Are modernist buildings good places to pray?

abbey church interior
source and overview

I may be somewhat of an anomaly. On the one hand I am an advocate of Traditional Catholicism, including Traditional Catholic architecture designed to serve Traditional Catholic worship. (If you search through this blog you will know this.) On the other hand I love much of modern architecture. I love many buildings that many others do not like. I grew up in a modernist house, I studied modern art and architecture in college, and I have been a fan of early twentieth century and mid-century modern art and design. With this in mind, I found this lecture about one of the more famous (infamous?) modernist churches to be quite fascinating, not only for its informative content, but also because the lecturer gives a highly (almost ecstatically) positive perspective on exactly the kind of church design many would deride without hesitation.

Abbey Church SJU_Inaguration__020
source and more images

This lecture below is by monk, educator, and artist David Paul Lange, OSB. Whether you agree with his assessments or not, this is an excellent overview of modernist principles in architecture, especially at the mid-twentieth century point, and why it made sense to people at that time to build a church according to those principles. It is also an excellent “unpacking” of the design, and the ideas behind the design, of a particular church, the Saint John’s Abbey Church:

I find Brother David Paul Lange’s speaking style to be a bit too breathless for my tastes, but he is a great evangelist for the modernist perspective in architecture, and for this church. But I have some questions:

  1. Is his understanding correct about both modernist architecture and his interpretation of this church? I think absolutely.
  2. Is this church a good representation of modernist architecture? Yes.
  3. Is this church worthy of praise? As an example of modernist thinking, yes. As an example of excellent construction, yes. As a place for worship, you tell me, but I think no, at least not within a proper understanding of ideal Catholic worship.
  4. Therefore, does this church represent a different ideal of worship than traditional Catholic worship, I think so. But you tell me.

Notice a few things:

  1. He speaks of praying more than worshiping. This makes sense given this church is for a monastic community which is focused a great deal on prayer, but it is also significant. The focus is more about the nature and needs of praying than offering a sacrifice to God. Praying in a church is a good and normal thing. However, prayer is a part of worship, but not the only part. Many spaces can be prayerful. Only specific kinds of spaces serve the needs of worship.
  2. He speaks a lot of his own feelings. In a sense this entire talk is an explanation of his personal experiences of this church, and his feelings during and about those experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that up to a point, but as a Catholic would it not be better to also foreground the Body of Christ as a corporate entity a bit more? In that sense he would then speak more of the nature of man in general and his relationship with God. And then tie it back to this church and how it functions.
  3. This is more about a “modernist space” than a church (hence the title of the lecture), even though it is a church where the Eucharist is celebrated. He points out the way the outside comes into the church interior, reminding those inside of the connection with nature, what time of day it is, what weather is outside, etc. In this sense I gather the space functions a bit like stepping into a forest and praying. I like this in a sense, but when I think of celebrating Mass I wonder about the idea of Heaven on earth and the traditional way churches close off the outside world and creating a space that is more heavenly than earthly.
  4. He speaks of the honest use of materials, and how older churches seem dishonest somehow, using paint to create false impressions and faux marble, etc. This is a particularly important part of the lecture. I too love the modernist focus on materials. I also don’t believe such focus is necessarily bad for church design, but a church interior should be (traditionally speaking) a kind of three-dimensional icon of Heaven. Rough, earthy materials that evoke nature have their place, but they should serve a heavenly image, no? Here’s something I might explore in another post, but consider this: Is not a statue of St. Michael (for example) fake because it is not actually St. Michael? Same for the Holy Mother, etc? Would not any church that aspires to create a sense of the heavenly liturgy within its walls be a dishonest use of materials? Maybe. But perhaps that’s a “dishonest” use of the word dishonest.
  5. The bell tower, he argues, with its horizontal lines, points to (or mirrors) the horizontal earth rather than to God. He claims it reminds him that God is everywhere and in all things, and perhaps that’s a good reminder, but this is a curious claim and raises the question, in my mind at least, what is the purpose of a church? To call us to the earth or to call us to Heaven? Do we not minister to each other (horizontally) because we have first sought out and worshiped God–a vertical action? If we do not begin with the vertical does not our horizontal orientation eventually become skewed?
  6. He also mentions that the population of monks used to be 350, but now are only 150. They don’t need such a big church anymore. Only by way of correlation, but still interesting (and troubling): They commit themselves to modernist ideas, they build a modernist church to symbolically represent that modernist spirit, and not long after they lose 60% of their members. Apparently modernism doesn’t need monks. Perhaps modernism doesn’t really need man either.
  7. At the end of the lecture, just before questions, he jokingly apologizes for going a bit long and keeping the Downton Abbey fans from their show — a show whose popularity arose from a longing for an earlier time, represented, in part, not by modernist architecture, but very traditional architecture, and clothing, and customs, etc. Will future generations swoon over the modernist mid-twentieth century in the same way? Perhaps Mad Men did some of that, but that is an awfully dark show.
  8. The first question at the end, by another monk (I believe), is exactly my question, and worth the time for watching this lecture. I have never been in this church, so I have no way of saying what my thoughts would be, but I also wonder if such a place is naturally conducive to prayer, or liturgy at all for that matter. And I truly get the experience from having studied art and swooning over art that others think is stupid or meaningless. And I also find the questioner’s reference to the new cathedral in Los Angeles being obvious a place of prayer puzzling, since it also has been roundly derided for its modernist and non-Catholic design. The answer to his question included: “Do people get modernism? I think the answer is no, by and large,” and “Until I explain this…” In other words, modernist art and architecture requires explanation in order to appreciate it. This is one of the attractions and weaknesses of modern art. I have experienced exactly that feeling of “getting it” after studying it. And yet, I think this may be why modernist architecture is not a good choice for Catholic churches. He also says we are not actually living in a “modernist” society. In terms of art and architecture this may be true specifically in light of design principles–modernism, from an art historical perspective occured at a time in history which is now past. However, the spirit of modernism as a philosophical and theological undergirding of society and the Church is still very pervasive. How modernism in ideas and modernism in design interrelate is a fascinating topic too big for this post.

