We must always bear in mind Christ’s admonition: “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.” (St. Matthew 6.5)
This confusion did not exist prior to much of the even greater confusion engendered by corrupt “interpretations” of the Second Vatican Council and that ever-elusive and damnable “spirit of the Council” that often egregiously flies in the face of genuine Catholic theology, doctrine and dogma. If anything was absolutely certain it was equally absolutely tentative. Hence the confusion that still has us scratching our heads sixty years later, terribly unsure about what authentically constitutes a Catholic in light of this overwhelming and often illogical exegesis. Even the simplest things have become cause of contention, doubt, and uncertainty.
Like a man doubting his own identity and reaching out to others who do not know him to confirm it — the “Second Vatican Council” reached out in the broadest “inclusive” terms, to strangers who did not know the Church ... and even detested it, to reassure them that after Vatican II the Church was no longer what it had always claimed to be, but now — finally enlightened after 2000 years of misunderstanding itself — and having been corrected by Vatican II, is now what it ought to have been. This, despite the 1,981 years of constant teaching between Pope Linus, 67 A.D. — the next pope after St. Peter himself — and Pope Pius XII in 1958. That is to say, after almost 2000 years ...
“Do you, yourselves, not know who you are?,” Protestants asked incredulously. “Are you not certain? Then surely we will tell you.
Now that you are enlightened, you are becoming us, whose revolt against you, you have finally accepted and endorsed, the all-inclusive “People of God” — and we all are ... despite differences and contradictions in doctrine, dogma, and even religion itself!”
This was the clarion, the evangel, that became the “Spirit of Vatican II”. No one left out in cold — no matter what Christ told us!
Our prayers became the prayers of others (“for Thine is the Kingdom and the power ...” a gloss uttered only by Protestants prior to Vatican II), and we even greeted one another, and our own priests greeted us, in Yiddish with “Shalom!”. We sang their songs, who did not sing ours ... Martin Luther but not Saint Gregory. We prayed their vernacular who did not pray in our Latin. We stripped our churches in an ecumenical impulse to shared sterility. We de-canonized our saints while adulating their “Reformers”. They gained paradise, one and all, and we lost Hell. They attained to effortless and egalitarian sanctity while we relinquished the notion of sin. It is odd. We became like unto them who disdained to become like to us — who had become like to them!
All things uniquely Catholic were deconstructed, de-emphasized, demoted, demolished or abolished. Entire devotions and Solidarities vanished as inimical to “ecumenism”. Confessionals disappeared or became therapy rooms (by appointment). Our priests faced the people like our formerly “separated brethren”, and turned their backs to God. The “People of God” metamorphosed into God Himself — to whom was lifted the Sacrifice and Oblation that had anciently been lifted up to God!
Is it really any wonder that we have even forgotten how to pray as Catholics? It is this, and not all the incalculable devastation wrought by the “spirit of Vatican II” that we wish to address now. Perhaps it is this collective amnesia that has become the last vestige of a unique and once universal culture that we called Catholicism. Something simple and utterly Catholic — in how we pray as Catholics.
How do Catholics pray? It is a modest and simple beginning to recovering what was lost. Something small and apprehensible, as a mustard seed. The Teaching Sisters taught us that we held our hands in the form of a steeple, palms pressed together, fingers pointed up to God, and the right thumb over the left forming a Cross (We were also taught, incidentally, to bow our heads at the Sacred Name of Jesus — always and everywhere, without exception — but this, too, quickly disappeared after 1962 ... Saint Paul notwithstanding. 1 ) It is simple enough a question, unlike seeking comprehensible reasons for now having:
Out of breath, yet?
Since this repudiation of ritual at large, a dichotomy — a kind of sundering of sorts — has resulted between posture and intention, a disjunction between the body and the soul. We refuse — or fear — to allow our body to conform to our soul: what our bodies display and signify is not in accord with what is in our hearts; we are divided within ourselves; our minds, our hearts, pray, say, fervently believe, one thing — but in our bodies there is nothing indicative of it, nothing in union with, expressive of, what is in our minds. As it were, our minds worship, bend before the will of God ... but our bodies do not? “That is my own affair”, you say. “What I pray and how fervently I believe is my business alone; it is between God and me.”
This is true. That is to say, it is true of private prayer — but not of public worship, in which we act as one body and in which our unity with our neighbor as members of the one Body in Christ is signified, enacted, through a common ritual that is a collective statement of otherwise utterly unique parts in that One Body. What we express with our bodies, our postures, our verbal prayers is a communion in that One Body that we cannot express, attain to, through our individual and private prayers.
There is a difference between how we pray privately and publicly. We do not bring our own private idiosyncrasies to Mass. We worship, pray, not simply as ourselves, but as members the Communion of Saints (you will pardon me if I defer from using the much abused trope “People of God”), as a spiritual body larger than our own physical bodies. We pray as a Church, together, united in one belief, one creed, commonly, and such common worship can only be coherently united through ritual, through a shared ritual that expresses the unity of our belief. Through the active participation in ritual we become visibly one; before God and to each other! Do you not see it?
Rituals are Enacted by Bodies
At our homes, behind
closed doors, we can and should pray as God inspires us and teaches
us. The ways are myriad. But at the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
we pray not only with our individual assent and fervor, but as a
body of believers greater than the particular bodies that our individual
souls inhabit. What unites this mass of individuals with different
aspirations but the same object of worship? Ritual. What
we do in common; what is a visible, almost sacramental reality,
our collective affirmation of what we believe though the common
form of shared ritual. Rituals are enacted by bodies, not minds,
even as they are a visible manifestation of the invisible mind.
Rituals present shared, that is to say, commonly (as “in common”)
accepted realities to the mind through the bodies of others, specifically
through the visible acts of the bodies of others.
Another form, long in tradition, and also reverent while standing (pressed gently against the waist), as well as in kneeling, is hands clasped in prayer with thumbs forming a Cross ... although we hasten to add that this form is not uniquely Catholic:
Now, as to whether
it really matters or not. Surely God hears our earnest prayers no
matter how we fold our hands in prayer, or even if we fold them
at all. However, we do know that people who do not know God or love
Him do not do this. I personally have never observed an atheist,
skeptic, or agnostic pray at all. I have no evidence of it. There
is nothing in either their posture or their words to convey to me
not just an attitude of prayer, but the actuality of prayer. In
a word, there are gestures and postures, that we assume as Catholics
that others do not. They are signs distinctly, uniquely — and historically
— associated with Catholics. It is what Catholics do. It is part
of our identity of being a Catholic. We have Crucifixes with the
Corpus Figure of Christ on them, rather than plain Crosses.
We have Rosaries. Up to 40 years ago we bowed our heads whenever
the sacred Name of Jesus was uttered. We struck our breasts in reciting
the Confiteor, made the Sign of the Cross before we went into the
water or upon any undertaking. These things do not necessarily identify
us as Catholics, but they are unmistakably signs of Catholics.
Disdain for Ritual
It is likely that the
ritual and custom has been forgotten altogether in the passing of
two generations alone. We see the proper posture of prayer illustrated
in all our religious statues (those that still remain) and sacred
art. But somehow we are obtuse to the inspiration that such statuary
and art is intended to invoke. We have somehow come to believe that
such postures of prayer are, in fact, factitious, strained, unreal
— that the people — of whom the statues are likenesses only — prayed
differently than portrayed by the artist or sculptor. Perhaps only
Saints prayed that way. But are we not all called to emulate the
saints? Why are we so afraid of the odor of sanctity? Is there anything
more beautiful than a Catholic conformed to Christ, to the Saints
who were conformed to Christ? We fear being seen as Pharisees, hypocrites.
Are there some? Yes, some. Are there Catholics possessed of sanctity
conferred upon them by God? Yes, some. Perhaps many. But we are
so afraid of the judgment of the world (which should mean nothing
to us)! Even of the judgment of our own brothers and sisters in
Christ. Rather than being pleasing in the sight of God and Holy
Church, we would please men?! Saint Paul is absolutely clear about
this: “For do I now persuade men, or God?
Or do I seek to please men? If I yet pleased men, I should not be
the servant of Christ.” 2
While standing we see
hands hanging limply, stuffed into pockets, clasped behind backs,
leaning, palms down, upon the back of the next pew. While sitting
they are stretched out on the pew behind them in a grand and expansive
gesture of detached (and irreverent) relaxation, or caressing and
massaging the backs or necks of their spouses, girlfriends or boyfriends,
folded across their chests as if in deliberation or impatience,
or as objects of sudden and peculiar interest to them as they almost
clinically examine their cuticles and fingernails. While kneeling,
the uncertainty of what to do with their hands is particularly acute
and most obvious. They are either limply hung over the backrest
of the pew in front of them, unjoined, crossed at the wrists as
if relaxed, or loosely clasped in a manner reminiscent of piety,
but diligently casual enough not to openly express it.
Diversity engenders division!
Do not be your “own
individual” at Mass. The Mass is not about “you” — it is about
Christ — and also about unity through Him, with Him, and
in Him! “Ut unum sint” … Christ
prayed, “That they may be one”.
3 Have we not had enough of “diversity” at Mass, and
for far too long? Diversity engenders division! The very etymology
of the word derives from the Latin diversitatem, or “contrariety,
contradiction, disagreement”. “Diversity” has been the unrelenting
mantra of the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council ... as
it has been implemented — and to what grievous an aftermath! The
“unity” so sought after became “diversity” and diversity became
division in every parish. No?
There is Beauty in Uniformity
Contrary to the prevailing
mind-set, there is beauty in oneness in purpose and expression.
Can you imagine a stadium filled with people, each singing their
own version of the National Anthem — and each a different
tune? What is Dvorak’s New World Symphony if every symphony orchestra
played it, not according to the composer’s notation, but to their
own improvised notation? Whatever cacophony it becomes, it
does not remain, and will not be recognized, as the New World
Symphony composed by Dvorak. There is beauty, clarity, and united
purpose in harmony, in union, in oneness — when everyone is on the
same page and not on a page of their own choosing. Do you not see
The Japanese use an
aphorism that is particularly apropos of this discussion: “The
nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” What is incongruous
and not in harmony is discouraged. The trumpet player who plays
too loudly when his part is to be subdued, is corrected. The cellist
who spontaneously enters into a rhapsodic frenzy independent of
the composition and notation — ignoring the conductor — is scolded.
The desire to “stick out”, to “be observed”, to call attention to
oneself by not comporting oneself in harmony with all those around,
is nothing less than vanity and self-aggrandizement.
While we are at it,
and as an aside, but not without relevance, when you bless yourself,
realize in Whose Name you bless yourself: The Name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In the name of God Himself!
Why do you make the Sign of the Cross so hastily and often so sloppily?
Think of what you are doing! Of Whom you are invoking! Priests are
often as guilty of this as laymen. The SIGN OF THE CROSS
(before which the devil flees and under which Constantine conquered)
you do as if it had no meaning, no significance. The Sign of
the Cross should be made slowly, reverently, purposefully, thoughtfully
— in recognition of Him Who in that act anoints you! Why the
speed-blessing? Is the Name of God, the Sign of the Cross through
which you have been purchased and redeemed at so incalculable a
cost … so trite? One observer of Saint Bernadette was deeply struck
by the way she made the Sign of the Cross while praying before Mary
at Lourdes. It was slow, each name uttered with love, and totally,
surpassingly, reverent! Should our signing ourselves with the Cross
be less reverent?
Other Forms of Holding one's Hands in Prayer
Given what we have just said, it is nevertheless the case that some people (since Vatican II) choose to hold their hands in prayer in an idiosyncratic expression of their own personal and peculiar iteration. Let us look at two physical attitudes of prayer that we are likely to encounter at the Novus Ordo Mass:
Ut unum sint! “That they may be one.” Such a beautiful — and since Vatican II — elusive desideration!
Geoffrey K. Mondello