Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Best is Yet to Come

How hard it is to change a habit, even when motivated!  I really want to get the words  of the new translation right but the old phrases are so automatic, I still stumble.  It humbles me when I think about all those habits I only give lip -service to changing because, after all, I like them in spite of the fact that that they lead me astray.  Or the habits I will not even try to break because I like them too much and cannot see any benefit to be had from changing them.   

Not a bad Advent lesson.  We are called to change and even when we enter into it with a full heart, change is hard.  And sometimes, we refuse even to see the need for change because our habits are too much locked up with our preferences and the gifts of change are obscured by the pleasures of the present.  It bears remembering that there are gifts to be had, always.

An Episcopal friend and I have been talking about the new mass translation.  He is delighted with it, for like so many Anglicans, he revels in the majesty of liturgy and language.  He’s been very open about the fact that, despite his general agreement with Catholic teaching, he’s not inclined to come home to Rome in part because he can’t handle what he calls the “Catholic aesthetic.”  Translation—he finds the mass flat and uninspired, especially the just-retired version.

I know exactly where he is coming from.  I left the same ecclesial environment in which he remains.  It was hard for me to hear the plain words of the old mass and to hear music which, by the standards of a parish where Durufle and Mozart and Beethoven and Bach were weekly staples, was pedestrian at best and downright awful on occasion .  Count me as one of those who  would die a happy woman if she never sang anything by Bernadette Farrell,  Dan Schutte or Marty Haugen ever, ever again. 

It was a hard, hard change to come into an environment when I sang the things I so disliked so regularly, and to say things that were so ordinary compared to the ornate language of the Book of Common Prayer—especially during the long preparation for reception and  especially when the Episcopal church downtown had such a good music program and such a beautiful service.  It was an effort…but change always is, even when it is change we want to make.  Like learning the words of the new translation, even with desire and effort, change was long in coming, punctuated by small victories and small losses all long the way. 

In those early days, the losses were common, the victories few and far between.  I often felt so empty during the mass, leaving not quite satisfied, the itch of my high Church liturgical nature not scratched. I can recall the feelings with clarity even now.  It was a long preparation of my heart for the Lord I was eventually to receive on Easter, a long and patient wait, hoping that, in fact, as He does at the end of Avent,  the Lord Jesus would come to me. 

Come He did, and as He always does, in a way I would not have chosen or expected.  Not in a palace, but in a stable.  Not with courtly language but with plain.  He came only when I was made ready, by waiting and changing, to come with open hands and heart, without preconditions.  

He came  though His church when I cleared out some things that stood in the way of His arriving—like my excessive attachment to exalted language and classical music.  He came when I was ready to accept what was given in an attitude of at least some humility and gratitude.  My battle with learning to love and accept a liturgy I did not especially like was an outward sign of a deeper engagement, with both change and what it means to have faith.

Last Sunday, our pastor reminded us that as Christians we move through change with faith that what we are leaving behind will be replaced with something better.  A life with out Christ for a life with Him. This earthly life with the next, glorified one.  A life of pleasure with a life of service.  A Iife of self-determination for a life of obedience.    

I wasn’t always so sure of that, in the beginning.  I would not have called it faith, then, but faith it was that kept me in the pew until Easter Vigil. It has kept me there since, that faith I didn’t know I had: faith that what would come later would be better than what I have in hand. 

And it is.  It continues to be and my faith that what comes next will be even better is beginning to grow, even when I don’t  recognize the faith or see the changes.  Like the Jews of old, sometimes I look to the horizon, knowing there is a dawn coming, even when things look a little dark in the immediate neighborhood.  And I want to be ready when dawn arrives., because I know it brings good things.  I know in part because I already experience them.

All worship falls short, no matter how beautiful it is and how much I might enjoy it.  And I have learned, all over again, that tastes are just that.  The Church is simple enough that a child can understand it, and great enough that a mind like St. Thomas Aquinas cannot begin to encompass it.  It is any wonder that her liturgical expressions span the same wide distance?

All worship is imperfect, even the kind I so love and crave.  Worship is, in a sense, the particular sensory experience and expression of a much deeper reality.

In my former life, communion meant drinking from a chalice filled with the deepest, reddest, richest port.  The very smell of it still kindles memories of dignity and incense and majesty.  These days, depending on the parish I am in, the wine may be pink and sweet, or golden and sweet, or red and full or—in the little Italian parish I frequent  in Maine—red and sour. 

Consecrated, it all becomes the Precious Blood.  It doesn’t matter whether I care for the particular wine used for communion or not.  God knows, and knows well, that I do have preferences in these things but t is not the accidents that  I come for, it is the essence, the substance.  It is Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity.  What else matters?  Certainly not my distaste for strong and sour Italian wine.   Or Marty Haugen’s music.

So it is with the words of the liturgy.  As long as the essentials are met, the rest of the language becomes almost like the choices in wine, the variations having different things to teach and different ways of forming me.  I gave over my love for the courtly language from Lambeth to be rewarded with the sacramental life of the Church, and in due time, to be rewarded with the elevated, complex, courtly language of the new mass.   I gave over my attachment to the high music of the Anglican liturgy to be rewarded, not yet with similarly beautiful music (…or at least, not often), but by learning to be touched and formed by music I don’t really like, because it too has much to offer and it, too, carries with it the messages of the Mass. 

It is almost as though I had to decide that loving God and being in His Church, the Church,  were more important than my love of the other beautiful things He had  provided for me elsewhere, though that conscious thought didn't surface until well after I had been received.  It is, after all, the first Advent lesson: Mary and Joseph planned one way of life, one according to their preferences, but God had another plan.  More complicated, less obvious, far harder, it required them to set aside their plans to accept His gifts.  So it was with me and the words and music of the mass, then and now.

It took the eyes of faith for me to recognize the Eucharistic Lord beneath the appearances of bread and wine.  It took a leap of faith for me to meet Him inside a mass I once found ill-fitting.  But I did and was rewarded.  Thankful for all that has gone before, all that I knew and loved, I now spend this Advent in joyful expectation of what He has next to give me.  And I love with all my heart what He has given me so far, even that now abandoned plain language and in its own way, that music…..and the wonderful new words I am beginning to enjoy.

Because I have faith that what is to come is even better than what is today.  And what I have to day is more than enough to satisfy anyone.

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