ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
12. The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. The Christian is indeed called to pray with his brethren, but he must also enter into his chamber to pray to the Father, in secret ; yet more, according to the teaching of the Apostle, he should pray without ceasing . We learn from the same Apostle that we must always bear about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame . This is why we ask the Lord in the sacrifice of the Mass that, "receiving the offering of the spiritual victim," he may fashion us for himself "as an eternal gift" .
Throughout my lifetime, I have heard the phrase “one hour a week” applied to religious observance. In my childhood when I complained that Mass was boring, my mother would say something to the effect of “Jesus Christ hung on the cross for three hours for your sins, so can’t you just sacrifice one hour for Him?” This is probably not what Church theologians had in mind when they coined the phrase “the sacrifice of the Mass” but then as now the term is not without multiple meanings. Thus, I had to smile at reading the opening sentence of Paragraph 12, the Council’s way of addressing the “hour a week” attitude toward worship.
The metaphor of the hourly worship carries meaning in American culture. Civil Rights philosophers speak of the Sunday worship meeting as “the most segregated hour in America.” In catechetics it is common to hear a contrast drawn between what someone does for an hour on Sunday and what he does for the rest of the week. The nefarious Irish mobster Doyle Lonergan (portrayed masterfully by Robert Shaw) was an honored Knight of Columbus when Robert Redford and Paul Newman brought him down for his sins in The Sting. In the broader sense, the stereotype of an individual who compartmentalizes life to an hour of devotion in an otherwise relentless search of this kingdom’s riches is not an empty metaphor.
Paragraph 12 highlights the importance of a full life of prayer and divine mindfulness, one that is not limited to the sacred hour, so to speak. There is an important implication here for Catholic morality as well, but Sacrosanctum Concilium limits the discussion here to public and private worship. I let off some steam last time around about the difficulty for Catholics to participate in the Mass when its actions are described in obscure language and the worshipper is left scratching his head; “what is it I’m supposed to be doing at Mass, and how do I do it?” Para. 12 carries the same drawbacks in its language describing prayer outside of Mass, which the Constitution states is where we should be doing most of our praying.
I flipped through my own parish’s bulletin, and there are no shortages of prayer-related resources, ranging from a posting of this week’s daily Scripture readings from the Mass to Eucharistic adoration to meetings of spiritual groups such as one locally inspired by the Carmelites. I am particularly happy to see clustering of laity around the various religious orders and movements of history—Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictine, etc.—which with proper guidance provide a daily spirituality of prayer, a way of religious thought or philosophy, and emphases on distinguishing lifestyle. Structure is a key to a prayerful life. (Per the infallible Facebook religious order screening posted by Mr. Zuckerberg a few years back, I am best suited toward Dominican spirituality, with its emphasis on study, contemplation, and writing—surprisingly close, to tell you the truth.)
Even with the background I enjoyed in religious life and ministry, prayer is still difficult for me, but I would be lost without the modest personal spirituality I have cobbled together over the years, thanks to a very patient God. Para. 12 draws a line between praying “with…brethren” and praying alone to God in secret. It speaks of such personal prayer as “without ceasing,” or to put it another way, a divine preoccupation. While the term “what would Jesus do?” is grossly overworked, it is a good barometer of whether one’s disposition is prayerful. Is the existence of God and the presence of Jesus of significance in all decisions I make?
I am interpreting the paragraph as advocating both social and private prayer outside of Mass. I know of businesses that begin with early morning Bible study and reflection, for example. But the most important “social prayer” outside the Mass is the family, particularly involving the spouses. Any catechism or teaching aid will speak of the values of family prayer, but not so many address the agenda of how a husband and wife pray with each other. My wife and I both progressed through religious formation programs as young postulants, so the use of the “breviary” or Liturgy of the Hours—in our case, Morning Prayer—comes rather naturally for us, nowadays laid out so easily on our Ipads. But I wonder at how hard it must be for couples without the background to establish an adult prayer rhythm that is both structured and spontaneously honest. Pastorally there is very little discussion of this in homilies or more importantly, in both general catechetics and adult education.
The matter of “prayer in secret” is more complex than it is stated here. In my own case, praying to the Father has come to mean facing my own doubts that there is a Father. Paradoxically, this kind of doubt is often the product of immersion in Scripture and the things of religion, as both St. Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa attested in their writings. About seven years ago, I made it my spiritual (and professional) project to study each book of the Bible, using an academic commentary for each book like the commentary on St. Matthew by Dr. France that we use in Tuesday’s posts. This has been an intensely powerful experience for me—but it has had the effect of impressing upon me the shallowness of my lifelong interpretations of the Sacred Word.
One work encountered along the way was F. Charles Fensham’s The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, intriguing works about the returning Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and their struggles to rebuild the physical and the ritual Jerusalem. A deep split festered between those who were exiles and those few who had remained and intermarried with captors. In the reform of Jerusalem (post 539 B.C.) there was considerable pain—physical copies of the Law were lost and found, and in the harsh light of a puritanical backlash many families were broken up in the name of ethic/religious purity. (See my reaction here.)
I have a healthy fear of Scripture, and sometimes it all seems too much for me. And so, I wonder about the good-hearted who have been exhorted to take the Bible into their hands, to lose themselves in its narratives. Who will guide them to a Dr. Fensham, for example, and more importantly, who will mentor them into understanding a massive history in their intense prayer over God’s word?