When Do We Worship?

Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

A priest friend and I recently were discussing the nature of worship, and the question of when during the mass an ordinary layperson might perceive being in the act of worship. As a fan of Rudolph Otto, Mircea Eliade, and like-minded philosophers of religion, I think this is an important question. How do we orient ourselves toward the holy? How do we perceive being in relationship with God, the Wholly Other? What is the state of one who has been created in the presence of the Creator? And when we engage in community ritual to facilitate this process, what are we doing?

In The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History (Yale University Press, 2020, pp. 151-153), John McGuckin describes a helpful range of Eastern terms relating to attitudes of respect and worship: latreia, douleia, hyperdouleia, proskynesis, and aspasia. These Greek terms he translates as “adoration, worship or reverence, special worship or reverence, bowing down, and kissing (the hand),” respectively, even as the English word “worship” could be used to describe any of them. While the kissing of aspasia might be an appropriate form of respect to give an elder or the emperor, the reverence of douleia is meant for angels and saints, and hyperdouleia, exalted reverence, is the honor we give to Mary, the Mother of God. Proskynesis may take the form of bowing and kissing holy icons or relics. As Basil the Great teaches, the honor given to the icon goes to its prototype. Yet the worship of latreia, adoration, is given to God alone, and it is this sense that generally is implied when we speak of “worship.” Of course, the confusion underlying the iconoclastic controversies is the fact that the outward forms of respect used for each of these may look similar. Intention matters.

Iconostasis, Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Waymart, PA

When I consider the liturgical and paraliturgical expressions of the Roman Catholic experience today, some seem to speak more directly to the sense of worship as adoration of God. In the mass, it is possible for the opening hymn to describe the people gathered, or to sing a communal praise of God. While praising God in song clearly has potential to be an act of worship, if the hymn raises awareness of the people as the mystical Body of Christ gathered, perhaps that could qualify as worship too. God may be “Wholly Other,” but in Christianity Christ also has come near as one of us, and we are called to be part of his glory. But it does feel odd to point to oneself or one’s neighbor and call it worship.

Christ Pantocrator
Christ Pantocrator, Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Waymart, PA

For clarity of orientation, the Gloria (or the Holy, Holy, or in the Eastern tradition, the Cherubic Hymn) most definitely is worship, presuming people’s minds and hearts are in harmony with their voices. To exalt God is to state that God is God, even as we are not.

I have a harder time understanding the readings and the homily as intrinsic acts of “worship,” as they are more receptive. If one welcomes the Word and embraces it with joy and love, though, an act of worship in one’s heart might happen in these moments. Good preaching should aim to evoke this act of hospitality.

The Offertory is the moment we are to offer our hearts and our lives as well as the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. From the layperson’s perspective, this has the potential to be a time of worship and trust, a sacrificial offering of what we have and are, that God might transform it. While this flows into the Eucharistic Prayer, and such a spirit could or should continue, if I’m brutally honest, as a person in the pew, it’s common enough to be bored through this until we get to the words of institution and the elevation of the host, at which one’s heart is more easily moved to the recognition of “My Lord and my God.” If I’m doing well, I spend the Eucharistic prayer

Saints, Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Waymart, PA

offering to God the people who need my prayers, thinking about the communion of saints present, remembering the dead, and praying for the Holy Spirit to transform us and our messed-up world. Is mere intercession an act of worship on my part, though? To my mind, pure adoration seems to be the simple expression of recognizing God as God. Perhaps silent articulation of human dependence suffices. I do wish I could spend more Eucharistic prayers really sensing the sacramental time travel of Christ presiding at the Last Supper or the eschatological wedding feast of the Lamb.

Christ the High Priest
Wedding Feast of the Lamb, St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN

The act of receiving communion begs to be an act of worship. My “Amen,” is supposed to mean my affirmation that this is the Body of Christ that I receive. I know it, instinctively. I crave communion and miss it if I cannot be present. But do I feel my “Amen” with the reverence of worship, of true adoration? It is so easy to be distracted by the need to move into procession gracefully, and perhaps to sing at the same time. Minds and hearts in harmony with voices, St. Benedict counsels, but it can be hard sometimes.

Finally, the dismissal is command to take this experience into the world, to proclaim the Gospel with our lives, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. The closing hymn, if well-chosen, if led with skill, again invites the praise of worship.

If we sometimes wonder why people find mass boring, perhaps the answer has something to do with how well our liturgical space and action evoke a natural sense of worship and true adoration of God. Yes, faith is about more than just “smells and bells” or pure theater. A welcoming, engaging community focused on fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ matters intensely. At the same time, beautiful sensory elements, including high-quality preaching, invite wonder and awe, opening hearts to attend to the mystery of God present among us. We want to know and be

Camino Wheat Field
Field of Wheat, Camino de Santiago, Spain

known. We want to be transported beyond ourselves. We want to be caught up in worship. It is a deep part of human nature to want to recognize God as God, and ourselves as human. Yes, God is present in the everyday, boring stuff of life, too. But the heart wants to worship. How can our liturgies and our faith communities make it exquisitely clear that God is the only one worth adoring?

Viewpoint: Cemetery Jogging

At a recent burial in our local Catholic cemetery, I saw two joggers running past the grave site oblivious to the proceedings in progress. It has always irked me that people feel free to use cemeteries as sports facilities, and it demonstrates an  absence of a sense of sacred place.

