now? We can answer—we must answer—with an answer that seems too easy, that seems to say too much and too little. But we must say it and try to give it its concrete content. The answer is: Love. Love is happening; love is revealed. Love is communion.” The love we receive in the Eucharist is passed on to the people we meet in the shoe leather of daily living. A person with the scent of heaven is a loving person. Cultural engagement means many things—organization, wisdom, erudition, excellence, perseverance—but love is its preeminent feature.

Sometimes Kathryn will watch a show on cable TV where two people are locked in a fierce debate about a particular issue. To her chagrin, the person who represents her viewpoint is a confessing Christian who’s engaged in an ad hominem attack and is not treating his opponent with the proper dignity of someone made in the image of God. He may have a compelling argument but its force is greatly diminished by his shrill tone.

In contrast to this episode, Kathryn overhears two co-workers talking by the water cooler at work and is encouraged by what she hears. One of them recently walked very close to a protest that was going on at the Planned Parenthood that is not very far from work. He said, “I probably lean pro-choice but I will say this: the people who were protesting impressed me. I got a good vibe. It was a peaceful protest and I could tell they really cared for the women who were entering the building. I didn’t get a whiff of judgment or self-righteousness.”

“People are like salmon,” Father Flynn opines in a homily. “Scientists aren’t exactly sure how salmon, after being out in the ocean for four or five years, find their way home to the stream of their birth. Many seem to believe it’s some kind of combination of geomagnetism and a strong sense of smell. God is love; God is in heaven. Love is the fragrance of heaven. Over and over again people who report having a ‘near death experience’ and going to the other side, talk about the incomprehensible love they experienced there. The vast majority of people here today don’t have a large platform to influence others like the pope or even a parish priest, but you can, as Mother Teresa says, do small things with great love. This agape love, this love without self-interest, is the scent of heaven and can point people, like salmon, back to their true homeland.” After hearing the homily, Kathryn gets her pen out of her purse and writes on her church bulletin. She adds something new to her mission in life: provide road maps for salmon.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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