In the end I find the Abbey Church a beautiful and amazing space. However, I do believe it is probably best suited as a performance space than as a church. I would not advocate a church being built along these lines. Rather, I think we should be informed more by the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass with its focus on God rather than man, uniformity with the Church through history, and creative use of new and old materials that look to the past for inspiration and the future for permanence and authentic timelessness — which can only be done by beginning with a true understand of both God and man.

Finally, I wonder if much of the problems with using modernist design principles and materials for Catholic churches could be solved if the liturgy was the Traditional Latin Mass. In other words, imagine if Vatican II never happened, and the Novus Ordo Mass never promulgated, could churches have been designed in somewhat contemporary and modernist fashion and still fulfill the needs of the TLM? Can architects build “honest” churches and still be Catholic? I think so. But also keep in mind that the St. John’s Abbey church construction began on May 19, 1958, and lasted until August 24, 1961 — well before the council even began, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated.

If you want to know a bit more about the architect Marcel Breuer:

If you want to know a bit more about the building of the church:

 

satan

A lot of Christians in the U.S. publicly complain about persecution at the hands of the godless secular society. They are sued, or spit on, or yelled at, or denied service, or given the stink eye, or sent bad tweets — and they wail against the injustice. A lot of Christians fight back, protesting, holding signs, denouncing their enemies, and even using the court system to make others treat Christians better. And, sadly, many Christian attack each other too. They publicly call out their brothers and sisters before other Christians as well as the godless society at large. They do this on social media of course, but also in the courts.

A lot of Catholics also complain about the Church, about bad bishops and bad popes, about weak leadership and false doctrine. They complain about bad liturgy and poor catechesis. Why doesn’t the Church do this, or that? What’s wrong with all those other Catholics? Why are they destroying the Church?

In short, Christians look at other people and see the enemy. This is not unique to Christians but, if you are a Christian, consider these words from St. Paul:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Do we take these words seriously? If we did what would we be doing differently?

I know Catholics who hate Pope Francis. They complain and denigrate the holy father. I’ve written before about my struggles with the pope. I understand the struggle, but who is the real enemy here?

If the German bishops have gone off the deep end and are very publicly courting heresy, are they the enemy? If Vatican II has wrought such damage, as some say, who is the real culprit? Many Catholics in Ireland just voted in favor of abortion, and then they loudly celebrate their win. Who’s victory is that really?

People have always dug wells where they believe they will find water. But why do they think water is where they think it is? Why do so many people make poor choices? Why do so many people reject God? Why is there so much evil in the world?