Nowadays people think that they can do anything they want in public arenas, and that they have no obligation to follow traditional protocols of respect for others. For instance, people will talk loudly in elevators—even about personal matters—oblivious to the fact that there are other people in the elevator. 

So, the moral is: don’t jog in cemeteries; they are the holy resting places of the bodies of the dead.

Viewpoint: Liturgical Vernacular

by Msgr. M Francis Mannion

Those who are attached to Latin in the liturgy (mostly in the context of the Tridentine Mass) would do well to attend to what is happening in the Greek Orthodox Church in America. A recent study by George Demacoupoulos of Fordham University proposed that the Greek Church should consider dropping the ancient Greek currently used in the liturgy and move toward English or modern Greek.

The principal impetus for this is the fact that congregations are dwindling at an alarming rate due in great part to their incomprehension of the current language of the liturgy. This is especially true of young people, who are unable to connect with the liturgy because of the language problem.

I bring this up because of the attachment of some Catholics to the Latin Mass. If they do not know what is going on in the liturgy (even with the use of a Latin/English missal), their attachment is apt to be merely aesthetic. Despite the myth of youthful attachment to Latin I think the attachment will fade.

Viewpoint: Heaven Is the Fulfillment of Earth

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Recently I received a letter from a lady in Seattle in which she said that when she dies she will miss all the good things of this life. She said that while she wants to go to heaven, she does not want to go to some sterile place. Heaven might not be as interesting as earth.  What follows is an adaptation of my response to her. (She gave me permission to publish it as long as I did not use her name.)

With many people you share the notion that heaven and earth are disconnected and that at the end of time the earth will be no more.  But the authentic Catholic view is that God will save not only our souls, but also our bodies and, indeed, the whole created order within which human persons exist.

The Constitution on the Church of Vatican II states: “The Church . . . will receive her perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things.  At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ” (no. 48).

The Bible speaks of this renewal of the universe as the coming about of a “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13).  This will be the complete realization of the glorious end for which humanity and the whole created order are destined.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of a profound unity of all things in heaven: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . in hope because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay . . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:19-23).

The whole created order is, then, destined to be transformed so that the world will be restored to the original state it had in the Garden of Eden and will therefore be a place without pain, suffering, and loss.

In this light, then, heaven will not at all involve the loss of the good things of earth (our families, friends, good works, and arts), but these will be found in a new way in heaven.  The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II declares: “When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise . . . according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom” (no. 39).

Christian life, then, is not a preparation which is detached from earth. Rather it is precisely through the way we shape our lives, build up our relationships, create the human heritage, and beautify and conserve the earth—in this way we prepare for heaven.

When Christ comes again in glory he will bring with him the Kingdom of heaven which will raise up and transform the earth in all its glorious, magnificent, and joyful aspects.

Viewpoint: Thanksgiving Day Invites A Generous Attitude of Blessing

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Some time ago, I came across a book entitled, “The Book of Irish Curses.” The book was intended to be light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek – and in many ways it was. But as one read through the colorful variety of curses, one came to see something negative and destructive at work. Even if one does not believe in the magical power of curses, one can still recognize that curses intend to destroy and tear down, to sow dissension and ruin in the human environment.

The opposite of cursing is blessing. In 1989, the Church produced “A Book of Blessings,” and, in 2007, a book of “Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers.” As one reads through their contents, one senses their creative, edifying, and ennobling character.

It has long been recognized that the ability to give thanks is the mark of the truly religious person. Without the sense of thanksgiving, we fail to have openness to God, to others, to our own personal histories, and to the goodness of life itself.

That is why blessing and cursing are more than a matter of words. Both invoke whole attitudes toward life. It does not take much reflection to realize that there is a close relationship between the way we think, the way we speak, and the way we act.

Many people curse themselves without even knowing it when they think, speak about, and evaluate their own lives in negative and pessimistic terms. To say that our personal history has been disastrous and meaningless is to curse it. Whenever we say that the present is pointless and valueless, we have effectively cursed ourselves. Whenever we are hopeless and cynical about the future, we are cursing it in advance – hence already destroying it.

The attitude of blessing and of thanksgiving represents quite a different stance toward life. To have an attitude of blessing is to be able to look at our past and to recognize it as good and fruitful – despite the difficulties and failures. It is to be able to look to the present and, without overlooking the shadow side, to recognize it as worthwhile and creative. To bless is to be able to look to the future and, despite our worries about it, to have an attitude of hope and expectancy.

In the authentic attitudes of blessing and thanksgiving, there is not for a moment any hint of escapism. To bless and give thanks is never a matter of denying the negative sides of life. Far from it: Thanksgiving and blessing have great depth to them precisely to the extent that they are often made in the midst of pain and adversity.

Catholics attending Mass on Thanksgiving Day cannot forget that it is precisely to give thanks and to bless that we gather. The very word “eucharist” means literally “thanksgiving.” Nor can we fail to recognize that we give joyful thanks in terms of the Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Thus, on Thanksgiving Day we are invited to avoid an escapist attitude toward the darker side of life, but to have what Lutheran scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “paschal joy” – a joy forged in the crucible of suffering.

To be a people of blessing and thanksgiving – in attitude, word, and, deed – is one description of being a Christian—indeed, of being a religious person of any persuasion. And it is this attitude that we invoke and celebrate on Thanksgiving Day.