“Nothing changes” is one definition of ritual. And top to bottom the Mass is still a ritual, with little room for deviation. The priest now does a few things he did not do before Vatican II, but the list of changes is quite small and the essence of the liturgy is unaltered. Nothing in the Mass is likely to take you by surprise.
The sign of peace is the same sign—the same phrase—every time: one more routine within a routine. Sometimes I wish I were allowed to do more than just say “Peace be with you” and shake hands. Sometimes the rote formulas seem inadequate, even false. Is it any wonder that people at Mass often seem to fall into an enervating stupor? Do those on the other side of the altar really expect this ritual to come alive in our hearts?
These are important questions, and I ask them all the time, because I am inclined to revolt against anything that threatens to bore me. Boredom actually angers me. First I get angry with the person or event that occasions the boredom; then I start to get angry with myself. How can I be bored? We are born into the world out of nowhere. We are going God knows where. Or as Nabokov put it, “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” How can I be bored? But I am bored, and so I rebuke myself. I become an outlaw in my own head, impatient with every boring, automatic moment, impatient with my own capacity for boredom.
Yet I continue to go to Mass, often, almost every day in fact—as if I liked to stare my boredom in the face. Surely it isn’t boredom that keeps bringing me back. “They say miracles are past.” If it wasn’t true when Shakespeare wrote it, it must be true in our own disenchanted time. Only the Mass promises a scheduled miracle, in the form of a meal. What is supposed to happen at any ordinary Mass (bread becoming body, wine becoming blood) goes well beyond our ordinary experience of the world. I put up with the boredom because of the strange possibility at hand. It turns my head. It causes a chuckle under my breath. But I return again and again, always a little baffled.
It isn’t the fact that it’s been going on for two thousand years that attracts me. I’m interested in what it can do for me now. I admit: What we do at the Eucharist is not exactly rational. But apparently I don’t mind. I keep attending, keep contemplating this imponderable thing, like an astronomer studying a newly discovered star. Only this particular imponderable thing happens to be just yards away, familiar and routine. This mystery, which we can hardly grasp, touches us every time we go to Communion.
This encounter with what begins as no more than bread and wine may change the way we experience the rest of the world. We may begin acting as if there was something hiding behind all appearances. We may begin looking elsewhere for the gap within the normal. The Eucharist may change the way we look at food on the dinner table, for example. Having supped at the Lord’s table, I may look twice at a piece of bread before I pick it up and put it in my mouth. It will taste and look the same, of course, and yet there may be something different about it—as if the imagination, fresh from its encounter with the Eucharist, somehow gave the bread a new weight. I eat more slowly, and I wonder. With that other ritual in mind, I approach ordinary meals a little differently, whether at the coffee shop or in my kitchen. I have come away from church with new eyes, a clearer vision; every part of my daily routine bears new possibility. Nothing is too strange to find even here, I tell myself, having just returned from a place where they claimed to turn bread into the body of God. In this way, a ritual that never changes can change everything.
Related: The Liturgical Drowse, by Paul J. Griffiths