No human is innocent. We all have free will. We all must face judgement. But is the real battle between me, who is a sinner, and you, who is also a sinner? If we choose to love then has not the conflict ceased altogether? To battle is to seek the other’s defeat. To love is to seek their salvation. To be a Christian is to be Christ to others, and point them to Him.

We are living in a creation that is running wild with demons. Sin and Satan are the forces at work. They will have their way if we do not fight them. But it is God, in fact, who fights our battles for us. The winds of the modernist demons have swept powerfully around the globe for the past 200 years. They have caught up millions of souls, including priests and bishops and even popes, and certainly many, many Christians. The spirit of the age is the spirit of the evil one — some might argue it is also the spirit of Vatican II. I hope not, but I’ll let you judge.

Our battle, then, is not with each other. Our battle is against Satan and all his works and all his empty show. Put on the armor of God. Remember your baptism. Take up your cross. Rejoice in your sufferings. Love others as Christ has loved you. Let God and His mighty angels fight your battles.

And lean into the fight. Carry the banner. Do not be afraid. God is with you. Trust Him. Pray, and pray, and keep praying.

I write these words because I need to hear them more than I need to write them, but there they are.

St. Michael the Archangel, 
defend us in battle. 
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. 
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, 
and do thou, 
O Prince of the heavenly hosts, 
by the power of God, 
thrust into hell Satan, 
and all the evil spirits, 
who prowl about the world 
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

St_Michael_Raphael

This lecture is worth the entire two and half hours. And it is a packed two and a half hours. Every bishop should watch it. Every priest too. It is profound and filled with riches to ponder and meditate upon. It is also filled with many challenges. Share it with others. Discuss it.

I am not a conspiracy nut, nor am I a staunch traditionalist, nor am I prone to sectarianism or division, etc, etc, but…

Given the connection between the message of Fatima and the Mass, and given a number of connections and observations Mr. Rodríguez makes, it makes sense that the third secret of Fatima has not been fully revealed. It seems rather clear that the message is very likely a direct challenge to the spirit of Vatican II and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass. And given that the third secret was to be revealed in 1960 and wasn’t, and also by that time the pope and other key individuals in the Church were intent on changing the Mass and bringing about a glorious revolution, no one in leadership (including popes St. John XXIII, B. Paul VI, John Paul I, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis) has wanted to open that can of worms — whether to cancel the council, or redirect its purpose, or not promulgate a new rite of the Mass, or call all of it into question after the fact. Perhaps they would all feel (or have felt) like they would need to officially abandon the Novus Ordo Mass altogether and they just can’t handle admitting that Vatican II was not the work of the Holy Spirit but of man alone. If this is true, then certainly what we have seen in the Church over the past fifty years are the profound and terrible results of God’s judgement — the list of troubles is staggering. Of course, I cannot say all this is true for I know almost nothing about it, but I wonder, I really wonder. Certainly it is deeply sobering to consider. (And the only “arguments” against this that I’ve come across consists of eye rolling. Thin arguments indeed.)

I worry that a great many cardinals, bishops, priests, and perhaps some popes, from the last half century or more, will end up in Hell because of the destruction they have brought about.

What?!

the-inferno-canto-19

Am I way off? Is Mr. Rodríguez wrong? What am I missing?

I have been rereading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. It is such a profound and enriching book. I find this true even more so on a second reading. I feel someday the Church will call him Saint Robert.

This beautiful video gives some sense of who Cardinal Sarah is, and his insights on silence in the life of Christian faith:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

photo 3
The crucifix on my desk where I kneel and pray.

Each morning, after my Bible and Catechism reading, I try to pray the rosary. The rosary played an important part in my coming into the Catholic Church. I wrote about it here. I have come to love the rosary. Praying the rosary every morning helps me get through the day. When I go to bed at night, I look forward to praying the next morning — that and my coffee. (Before you read further, know that I am not at all pious. The life of faith is a struggle for me.)

Here’s the basic form I follow:

First, if I can, I pray kneeling. I have set up a crucifix, a tryptic of Mary, and a candle on my desk. These things help me focus and get my mind and heart into a more devotional mode. I don’t need them, but I like having them.

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The icon on my desk where I kneel and pray.

Typically I’m the first one awake in the morning in my house, so it is quiet. I usually up at 4 AM. I have tended to be very self-conscious in the past, so it was hard to pray if I knew others knew I was praying. Now it’s easier for me. Sometimes my son (now 8 yrs old) walks in on me. I invite him to pray with me. Sometimes he says yes… for a while at least. I need to do a better job of having my family pray together. This is a big area of failure for me.

Second, I tend to follow the standard rosary structure, with a couple of common additions. Note: I am praying the Rosary more and more in Latin. The Devil hates Latin, so I’ve been told on good authority. Here’s my morning prayer:

  • I cross myself
  • then I recite the Apostles Creed
  • then I pray the Our Father
  • then I say “For an increase in the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity,” then pray three Hail Marys
  • then I pray the Glory Be (I always cross myself each time I pray this)
  • then I read the first mystery (I sometimes use the Laudate app on my phone to provide these texts, and to remind me of the prayers if I forget the words)
  • then I pray the Our Father
  • then, just before I begin the decade, I ask Mary for her prayers. I have a little notebook that I keep a list of my prayer intentions. They have basic headings: Family, Church, Work, etc. Each heading has below it a number of specific things that I pray for, such as my wife, each of my three children, holiness, the Pope, our parish priests, etc, etc. Each heading group gets one decade of the rosary. For example, the first decade is for my family, the second for the Church and the world, etc.
  • after each decade I pray the Glory Be prayer, and then the Oh My Jesus prayer (as asked by Our Lady of Fatima — this I feel is very important)
  • after praying all five decades, I follow with praying the Hail Holy Queen
  • then I sometimes pray the Our Lady of All Nations prayer (which is linked to Fatima), though I pray this less these days. Perhaps I should more
  • then I cross myself
  • then I pray the intercessory prayer to St. Pio of Pietrelcina. I do this for the restoration of my parishes original high altar to be moved back to the sanctuary, for a TLM institute or society to be established in my parish, for a TLM religious order to be established in my hometown, and that my parish would become an inspiration for our diocese in terms of worship, TLM, and passion.
  • then I finish with the St. Michael the Archangel Intercessory Prayer
  • I then cross myself and blow out the candle

The whole thing takes about thirty to forty five minutes, depending on how much time I devote to my list of individuals to pray for.

By the fourth decade my knees are usually killing me. It’s a struggle to keep going. This will sound funny to contemporary ears, but I want to pray like a Medieval–that is, accepting my suffering as a reminder of the efforts we all have to make towards holiness. So I shift my weight from knee to knee, but I try to stay kneeling. Maybe it will get easier eventually.

As an aside: I have written before on the physicality of faith, the life of prayer, confronting the holiness of God, and what that requires of our bodies. We live in a neo-gnostic or neo-dualistic age where we have lost touch with the fact that the human person is body and soul together forever. We separate “ourselves” from our bodies: we are spirits and our bodies are things. I believe the Medievals, however, knew better the physicality of spirituality and true worship of God. They sought divinization. Most Christians today probably have not even heard of divinization. I think the “spiritual but not religious” thing is driven mostly by this neo-gnosticism/dualism and those ignorant they are neo-gnostics/dualists — where spiritual is equated with the self and thus good, and religion is equated with the body and thus bad or less-than.

My family and I live in a wooden area. If it is light enough outside I will open the curtain and look out at the trees. Sometimes there are deer and wild turkeys making the way through the neighborhood. There was even a bear sighting recently not far from our neighborhood. Rather than a distraction, however, I find their presence reminds me of God the Creator.

I’ve also become fascinated and inspired by the idea of the rosary as a spiritual weapon. I especially like this talk by Fr. Don Calloway. May we all be so enthusiastic for the rosary. My recent post of a lecture series on Fatima and the end times speaks volumes to why we need to all be praying more.

Pray the rosary.

revelation

Did the message of Fatima predict the sexual abuse crisis we are facing today? Or the collapse of the Church post-Vatican II? Or the rise of rampant modernism and its evils, even among churchmen?

I find this series of lectures to be both fascinating and profound. In total it’s about fourteen or fifteen hours long. That’s a lot, but it’s worth taking the time. Let me repeat that, it’s worth taking the time. I believe I know the priest’s name, but I will not post it for it has been asked that people not post post his name. I can say I believe he is a “traditionalist” priest of the FSSP, and thus presents what to many listeners might be a very “conservative” — though I prefer orthodox — perspective. He strikes me as a man of deep faith.

