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Last Word - September 2011

A Sense of the Sacred

When I first arrived at the parish in Cape Elizabeth, Sister Ruth Hayden was on the staff. Sister Ruth had long served as an educator of children. I asked Sister what she felt our children needed. She told me that they had no sense of sacred space, no sense of being in the presence of the holy in church. Since then I have come to the conclusion that this sense of the sacred is missing among many of our people. And the problem is not just a lack of the sense of sacred space but of sacred language and sacred objects and the way one ought to dress and move and interact in the presence of the holy.

American society has become, as we all know, notoriously informal. And that informality affects the way in which we interact with God. It isn’t all bad, but it deserves reflection. The Pulitzer prize-winning author, Annie Dillard once wrote: “On the whole, I do not find Christians… sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does anyone believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

O.K., so that might be a bit of rhetorical exaggeration. But, there we are in the presence of the living God: He who made the universe from nothing, Who is the power, the moving force, behind all that is, Love which is the source of all love, Beauty beyond beauty, Wisdom that puts all the scientists and philosophers of the world to shame. Do we have any consciousness of where we are and in Whose presence we stand?

In a previous column, I broached the subject of the new translation of the Roman Missal we will begin using this fall. Among the purposes of the new translation is to try to find a more inspiring, a more uplifting, less ordinary language for expressing the unique marvel we have in the Eucharist. It is an attempt in language to bring back a greater sense of the sacred. But the new translation will also be an opportunity to examine other aspects of our worship together as well. Could there be a more sacred music? Could there be a more sacred way of moving. Could objects be handled with greater attention to their sacredness? I know I need to examine my own conscience in this regard.

If I might quote Annie Dillard again, she says that the words of worship, the words of our prayers, are "things we have learned we can say to God without being killed." And she tells a story of an 18th century Hasidic rabbi “whose work involved invoking the Lord.” Every morning he would bid a tearful farewell to his wife and children. He felt every morning that he would never see them again, for every day his words carried him into danger. After he called on God, “Lord,” God might notice him and destroy him before he had time to find his sentence, “Have mercy.”

I know, exaggerated again, I suppose. But it does make one think. And the new introduction to the Lord ’s Prayer at Mass will say that it is only at the Savior’s command that we “have the courage” to say, “Our Father.”

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal