“Father, we are so grateful that this parish offers a reverent Mass.” In these words and similar, parishioners often express their appreciation for Epiphany of Our Lord Parish. I take that feedback as a compliment to the entire community that has worked so hard to offer God their absolute best, most reverent, most beautiful sacrifice of love at Mass. Reverence, as a virtue, helps us pray better. More importantly, reverence at Mass brings an assurance that God has truly heard our prayers, as it says in Hebrews, Our Lord, “offered up prayers and petitions…and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).
I’ve thought deeply about what reverence is, trying to pin down exactly what it is that people experience during worship that brings that word to their lips: reverence.
I have to admit, our parish is a big, messy family at prayer. Our main Sunday Mass isn’t peaceful and quiet. We have lots of young children who attend. These children pray kinetically, by which I mean they move a lot. They generally get a good ruckus going. They are, in their own youthful way, reverent. I doubt, however, it’s what people have in mind when they compliment the parish. I also know it isn’t the quality of my singing voice (which is average) or a reaction to my homiletic skill (again, average). So what is it that strikes people as being exceptionally reverent?
This is one of the questions I explore in The Forgotten Language: How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives, my recently published book from Sophia Institute Press. Poetics is the study of how we create beauty, how we are made by God and then we ourselves become makers. Specifically, we are called to live good and beautiful lives, because the God who made us is Beauty. We are meant to reflect his image. Life is sacred, and the font of that sacredness is the Mass. The Mass reflects God most clearly, so it should be the most beautiful. It should unfold like a gorgeous poem. This is our clue to what we mean when we say a Mass is reverent.
Reverence is the acknowledgment of sacredness. As a virtue, an attitude of reverence creates space for sacred beauty to flourish. For example, the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem called The Windhover in which he exults to watch a bird fly in the sky. He cannot contain his joy, saying, “My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” He has reverence for what he is seeing, the beauty of the bird, the gracefulness of its movement. Through reverence, he intuits not only the miracle that is a bird in flight, but he also glimpses a deeper reality – the Holy Spirit aloft with bright wing. His reverence unveils the sacred.
A reverent Mass makes space for the sacred in the exact same way. One of the ways it does this is through poetic language, which is a language reflective of God’s grace. The Mass connects Heaven to earth by using words, symbols, and music that recognize and embody transcendence. When we feel transcendence during a Mass because of the beauty of sacred chant, the craftsmanship of the vestments, perfumed incense, holy silences, the care and attention of the priest at the altar, the prayers of the faithful as they kneel, and yes, even the activity of the children as they engage the liturgy – this is reverence. It’s the sense that we are on sacred ground, reaching to touch the hem of Our Lord’s garment with fear and trembling.
It comes back to poetics, how God has made us. The priest Romano Guardini says that God creates humans, “with effortless power, calling a creature into existence and setting it free.” The amazing thing is that God himself possesses reverence. “His power is one with His magnanimity and His reverence,” writes Guardini, “it is this that sets you free.” In other words, God reveres the beauty that he himself has created. He looks at his creatures and calls us good. He reveres us, not on our own merits, but because we reflect his love back to himself. We are his beloved children.
His reverence is a form of love by which he gives us freedom to love him in return. In order to accomplish this, he gives us space to live and grow, make mistakes and overcome, pray, seek, and make our pilgrim way back to him. In response to God’s reverence, we offer our own reverence by approaching the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with humility. We take our own needs and desires and set them aside in order to give God our attention, love, and sacrifices. This is what people mean when they say they want a reverent Mass – they want a worship experience that creates space for God to arrive in power.
This language of reverence cannot be forgotten or set aside in our Masses. It’s the only language by which the Mass draws us to the threshold of the sacred, right up to the altar where Christ intercedes for us and draws us into a divine, poetic interaction where everything has a deeper meaning. We are united with God’s universal love and gifted freedom and beauty as his creations.
Just like a poem transforms a rose into undying love or a falling leaf into a meditation on mortality, so too does the poem of the Mass take flawed human beings, each of us with our individual temperaments, histories, and faith journeys, and brings us through the doorway into the mysterious heart of God.
The Forgotten Language: How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives is available from Sophia Institute Press.