Perhaps the most frequent complaint one hears in church circles is that our liturgical gatherings are so uninspiring and boring. Usually the celebrant, the priest, is singled out as the culprit who is responsible and is asked to bear the brunt of the criticism. He is accused of being dead, uninspiring, bland, a poor preacher and just downright boring. As a priest, I take more than a casual offence to this critique. It is not that I deny its truth. Heaven knows, most of the time our celebrations are dull, uninspiring and boring. It is no wonder that people see church attendance as a grim duty rather than as a privilege. But the fault, when there is one, is not solely ours as priests. In fact, often there is no fault whatever, save the unrealistic expectations of those attending the celebration. Are liturgical gatherings meant always to be exciting, bouncy, enthusiastic celebrations? Is the celebrant the person who is solely, or even primarily, responsible for making the celebration enthusiastic and exciting?
The answers to those questions are not so obvious. First, not all liturgical gatherings can, nor should, be enthusiastic, bouncy, high celebrations. Good liturgy is good psychology. It flows with the psychological rhythms of those who are attending. As well, good prayer, in the classical definition, means “lifting mind and heart to God.” Given that, the issue grows suddenly very complex. Our psyches go up and down. We have our seasons and days of enthusiasm, bounce, joyfulness. Sometimes we feel like singing and dancing. Sometimes there is spring in our step. But we have other seasons too, cold seasons, bland seasons, seasons of tiredness, pain, illness, boredom. We try to get one foot in front of the next. If prayer is lifting heart and mind to God then clearly during those times we should be lifting something other than song and dance. We gather in liturgical celebration to be challenged by God’s word and to be nourished by his body, both as it is incarnate in the community and as it is in the Eucharist. But we bring something too. The celebrant’s role is not that of dictating what is to be lifted up to God. His role is to help gather it together and to direct it upward… as an incense smoke to God.
Thus, the best celebrant is not necessarily the one who conducts the most bouncy and enthusiastic celebration, nor even the one who delivers the best homily. Sometimes the celebrant’s very efforts to do this can do violence to the persons who are attending. It can mean a lack of respect, not to mention a secondary and superficial understanding of what is meant by redemptive joy, to tell an overtired, over-extended, emotionally wounded and bored person that he or she is not celebrating properly because they are not responding with vigorous enthusiasm. The best celebrant is the person who can act as a radar screen, the one who can lift up not just the bread and wine, but who can lift up all that the folks bring… including their tiredness, their hangovers, their woundedness, their emotional and sexual preoccupations, and their boredom. In the end, a celebrant is limited, sometimes severely, by what the people themselves bring to the celebration. Who is he celebrating for? The happy? The tired? The bouncy? The uptight? The bored? The hungover? The restless? The prayerfully attentive? The emotionally preoccupied? Whose heart and mind is he supposed to be lifting up to God? He must, I submit, gather it all together. He must offer it as it is, and not as he would like it to be.
When we attend a liturgy we should be told: “Come as you are! Pray as you are! Tell it as it is! Lift up your heart and mind, not somebody else’s. Celebrate it all, your joys, your despairs, your woundedness, your tiredness, your boredom.”
There is a story told about a Jewish farmer who, through carelessness, did not get home before sunset one Sabbath and was forced to spend the day in the field, waiting for sunset the next day before being able to return home. Upon his return home he was met by a rather perturbed rabbi who chided him for his carelessness. Finally, the rabbi asked him: “What did you do out there all day in the field? Did you at least pray?” The farmer answered: “Rabbi, I am not a clever man. I don’t know how to pray properly. What I did was to simply recite the alphabet all day and let God form the words for himself.” When we come to celebrate we bring the alphabet of our lives. If our hearts and minds are full of warmth, love, enthusiasm, song and dance, then these are the letters we bring. If they are full of tiredness, despair, blandness, pain, and boredom, then those are our letters. Bring them. Spend them. Celebrate them. Offer them. It is God’s task to make the words!