On Worship

Having followed the link in my latest Philosophical Skeleton Key on prayer to a prior post in which I set forth some of the metaphysical prolegomenae thereto, commenter Hambone there wrote the other day:

Kristor, you said:

Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship.

I’m somewhere in the middle of understanding this post and applying it – I have long struggled with making my faith *real* rather than mental affirmation coupled with ritual observance. What ARE you meant to be doing in worship? And how does that flow from the fundamental spiritual nature of life?

Commenter Rhetocrates then suggested that my response should be promoted to a post of its own:

That’s the $64 question, isn’t it? I’m still working on it. One never finishes working on it. One cannot. Worship is fathomless. How not? Its object is infinite. We cannot begin to have a complete answer to your question.

But, I can say a few things about it.

The first step is to move from mental affirmation of arid abstract philosophical propositions – those of the post above, for example, or those of Saint Thomas or Saint Anselm, or those of the Creed – to the actual reversal of figure and ground that must occur if we are to go from apprehending the corporeal as basic, and so more real, to apprehending that the spiritual is prior, basic, and thus more real; so that we can then see the corporeal as supervenient to the spiritual. This is the step of realizing, and then *feeling,* that the spiritual is *concrete.*

One sign that you’ve taken it is that your hair will rise with the wonderful, dreadful, mind blowing feeling that you are surrounded by spirits: angels, demons, the dead – *the living* – and indeed that everything around you – your clothing, the wood of the pew before you, the Missal, the stone pier, the ceiling, the window, the light, the smoke from the censer, your fingernail, that odd lady over to the right – is *entirely composed of spirits.* All of whom yearn for resolution and restitution, for reunion, with their Lord and Master, their Father and Husband; for rest, and for peace.

Notre Dame d’Amiens in the 19th Century

The more you rehearse this apprehension, the more readily it comes to you. Liturgy is one such rehearsal. So is prayer that intends God: that is directed ultimately toward God (perhaps through the intermediation of the saints) and that intends his purposes above and before all others, mysterious as they may be to us in any given situation.

Worship then opens up as an activity that you can undertake practically, as with anything else you do, such as cooking or driving. As with cooking or driving, there are many aspects to it: adoration, peace, prayer, repentance, discovery, understanding, glorification, communion, praise, blessing, integrity, healing, wholeness, exaltation, joy, song, quiet, rest, obedience, petition, and so forth. All are reiterated in each celebration of the Mass, at least a few times.

The key that opens all of them is your focused attention to what is happening in the liturgy, and what is meant by it. The liturgy of the Church is enormously deep. Every gesture, every word, is pregnant with layer upon layer of meanings and significations, derived from millennia of mystical experience, sapient philosophy, dazzling erudition, immense Biblical scholarship, and profound theological reflection – not to mention sublime musical genius, if you are so fortunate as to find yourself in a parish meetly participant in the Church’s artistic tradition (which at bottom is just that of the West).

The whole thing is quite intentionally engineered to bring the attentive, humble disciple to metanoia, and indeed to mystical ecstasy – to the vestibule of the heavenly Throne Room. No kidding; no exaggeration. This is true not only of the words and gestures of the liturgy, not only of the ethereal music – the resonant echo of angelic choirs – but also of the traditional church building, of the stained glass, of the vestments, of the needlepoint of the kneelers, of the carving of the pulpit and the pews, indeed of the very pavements. Every single item, in a traditional church, is the fruit of century upon century of mystical praxis, intentionally and carefully implemented for your benefit. Providence has arranged that it should be ready to your hand, ripe ever, and heavy on the bough.

Harvest that fruit. Take, and eat. It is right there, for the taking. Take, and eat. The Fruit who hangs on that Tree begs you to take him, and eat.

Pay attention in Church with all your might. Approach it with the same focus of mind you would muster for a dive out of an airplane, or a climb up Half Dome. For, it is far, far more perilous an undertaking than either of those, or than any other thing you might do; think, man: you propose to approach the Throne of Infinity.

That is what is at stake, when we go to Church. Or for that matter (if we are to be consistent about the pertinence of the Absolute to this or that moment of quotidian life) when we wake up, or go to sleep, or eat our breakfast. But, particularly at Church. For, the *entire point* of Church is to approach the Throne. Whereas, breakfast and sleep and so forth have, with those of the liturgy, also subsidiary objectives, to which we are too often bewitched, or by them confused. A properly ordered, holy life would find our morning ham and eggs – and, a fortiori, our coffee (thanks be to God for coffee) – as consecrate, and so as replete and as gorgeous as the Heavenly Banquet, of which they are salient and participant and significant.

Pay attention then at Church. Notice when you find yourself puzzled or intrigued by something. Take note of it – literally, write it down – and then research it. I promise you, you’ll be amazed at what you then discover. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you, right? Then, the next time you encounter it, you’ll relish and cherish it, and rejoice at the supernal genius of it. Then, the knowledge and understanding your researches have gained you will open up some new point of inquiry. It, too, will in like manner reward your study.

That development and expansion cannot end. Because why? Because God is infinitely deep, and *because the Mass on Earth is a participation of the Wedding Mass in Heaven,* by which we marry him, in and by which he informs us with his Lógos, and which proceeds sempiternally, plumbing ever deeper depths and soaring ever higher.

Let the liturgy teach you. Start with it now, soon. Just go, and humbly PAY ATTENTION. Then study, attend again, and wait. It will all come to you in time, and again and far more after time.

Excursus: Where the attention goes, all else follows; including the life of the spirit. Attend then to the right things, and you’ll be OK, however confused you may be to begin with. Attend to the wrong things, and boy are you in big trouble, no matter how tough your mind. This is why idolatry, sorcery, the occult, and magic are so abhorred by the Church (and any other serious mystical undertaking): they distract the attention from the proper ultimate object of all attention, which is God; and, so, they render the spirit vulnerable to the temptations of the demons, and lead her toward damnation.

7 thoughts on “On Worship

  1. Glad to see this get a full post! So everything being entirely composed of spirits – I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. It’s not difficult to conceive it for things that are living, but for the pew or my clothes I can’t quite figure it out. Is it that they began as ideas or acts outside of material reality before becoming tangible facts?

    • Yes. An event is not fully in act until it is completely enacted, and so definite. Only then can it possess properties such as location in a world, charge, momentum, atomic mass, and so forth. Only then, i.e., can it be a fact, and so exert causal effect of its own upon its successors. So every fact begins as a spiritual act.

      This is not to say that the pew has a life of its own, for it is not itself an integral actuality; it is rather an artificial assemblage or composition (by men) of actualities that have a life of their own (so that they are capable of assemblage). This is not to say that the lives of which the wood of a pew is made are much like ours. But nor should we say that such lives are *less* than ours.

      I should not neglect to mention also however that some compositions assembled by men – or, even by just the “happenstantial” interaction of dumb objects – do seem to come after a time to a life of their own. Who has not felt that an automobile or computer is oddly *stubborn,* and recalcitrant to his interventions? The same can go for other works of men: houses, churches, cairns, standing stones, cemeteries, battlefields, crossroads, cities, gardens; the list is long. To arrange a place is to arrange a niche for the habitation of some spirit fit thereto.

      Again, who has not felt the spirit of a raw wild place, in no way a human artifice? When I return to my family land in Vermont, I feel her welcome. When I return to the Grand Canyon, it is as if I enter a Temple or Throne Room, inhabited by her regnant spirit, wild, immense, inhuman, glorious.

  2. Pingback: On Worship | Reaction Times

  3. Do you have any practical suggestions for paying attention at Mass as a father of small children who act like small children even in church? Advise from more experienced parents would be appreciated.

    • Your task in that situation is to make yourself as a little child. While maintaining your paternal lordship, let yourself fall into the world of your children. Attend then to the liturgy, and to them, as they attend to things. You’ll be surprised at what you find.

      Your children are not impediments to the work of the Mass. They are – for you, at least, and while they are still so young – its main matter.

      The other thing that often helps is to talk to them about the OT reading beforehand. It’s often a pretty good story. Kids love repetition, as you know. They will relish hearing the story again during the service.

      The other thing I would suggest is to explain to them what is happening. Nobody ever did this with me, when I was a kid. Children *love* to understand what’s happening, and are far less likely to grow bored when they do. They love ritual, too, and are keen to understand their role in it, and how they ought to play it. Explain that everyone has a role to play, and show them how to play the role of congregant.

      Finally, kids are wide open to the holy. They are as open to the holy as they are to being afraid of the dark. Tell them before every service that they are about to participate something absolutely huge, so huge it is scary, even if they can’t see how. Then, go in with them and behave awefully. Let them see their father awestruck, struck dumb. They’ll take their cue from you.

      One thing is for sure: if you find yourself fretting about the noise they are making or their fidgeting, it’s all over. For you, and for them. Accept that there will be some fidgeting, especially among the pre-schoolers. Be yourself profoundly still and relaxed, and they’ll follow your lead. They’ll try, anyway.

  4. I was 16, with zero theoretical knowledge about religion and only practical experience of it at funerals. So at one funeral I asked the priest “Why are you telling God what a great gal grandma was? He is supposed to be omniscient. He knows that already?” He gave me that are-you-retarded-son look and explained that the funeral service is for the benefit of the family. Not for the benefit of God. But then why is that formulated so? It is obvious that every time a priest or you say in prayer or worship something that sounds like you are “informing” God, it is not so, you cannot “inform” an omniscient being. But why then is it formulated so?

    I also thought that all these things in the prayers or services, asking God to let granny into heaven, forgive our sins, or give us our daily bread, sound like talking to someone who thinks like “Well, I didn’t intend to give you all these things, but since you asked so nicely, I will give them to you.” And I found it silly. Surely if there would be such a bein as God, he would not be so… easily manipulated. Why people don’t do their religion in a more… grown-up way? Surely a “pretty please with sugar on top if” does not get you things you would otherwise not get?

    And then I learned a bit of theology from Ed Feser. God is unchangeable, hence He does not change His mind, hence he does not make decisions in the temporal sense. He did not get angry at you yesterday because you sinned and he did not forgive you today because you asked for it. As this would imply change. The mystery deepened.

    Eventually I figured out one thing. The priest was right. It is for the benefit of people, you and other people. Even when in worship you think you are giving God his due, it is impossible that it would benefit God. That it would give God something he wants to get but cannot get unless you give it to Him. So if it is any use at all, it must be for your benefit and for the benefit of other people.

    And that is cool, because then I can leave all this speculation about God whom I am not even convinced He exists aside and ask the question how possibly could prayer or worship benefit people? And this is a question one could answer by philosophy or science, a human kind of question. I am more comfortable thinking about human matters. I have a chance to figure out testable hypotheses and so on.

    Some of it is easy enough to decode. “Let thy will be done” means “Let NOT MY will be done. I should accept it and be happy if things happen in a way that is the best for all, and not in the way I wanted them to happen for my own benefit.” That is a pretty good idea, attitude to remind oneself frequently.

    But all these things that sound like informing God or asking some benefit from God implying the prayer will change God’s mind somehow? Why are people talking to God the way they would talk to a man? Because all people know is how to talk to men. We are not gods. We are not fluent in godtalk. And thus talking to God as if He was a man perhaps somehow benefits men. But I am not at all sure how. Perhaps “informing” God about ours sins helps us become conscious of our sins. Perhaps asking God to forgive our sins (asking for an impossible change in God’s mind about our sins) helps us to sin less in the future.

    • You are on the right track, and I encourage you to keep grappling with these matters. For example, it is correct that confession benefits the sinner by bringing his sins to his conscious awareness, along with the recognition of their problematic character, painful feelings of remorse and regret, the desire to do better, and so forth. Noticing a problem or error generally gets a person’s mind working on fixing it. And bringing something to consciousness usually has the effect of modifying it a bit. So confession and repentance offer a chance at reform of life that might not otherwise be available.

      That said, it is important to remember that God does not know about our prayers before they happen, but rather as they happen. He is eternal. That means there is no before or after in his life. Rather, all moments in all creaturely lives are present to him in a single eternal now.

      What that means in turn is that God’s responses to our prayers are not determined before we pray them, nor is the mundane future that leads forth from the moment they are offered. Thus prayer to him can be really effective: he can really respond, and the course of the future can be different than it might otherwise have been.

      By the way, this notion eliminates the apparent contradiction between Omniscience and, for example, Abraham changing God’s plan – with his prayer, his argument – in Genesis 18:22-33.


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