I grew up in an end-times obsessed “Christian” semi-fundamentalist Protestant subculture. I read a number of the popular books on the topic in the 1970’s. Eventually I became disinterested and moved on. Now, as a Catholic, I have a different perspective, and I find myself interested again. And this time, largely by way of my growing interest in our Lady’s appearances at Fatima, and in her message, I am drawn to again to the great plan of God and the salvation of the Church as the centerpiece of creation history.

Other than having read many time the typical end-times biblical prophecies, almost all of the content of these lectures is new to me. I cannot say one way or the other that this priest is truly on target, but I find myself compelled to dig deeper. I will say one could find a lot of doom and gloom in these lectures, but I think there is ultimately a lot of hope, great hope in fact. Christ is Lord. God is sovereign. The end is known. Have faith.

[I have gathered together and posted these videos from Sensus Fidelium. I thought there may be value is presenting them as a unit. The priest’s voice is often quiet, headphones help.]

Again, let me repeat myself, it’s worth taking the time.

Lastly, these videos are by a traditional Catholic priest and they contain a traditional perspective on social and moral issues. Clearly this perspective is at odds with the mainstream narrative of our culture. I post these videos not as a wholesale endorsement, but as part of my process of learning about various perspectives in my pursuit of Truth.

Not very far from my home is a Carmelite Convent. It was founded in 1957. I believe there are only a handful of nuns living there, and I believe they are all quite advanced in years, but I am not sure. I have been interested in the life of prayer and contemplation. Since reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s amazing book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise I have become even more interested in silence and its role in the life of faith and the pursuit of holiness. So I’m curious about communities who live out lives of contemplation, prayer, and often silence.

I am also curious about why a woman would enter a convent. These two videos show some of the life inside a Carmelite convent, one in England and the other in New Zealand. The first is very beautiful, but I wonder how many women would seek out such a place. The second shows what appears to be a more vibrant life and younger nuns. Of course every video has a perspective and manipulates the material to its own ends. Regardless, I find both fascinating.

Again, I can’t say whether either one of these options presented is attractive. I don’t know what young or old women think and feel about such things, except what they say in the videos and, frankly, it’s still mysterious to me at some level. Regardless, the first video seems to present a convent of old women taking care of very old women. There are just no young women at that place from what I can tell. The second video seems more attractive, more vibrant. Still both places seem to have merely a handful of nuns. I wonder what such a video (or film) might show if one had been made a hundred years ago. Would we have seen convents of hundreds rather than a dozen or less, and of all ages more well represented?

Because of my own proclivities I noticed the nuns in the first video take the Eucharist in the hand, while in the second they recieve it on the tongue. Does this matter to the life they live? Does this reflect their ages — the older nuns in the first and the younger in the second? I have heard religious groups with more traditional practices are growing while others are fading. I can’t tell from the videos, but I wonder.

Finally, I love that there are nuns, and we need their prayers. As I wrote previously, we need more nuns (and sisters).

Salus Populi Romani
Salus Populi Romani

Sunday

Mary, Mother of our Redeemer and Mother of the Church, we offer you the praise of the Angel of the Annunciation–Hail, full of grace! Through you the Holy Spirit gave this world Jesus its Savior–Son of God, Word made Flesh, Foundation of the Church.

Monday

Through you God’s holy people, his Church on earth, appeal for light and strength in its pilgrimage of faith. You have gone before us on the same journey and are now glorified in heaven. Be for us who are still on that journey of faith a true Star of the Sea, leading us to the presence of your Son where he sits at the right hand of the Father, enthroned in glory.

Tuesday

You were the first to believe. You persevered in prayer with the disciples in the Upper Room. You were a unique witness to the mystery of Jesus. All generations have called you blessed. Now in this Marian year God’s holy Church looks yet again to you for inspiration and help.

Wednesday

Be our Mother. Share with us your limitless faith. Take and keep us within your protective arms in a world that has largely lost faith and abandoned hope. Petition for us from your Son—as once you did so powerfully at Cana of Galilee—an increase of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life so that the Church may flourish in our time and thereby magnify his name. Touch the hearts of all our youth that they may see in every walk of life an opportunity to serve.

Thursday

Take from all our hearts the selfishness that sours relationships and keeps us centered only on ourselves. Give us hearts aflame with charity and filled with love. Make us, like the apostle John who was commended to your care, loving children of our heavenly Father, conscious always of your maternal presence in our lives.

Friday

Look favorably upon your children in our failure to provide the one flock under one shepherd for which Jesus prayed. Shine forth for us and for all the peoples as a sign of sure hope and solace as we strive to make our pilgrimage of faith hand in hand. Be our common Mother who prays for the unity of God’s family. May we see in you our model of that obedience of faith which should be found in all who listen attentively to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.

Saturday

He who is mighty has done great things for you. Humbly we ask that you in turn may do for us these things for which we pray in the name and through the power of that most Holy Spirit who lives and reigns in the unity of the Father and the Son, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[I posted this once before, but as I am doing some current study of both Mary and prayer, I came across this post and wanted to publish it again.]

Years ago I bought my first rosary. This is it:

image1

It’s about as simple and plain as one can get. I think it was about $7.00. I now have more than one rosary, but that first rosary is in my pocket with me every day, even as I write this. I typically use this rosary to pray every morning too.

I lived more than forty seven years as a Protestant before becoming a Catholic. The last seven of those years I began searching, researching, and praying. I was being drawn to the Church and, in a sense, I think I knew it. I looked at a lot of choices, including the “emergent church” and Eastern Orthodoxy. But it was the Catholic Church that won my heart and mind.

At some point during those final seven years before entering the Church I purchased the rosary above. I did it secretly, from an online vendor. I cannot express the mix of emotions I felt, having come from a significantly anti-Catholic background. Once it arrived I kept it hidden. I had feelings of carrying contraband when it was in my pocket. I searched online for resources on how to pray the rosary. I printed a one-page guide and kept it folded in my pocket. The guide got so beat up that the creases were taped and retaped to hold it together. I guess I could have just printed a new one, but I tend to get sentimental about these things.

On more than one occasion I thought I lost the rosary. Each time I’ve prayed and then found it. I can get a little panicky about it. I’m not superstitious, but I do care a lot about this particular string of beads.

If I could afford to do so, I would have many rosaries. But it’s this one that’s most precious to me. When I got this rosary I had a strange and, frankly, bizarre feeling somewhere deep in my soul that the Catholic Church was an actual possibility for my life, and I was also convinced there was no way I could ever become Catholic. Equally strange, I really wanted to have a rosary. I had never held a rosary. It’s possible I had never even seen a rosary in real life. I had certainly never prayed to Mary. I had never prayed to anyone other than God the Father or Son. I was trained to think praying to Mary was a form of paganism. But I was weirdly compelled to explore.

So, I got the rosary and learned to pray it. And then, eventually, I began to ask Mary to solve my dilemma. Looking back this seems funny, but I wondered if Mary could get me into the Church — assuming it was God’s will, of course.

Of course she could, and she did.

Catholic News Service recently did a series of video reports on Gregorian Chant, what it is, and how it’s making a comeback in the Church. This is a great introduction to the music of the Church, in essence an ancient form of prayer that seemed at times to have been lost, but has been with us all along.

This last video is somewhat interesting in that the music in it is mostly not chant at all. Still, beautiful music.

The true Benedict option:

From the YouTube description: “In the Jubilee year 2000 the monks of Norcia breathed new life into the birthplace of St Benedict. Armed with only their faith and zeal they founded a monastic community which has been attracting men from all over the world to follow St. Benedict’s ancient Rule. Many of their friends have long wanted an insight into the inner workings of their life and so they have produced this high quality up to date film which shows the monks as they go through the daily ora et labora. The title of the film, ‘Quaerere Deum,’ means to Seek God. This is the true calling of all monks, the first and most essential quality of an authentic monastic vocation, as laid out in the Rule of our Holy Father St. Benedict.”

The Monks of Norcia website.

…by Fr Jeremy Driscoll, OSB of Mount Angel Abbey

A popular book these days is Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The monks at Mount Angel Abbey are benedictine. If you find Dreher’s perspective meaningful, then these monks offer a picture of that option — not to say you should enter a monastery (though maybe you should), but you might consider doing the Divine Office every day. Some would argue this is not really what Dreher means, but I say it at least is part of the soil out of which any consideration of any kind of Benedict Option must grow, otherwise it’s something else, perhaps just marketing spin.

About Fr Jeremy Driscoll, OSB

About Mount Angel Abbey

A woman carrying flowers cries in front of the Carillon cafe and the Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris Saturday Nov. 14, 2015, a day after more than 120 people were killed in a series of attacks in Paris. French President Francois Hollande said at least 127 people died that Friday night when at least eight attackers launched gun attacks at Paris cafes, detonated suicide bombs near France's national stadium and killed hostages inside a concert hall during a rock show. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A woman with flowers cries in front of the Carillon cafe and the Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris Saturday Nov. 14, 2015, a day after more than 120 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

What can we say about France? The image above says more than any words can.

What horrors, what unspeakable terror; these words seem to lack meaning.

And it’s not just France, it’s the world really. Tragedy everywhere. Broken hearts.

Even for the Christian, who claims a future hope, there is no escape from weeping.

Pray for Paris. Pray for France. Pray for the world.

“Moses, Moses!”
“Here am I.”
“Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
(Exodus, chapter 3)

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Recently I have been praying in the mornings. I created for myself a place to pray. I face east, light a candle or two, and kneel. I pray novenas and rosaries, move the beads in my fingers one by one, cross myself, bow my head. It’s not much, but praying this way a fairly new thing for me. I feel drawn to a more physical expression of prayer.

What is it about kneeling? Holding beads? Candles? What is it about these physical things? Some might say they are trappings, or hindrances, or worse.

Moses was asked to take off is shoes. Why? Did God need this? I doubt it. Did Moses? I’m sure he did.

During the Penitential Act of the Mass we strike our breast three times while saying this: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

We speak and we strike. It’s deep truth, it’s of the heart, it’s also physical. We confess physically, we worship physically. We bow. We kneel.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
(Psalm 95:6)

I am curious about the physicality of worship; the actual, physical nature of worship. Perhaps more than curious, because the emphasis on the physicality of faith is one of the characteristics that drew me towards the Catholic Church and away from my Protestant roots. I found a richness in Catholicism and a kind of poverty in evangelical Protestantism. I’m sure some would disagree with me.

I also find those verses in Holy Scripture that point towards, or mention, physical acts of worship more than merely interesting. We are physical beings. Christ is physical (fully man). He drank, he ate, he knelt in prayer, he climbed up the mountain, walked into the garden and out to the wilderness. He stood, strolled, sat, slept. He broke bread. He went to the temple. He was whipped, beaten, crucified. He is God become man — the “physical act” par excellence. He worshiped with his body. Our bodies are part of our worship.

Consider:

It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns the years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit’s training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us aways from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine. (Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough)

Perhaps four bare walls and a pulpit is the symbol of a disembodied, even gnostic, faith. Perhaps the non-biblical, historically recent “doctrine” of the rapture speaks of that same desire to be free of the physical. Perhaps denying the Real Presence is just an example of fear — fear of our humanness, of our bodies, that God is actually one of us.

I can’t say. I wonder.

But I know the physicality of worship is everywhere in scripture, even in moments we might overlook.

And when our days there were ended,
we departed and went on our journey;
and they all, with wives and children,
brought us on our way till we were outside the city;
and kneeling down on the beach we prayed and bade one another farewell.
(Acts 21:5)

Kneeling on the beach. I would love to have a time machine. What is it about kneeling? Why not stand in a circle and hold hands? Or just stand around smiling with “Jesus in their hearts” or some such thing? No, they knelt — with Jesus in their hearts I’m sure, with love for each other, with the Spirit at work amongst them I’m sure, but they also knelt.

Is there a law at play here? I think so. Our human nature seems created for worship, and to do so with common, predictable, even specific kinds of actions. Why wouldn’t there be some similarity across humanity, across space and time? Scripture tells us this is true. Our nature, including heart, mind, and body, seem to cry out for a totality of worship — a combination of heart, mind, and body together in action.

We know that some situations just call for physical action, whether worship or supplication or awe…

Then Abram fell on his face…
(Genesis 17:3)

Then she fell on her face…
(Ruth 2:10)

And Jo′ab fell on his face…
(2 Samuel 14:22)

…and they fell upon their faces…
(Tobit 12:16)

…he fell on his face…
(Luke 5:12)

…falling on his face…
(1 Corinthians 14:25)

Across the ages, welling up from within their humanness, individuals act in similar ways. There is a physical connection, built into the human body, connected to mind and heart, to situations and contexts that call forth acts of worship, deference, and awe. Is this not a law of nature, of creation itself?

Does a law mean there is a right way and wrong way to worship? I think so — at least some ways seem better than others (I’m no expert).

Does a law mean one is shackled, suppressed, controlled? No. A law is the path to freedom — like the athlete at play, or the rules of the road making driving safely possible, or a structure of government laying the foundation for civil society. You don’t have to kneel, bow your head, and certainly not light a candle or face east. But if you do, you just might be doing something good for your soul — something fitted to your very being itself. It’s your choice. It’s a mystery.

Do we “make up” the law? No. We discover it, like a miner discovering the vein of gold, or an explorer finding new lands, or a scientist understanding a fundamental rule of nature. The law is like a gift — something good and precious, and for our benefit.

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Do we need to discover this law anew every day? No. We can listen and observe those who have come before us and have already discovered the law. But we can experience it fresh every day, for no day is the same, and life keeps moving.

We can look to the past.

And all the men and women of Israel,
and their children, living at Jerusalem,
prostrated themselves before the temple
and put ashes on their heads
and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.
(Judith 4:11)

Why does God care that we act out our hearts and minds? Why prostrate? Why ashes? Why sackcloth? Today this is a curiosity, mere archaeology — see how strange they used to behave, clearly the actions of a simplistic people, right? Incomprehensible. Inconceivable. Perhaps we have become blind and incoherent in our sophistication. Perhaps we are the simplistic ones. We lost something precious, have we not?

Okay, ashes and sackcloth may be too strange for us, but how about some appropriate form of penance? Or some act of sacrifice? It might be good for us. How about kneeling in prayer?

We don’t act out our faith for God. I don’t think He needs any of that. But we need it, because God made us this way. He created our nature, gave us the gift of worship, bid us to worship rightly because in that we find life. It is for us, not for Him. Kneel because it is good for you. Face east because you know this is a tradition of the Church; facing towards the rising of the sun, pointing towards the new day and the harkening to the beauty of the risen Christ. Can you face in another direction? Sure. Which way is better? Discover the answer in your meditations.

Moses took off his shoes. He was standing on holy ground. Where is our holy ground?

And he took a cup,
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them,
and they all drank of it.
(Mark 14:23)

There is no secular world, not ultimately. There, truly, is only the sacred. What we call secular is merely that which we grab for ourselves and call ours. But it is not ours. All belongs to God. Every one and every place is holy, sacred, belonging to God, made for His purpose. Sin corrupts much of this gift. We can fashion ugliness, do terrible things, turn from God in many ways, but God can make all things new and good, even our darkest actions, even our hardest hearts. All things are God’s, true, but there are some things which are called out, for our sake, to be seen clearly as holy — places and times that require worshipful action. These are great gifts of “holy ground” for us. The greatest is the Holy Eucharist — really, truly, and substantially Christ present with us.

The cup of blessing which we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
(1 Corinthians 10:16)

We kneel, genuflect, bow, pray. We sing, chant, speak. We go, enter, stand, sit, be. We eat. We drink.

We worship.

Our bodies are made for worship.

[A] thing which Catholics do not realize about converts is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic Church. The effort is takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort. ~ Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain

So true.

Perhaps it is my Baptist upbringing, and a West coast kind of sensibility as well, but kneeling to pray, even in a Church, even in a living room, can be difficult. Worried one’s family would stumble upon you praying the rosary can also be an embarrassment one wants to avoid. It’s strange, really. Why worry? I know I have felt that embarrassment, that sense of worry, being self-conscious about it.

It is agonizing, on various levels too. For to kneel and pray in a Catholic Church, before the Blessed Sacrament is one of the deep longings that many converts feel. To leave the world of the evangelical Protestant aesthetic and enter into a truly sacred place, perhaps lit by candles, perhaps filled with icons and statuary, and then to kneel before the Real Presence and pray without embarrassment or worry of self-consciousness, is one of the common reasons many converts are drawn to the Church. And one can agonize right at that crux of self-consciousness and desire.

I suppose many cradle Catholics merely wonder why this is an issue (if they are even aware). Why a tremendous effort? Why an effort at all?

It is.