Contemplation and Communion

It starts with children’s animated movies (omnipresent in homes and schools): the culture encourages us to follow our dreams. This, of course, sounds open-minded and progressive and liberating. But despite our best efforts and presumption, experience teaches us that happiness is elusive – even if our desire for happiness is steady. And certain types of happiness are mutually exclusive. After all, law enforcement authorities exist precisely to protect us from people following their illegal dreams.

In the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Mt 22:1-14), the king wants to share the joy of a marriage, but he meets with resistance. The happiness he offers is considerably different from the happiness pursued by his people. Those who refuse the joy offered by the king are tossed out of his presence and sent into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. The punishment is great for what seems so little – and subject to personal tastes. But the parable provides the framework for the whole Christian life.

The Wedding Banquet refers to our destiny – nothing less, if we so choose with God’s grace, than heavenly glory. God alone is the author of true happiness and there are terrible risks associated with seeking happiness without Him. Happiness without God is illusory. Eternal damnation is not a happy prospect.

Following our dreams without measuring them against God’s will is just another way of saying that we are following our sinful inclinations. When our dreams seem to offer us a better deal, we may miss the many opportunities to enter into God’s wedding banquet.

God’s wedding banquet this side of eternity, of course, is the Mass.  At best, most of us appreciate the Mass, on-again and off-again.  Most of us, we must admit, at times feel an inward tug to look for an excuse to avoid Mass. We’d rather be playing soccer or relaxing with the Sunday newspaper or sleeping in – literally following our dreams.  God’s wedding banquet is not our idea of fun, at least compared to our favorite alternatives.

I once read a charming essay by a young man who needed to fill out his final undergraduate semester with a two-credit course. Seeking what he imagined to be the easiest course possible, he signed up for a class on nature. It was a nightmare. Every Saturday morning the class took a pre-dawn field trip to discover and name the flora and fauna in his locale.

After surviving the class and obtaining his degree, he looked back with amusement at the ordeal. But when he married and had children, and his children started asking questions about backyard plants and animals, the lessons he had learned brought the family joy. He at last came to appreciate the gift of those arduous two credits. True happiness requires the hard work of pondering and the fruit of contemplation takes time.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, 1561 [Santa Maria della Salute, Venice]

Teenagers often resist attending Mass. A reasonable (if unpopular) parental response is, “As long as you live under my roof and eat the food I provide, you’re going to Mass on Sunday, young man!” It takes decades to begin to love the Mass and to incorporate the Mass into our lives, and a little coercion along Biblical lines can help to reveal the urgency of God’s law.

This is why the temptation to “jazz up” the Mass to “appeal to the young people” is so dangerous.  It replaces the discipline of true love with the appeals of the superficial pleasures of our consumer society. (So help the parents and stick to the liturgical texts and rubrics, Father.)

The Mass, of course, has two major components, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. During the Liturgy of the Word, we ponder the word of God.  During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we enter into the saving mystery of Christ and receive Holy Communion, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. The Liturgy of the Eucharist – the unbloody re-presentation of the Cross and Resurrection – completes the Mass and is the pinnacle of all worship.  The Mass, with its Contemplation and Communion, is a participation in the Kingdom of heaven.

This pattern of contemplation and communion is perfectly compatible with human nature. Before a man and woman exchange marriage promises, they get to know each other, spend time with each other, and listen to each other.  This is an echo of the contemplation of the Liturgy of the Word.

The love of a husband and wife that follows marriage is a reflection of Communion, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Sacrament of Marriage is, in the final analysis, a participation in the New and Everlasting Covenant, the marriage of the glorified Christ with His Mystical Body the Church.

The Penitential Rite is crucial to all this. Calling to mind our sins helps to repeatedly consider – and reject – the obstacles to our love for God and neighbor.  The communal Act of Contrition teaches us to repeat the same gesture outside of Mass, asking for forgiveness and being reconciled. The Mass teaches us to conduct our lives God’s way, not our way. This is the stuff of heavenly glory.

The Mass – the contemplation of the Word followed by the happiness of communion with Christ – not only brings us the grace of Christ. The structure of the Mass and honoring the Sunday obligation provides us with a template for every healthy and loving human relationship. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. His happiness is our happiness, in the marriage of the human with the Divine.

In a very practical way, we can test and evaluate our aspirations – and our happiness – every time we attend Mass, the heavenly marriage banquet. But getting it right takes a seriousness of purpose over a lifetime with, please God, a lot of help from faithful clergy.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.