Hidden in Plain View: Contemplative Dimensions of Liturgy

March 17, 2009


Bell Banner at St. John's AbbeyIn the late 1990s three visitors arrived unexpectedly at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Two friends had brought their adult daughter to see our new oratory. She had drifted away from the Church years ago and remained dubious about organized Christianity. As we entered the oratory she heaved an audible sigh and cried, “O, my God.” As she began to weep gentle tears, her parents and I withdrew from the oratory. Fifteen minutes later she asked us to join her again and we explored the richness of the space together. The oratory was designed and built as a place reserved for meditation, but this young woman had experienced the oratory AS meditation. The space, itself, was an encounter with the mystical presence of God. Her presence and the Presence within the physical demeanor of the oratory became a mutual presence. The oratory was not just a beautiful place. Its physical beauty was a tangible sign that mediated the energy of God’s presence and engaged the consciousness of the young woman who entered. It was transformative personal prayer in the context of a very ordinary experience. (1)

In 2000 the Liturgical Press published the latest edition of The Book of the Gospels, authorized by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a large ceremonial edition for use at the Sunday Eucharist. It is significant that the book was by designed by Frank Kacmarcik, Obl.S.B., who had gathered a unique collection of liturgical art during his lifetime and was, himself, a gifted liturgical artist. The Book of the Gospels is large with a red binding embossed with Kacmarcik’s gilded design of a cross. It is designed to proclaim the presence of the Word of God in the assembly of God’s people. It is not a simply a book containing readings from the four gospels for Sundays and holy days. As it is held high for all to see at the beginning of the Eucharist and then placed on the altar, it is a sign that Christ Jesus, the Word, is the gift we experience and become during the liturgy, empowered by the Holy Spirit. The reading of the gospel from this book is an encounter with Jesus Christ. It is not simply recitation of words about Jesus. When our consciousness is open and vulnerable to the Spirit’s activity, a beautiful book and the words spoken from it to the assembly become a contemplative experience of God. (2)

I remember the first time I participated at a Sunday Mass at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville. The Book of the Gospels preceded the monastic community into the Abbey Church. What caught my eye and moved my heart was the silent procession of monks, two-by-two, toward the altar from the rear of the nave. As they reached the altar they bowed, facing the altar, and then bowed, facing each other as they continued to the choir stalls. Week after week it had the same effect and was no longer the novelty of seeing more than one hundred monks in their black habits. Then one Sunday I became conscious of what was happening within me. This procession to the altar was a tangible sign of the movement of my heart into the heart of Christ present in the Eucharist. The ordinary and weekly procession was a symbol of my own life’s journey. I was aware that everyone gathered at Mass was on this journey with me. As we were gathered around the altar we were drawn closer to each other and could recognize the presence of Christ in each other. The simple and ordinary aspects of silence and walking through the nave toward the altar became a profound message without a word being spoken.

Every Eucharist is a contemplative experience. All sacred space, liturgical vessels, artistic objects, music, and movements of those who have been gathered at Mass draw us toward exterior and interior consciousness of the transforming energy of God. In this environment we become living icons of God’s presence.

(1) For a discussion of the "ordinariness" of contemplative experience in daily life, see David Keller, Come & See: The Transformation of Personal Prayer (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), Chapter 5.

(2) For a substantive discussion of the sacramental aspects of the liturgy, see R. Kevin Seasoltz, God's Gift Giving: In Christ and Through the Spirit (New York: Continuum, 2007), Chapter 4: "God's Gift of Word and Sacrament." Also see Thomas O'Loughlin, "The Liturgical Vessels of the Latin Eucharistic Liturgy: A Case for Embedded Theology," Worship 82:6 (2008).

David G. R. Keller is an Episcopal priest and Director of the Contemplative Ministry Project. From 1994-2002 he was Steward of the Episcopal House of Prayer at Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville. He is the author of Oasis Of Wisdom: The Worlds Of The Desert Fathers And Mothers (Liturgical Press 2005) and Come & See: The Transformation of Personal Prayer (Morehouse Publishing 2009).

Photo credit: Johan van Parys

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