Thursday, July 18, 2013

Opus Dei or Opus Humani

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Most people who have never experienced the Traditional Latin Mass would imagine this happening: a priest, with the signature affront of having his back facing the people whilst seemingly being punished to stand against the wall like a juvenile miscreant, droning away the archaic Latin prayers with zero comprehension or participation on the part of the congregation, thus reducing them to passive spectators. Little do they realise that perhaps, the biggest surprise  or ‘culture shock’ that awaits first timers at such a mass would be the ‘deafening’ pin-drop silence that defines the whole celebration – to the unenlightened, a kind of soundless mime, punctuated with the ringing of bells, but with a difference: the performer faces the wall instead of the people. Not sure whether they will prefer the Latin to the silence.

The silence and the orientation are indeed baffling to our modern senses, where we are taught to establish and maintain eye contact when communicating as a sign of respect; where every waking moment is compulsively filled with activity and noise. In the fast pace world of modern living, with its glut of timesaving gadgets providing instant information and establishing instant communication, a world of silence seems altogether alien, and in fact alienating. But the priest’s demeanour, silence and gesture should not be interpreted as a lack of inter-personal skills or a refusal to communicate. On the contrary, he is engaged, in fact, he is absorbed in the deepest form and level of conversation and activity ever open to man – he is communicating with God; he is communing with God. In the midst of that profound silence, as he closes his senses to the noise of the world, turns away from mundane social exchanges, the priest immerses his soul in the same mystery he celebrates, and raises his heart above the cacophony of worldly concerns, into the awesome majesty of God.  

I cite the example of the Traditional Latin Mass not because we are going to return to this as the general norm of our Eucharistic celebrations in our parish. Many of you can sigh with relief that there is a limit to my seemingly anachronistic reforms. I cite it because understanding the immense value of silence and contemplation becomes the basis for appreciating what Mary does at the feet of Jesus. Most people would immediately empathise and side with Martha, who slavishly labours in the kitchen, but ends up with a painful rebuke from Jesus while her sister, the hopeless dreamer, gets a word of approval for lazing at his feet. This certainly does come across to us as a serious form of injustice. It is not hard to come to a positive assessment of Martha’s contribution set against the negative evaluation we often give to her sister’s perceived passivity, especially when we recognise that we are a culture that values noise above silence, action over contemplation, our effort over God’s.

Contemplation and silence is not easy and for many, seemingly impossible. We are so wired by our culture to work more and pray less. We have a sense that if we want something done, we're better off just trying to get it done ourselves. Activists often see contemplation, taking time off for retreat and prayer, as a luxury. We should be busy solving the problems in the world rather than wasting our time in pointless and fruitless prayer. Prayer is often seen as a cop-out, an excuse to shirk one’s responsibilities, and ultimately perceived to be a sign of weakness. The tragedy is that this attitude is not merely confined to the secular unbelieving world. Many good people within Church often buy into this ideology. Thus, Mary’s posture at the feet of Jesus is often mistaken for irresponsible passivity.

But as we reconsider this story once again in the light of the paradox of the gospel, Mary’s position at the feet of Jesus becomes a powerful testimony of the power of prayer. Mary is immersed in prayer, in adoration, in contemplation. She is captivated by the beauty of the one whom she beholds and deeply loves. She is indeed a figure, a type of the Church. Borrowing the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when speaking of the Church and her espousal to Christ, “she recognizes Christ as the fairest of men, the grace poured upon his lips points to the inner beauty of his words, the glory of his proclamation. So it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer's appearance that is glorified: rather, the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion ("eros"), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us.”

Mary’s posture should never be interpreted as passive inactivity or a sign of weakness. Rather, her actions reveals real strength that comes only with learning to sit at the feet of Jesus and coming to recognise that the greater work is the work that must be done by God – the ‘Opus Dei’ (God’s work) – rather than something which needs to be accomplished by man. As one popular author noted: “There is power in prayer. When men work, they work. But when men pray, God works.” As St Benedict once wrote in his Rule for fellow monks, "Let nothing be preferred to the work of God”. By speaking of the ‘work of God’ or ‘Opus Dei’, St Benedict was referring to the ‘work’ of praying, especially in praying the Divine Office, the official Prayer of the Church. This reflects the constant conviction of the Church that prayer is to be a primary responsibility of the Church, a responsibility that is often denigrated when the vitality of the Church is often measured against a benchmark of the number of activities organised. We often forget that our primary ministry is not so much in doing but praying, not strategising, but prostrating before God seeking His will, not clever strategies for manipulating people and events but trusting in God who moves in the hearts of even His most implacable enemies. Yes, we are called to ‘work’ but our main work is to pray!

Although love must necessarily express itself in action, one must constantly be aware of the danger of falling into activism – mistaking the love of work for the work of love. Work, activity and noise, instead of bridging the gap between persons eventually become outlets to escape from intimacy. And the paradox of this mystery can only be understood when we recognise that gazing at our neighbour does not mean turning our gaze away from Christ. Rather, the gaze of love given to our neighbour is only possible, if our gaze remains firmly fixed on Christ. Christians can fall into the error of believing that the love of neighbour is sufficient, whilst forgetting that everything proceeds from the ultimate love which is owed to God alone. Thus Pope Emeritus Benedict in an interview gave this wise caution, “Do not become utterly absorbed in activism! There would be so much to do that one could be working on it constantly. And that is precisely the wrong thing. Not becoming totally absorbed in activism means maintaining consideratio — discretion, deeper examination, contemplation, time for interior pondering, vision, and dealing with things, remaining with God and meditating about God.”

Mary’s posture sets the stage and mood for our celebration of masses. Too often our celebrations take on the character of the noisy, smelly, busy environment of Martha’s kitchen. We have lost a sense of the sacred which is evident in various ways: the predilection for ‘happy clappy’ theologically shallow songs that often speak more about ourselves rather than about God; the aversion of protracted periods of silence; the dissonance of over-casual behaviour and clothing that speaks nothing of reverence for the sacred. At the celebration of every mass, we need to learn to treasure the alternating rhythms of silence and song; speaking to God and then gently listening for His voice. We need to understand that ‘active participation’ calls for ‘interior participation’ of all the powers of the soul in the mystery of Christ's sacrificial love. Participation, in the first place, is something interior; it means that your mind and heart are awake, alert and engaged. Active participation certainly does not mean making a ruckus or engaged in frenzied activity. At every mass, we enter a sort of “sacred time” — an almost transcendental experience that feels as though it’s more of an eternal moment than a passage of minutes or hours. If the liturgy is a glimpse of heaven, then it should somehow communicate the same experience of eternity rather temporality. So, if one prefers quick painless noisily entertaining liturgies that finish within the hour over solemn unhurried celebrations that take no cognizance of time, perhaps this would indeed be a foretaste of what to expect at the end of our earthly pilgrimage. I often jokingly add, “In heaven, there are no clocks. But the walls of hell are covered with them.”

At every Mass, we encounter a place apart from the world, a place to meet to God, and just like Martha, a place to sit at the feet of Christ. It is a privileged opportunity to approach the awesome presence of God, the Real Presence of Christ in the Tabernacle. To do this, silence is essential. We need silence to focus fully on God and our presence before Him. This is hard work. But this hard work bears great fruit. In this silence we can achieve as never before a deeper understanding of the mass, a greater appreciation of the Real Presence, a more solemn reverence of the sacred. In its fullness silence itself is participation in God’s being. In silence we come to realise the smallness of our greatest achievement in the face of God’s great and marvellous work of salvation, and at the end it is God’s work that matters most of all.

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