You would think that, by now, I would know how to get through the Mass. I don’t have little babies to keep me trotting up and down the aisles, and I don’t have toddlers that need to be taken to the bathroom three or four times. I’m not even breaking up rosary tug-of-war tournaments or fishing pieces of the bulletin out of anyone’s mouth. I have arrived: It’s finally just more or less me and the Lord.
And I’m finding I’m not exactly sure what to do — especially right after I receive Him in the Eucharist.
This . . . seems like a problem, because I know perfectly well that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. So it feels weird to receive it and then go back to my pew and not be overwhelmed. I know spiritual integrity is not about emotion, but it really is disturbing that I find it much easier to focus and pay attention at every other part of the Mass. Right after receiving the Eucharist, though, my mind wanders, and I hate that.
There are, of course, prayers for this. It’s never a bad thing to look up prayers written by someone else for a specific occasion, and you get zero points for having memorized a prayer, or for coming up with something original. But somehow I can never find the right page, or it never occurs to me to print something out ahead of time. And to be honest, I have never found one that I really like.
You can see that I have a tendency to fret and interrogate myself over whether I’m praying right, which very effectively prevents me from praying at all. And I hate that, too. Although I take some comfort in remembering that even the twelve apostles, who knew Jesus personally and intimately and were sitting at the same table with Him at the very first Mass, were also pretty confused, and were not sure what to say or think when He started offering them His body and blood. This is strange stuff!
Some people will say “Just tell Jesus what’s in your heart!” Fine, but also not happy with my own extemporaneous prayer. Somewhere along the way, in my efforts to focus my conscious prayer properly and not miss the moment, I started to feel that the miracle of transubstantiation was sort of the main attraction, and that it was this mystery that I must train all my attention and focus on.
Don’t get me wrong; transubstantiation is very cool. There’s plenty of food for thought, as it were, in the idea of Jesus using ordinary, physical food and making it into his body and blood that feeds us. But it would be a mistake to lose sight of the thing that happens whether we consume that food or not: Christ does not die again, but he does give himself to us again. He does not suffer again, but he does come to save us. Right there, at the altar, right in front of us.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, but we don’t necessarily go to Mass only to receive the Eucharist. We still have the obligation to attend Mass even if we don’t intend to receive; and while we’re there, what we witness and, to whatever extent we’re able, what we join ourselves with, is the sacrifice of the Mass. I have found it very helpful — centering, if you can tolerate that word — to recall and dwell on the unbloody re-creation of the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than on my subsequent reception of it.
In fact, it’s been a relief to put the focus on the sacrifice, rather than on receiving. On Him, rather than on me — imagine that.
Maybe I’m making this sound very theologically elevated. It’s really not. It’s sort of like realizing that someone has been quietly, faithfully tending and irrigating your farmland, and will continue to do so, should you chose to plant something.
Here’s a little background:
Several years ago, I got it into my head to interview one of my children on the occasion of the annunciation. I suppose if it had gone poorly — if she had claimed there were four persons of the trinity, or that the middle one was named Jeremy — I wouldn’t have saved it; but as it happens, it went well. So well that it popped into my head the other day, as I was struggling with these questions of how to arrange my heart at Mass.
Here’s the pertinent part: I asked her what day it was, and she said it was the annunciation, “when Mary was told she was having a baby”.
Me: Who told her that?
Kid: A angel.
Me: What did the angel say?
Kid: You are gonna have a baby.
Me: Who will the baby be?
Me: Is Jesus just a regular boy?
Me: Who is he gonna be?
Kid: A ruler of the world.
Me: A ruler of the world like a president or a king?
Kid: He made the earth, he made everything, he even made himself!
Me: Kind of! God was not made. God always was. There was never a time when there was no God, ’cause that’s what we mean when we say ‘God’: That nobody made him. So, when the angel said to Mary, ‘You’re going to have a baby,’ what did she say?
Kid: ‘But I’m not even married!’
Me: And what did the angel say?
Kid: I don’t know.
Me: The angel said, ‘Don’t worry, this baby comes from God, and God will take care of you.”
Kid: But he is God
Me: It’s confusing, huh?
Kid: I know. Maybe God had a duplicator machine.
Me: Okay. So, anyway, so what did Mary say? Did she say, ‘Heck no, I don’t want any part of that?’
Me: So what did she say?
Kid: ‘Thank you.’
This is not strictly scriptural, but doesn’t it sound right? What do you say what someone offers you Jesus? You say “thank you.” And he will never take advantage of your gratitude, or use it against you, because he’s not a regular boy.
Many times over the years, from many people, I’ve gotten the advice to simply be quiet, simply rest in Jesus. This is not bad advice, but I don’t think people realize how aspirational it comes across, to an anxious person. It’s sort of like telling an unemployed person to have a nest egg for their retirement. That does sound wonderful, but how to get there?
Well, if you’re an anxious pray-er who would like to rest more in prayer, just saying “Thank you” is a good way to start. Or even just remembering, “I am here because someone is offering me Jesus” is a good way to start. You don’t have to know exactly what it all means; it’s more like you’re acknowledging that you’re there in a receptive mode, or that you would like to be. It’s simple, it’s honest, and frankly, it puts the ball in Jesus’ court. When you go to Mass, you show up because you know (or even maybe you just hope, or would like to believe) Jesus is coming; and when He does, you say, “Thank you.” When the sacrifice of the Mass happens at the altar, I try to remember to say “thank you.” If I’m able to receive communion, I try to remember to say “thank you.”
And that’s it. That’s the whole thing. You can elaborate on this approach and you can certainly grow in sincerity as planted seeds take root; but I suspect you can’t improve on it. Because Jesus is not a regular boy.
A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly on August 9, 2002.
Image: Andrzej Otrębski, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons