Required reading for bored again Catholics
Timothy O’Malley’s new book answers questions about the Mass you didn’t even know you had.
Growing up my parents made me and my siblings go to Mass every Sunday. As a teenager I remember thinking it was way too much church. Most of my friends didn’t go to church at all. They went waterskiing in the summer, snow skiing in the winter, or just hung out on Sundays and slept in. And yet there I was in church praying the Lord’s Prayer for the 1000th time while my little brother painfully squeezed my hand.
Of course the most beautiful readings or songs or liturgies spoke to me, but many Sundays left me flat. It didn’t help that much of the 2,000-year-old liturgy was opaque to me. I didn’t even know that the liturgy was 2,000 years old. It might have made me feel awe to know that a teenage girl in the year 300 had stood in an assembly and prayed these same words and used these same gestures. I went to public school. I never learned the catechism or went to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I don’t recall a homily about the real presence or the communion of saints. A lot of the beauty and mystery of the Mass was lost on me.
When I wanted my “feel good” God fix, I went to the evangelical megachurch with my friends from middle school. Their praise and worship services were immediately accessible to me in a way that the silence of the Mass was not. I didn’t yet know what to do with all that silence. I didn’t yet know how to quiet my mind.
The Mass became more meaningful to me the more I read and understood what it meant, the more I learned how to pray and pay attention.
Now I’m the coordinator of Catholic life at a liberal arts school and, like myself, my students often struggle with the Mass. In the quiet of the chapel I hear their pockets buzzing with messages and notifications. It’s hard for them to commit to even this one hour a week of time outside of time. One Sunday night a student leaving Mass told me that in the hour away from her phone she had received 35 group texts. In the context of constant noise and the acedia of “busyness” the ancient rhythms of the Mass are perhaps stranger and more necessary than ever.
I wonder at how challenging our Sunday night, mostly chanted and candlelit liturgies, must be for these students. How odd it must be for them to begin each liturgy by confessing their sins on a campus where sin, if it exists at all, is always collective, always structural, never about me, what I have done or failed to do. The hardness of my own heart. I once heard an instructor where I work explain that “the point of religion was self-care.” So much for adoration, so much for reconciliation, so much for repairing the world.
I was reminded of these experiences reading Timothy P. O’Malley’s book Bored Again Catholic (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017), a series of reflections on each part of the Mass. O’Malley’s book takes the main critique of many people, that the Mass is boring and repetitive, head on, calling it “good boredom,” a gift that opens us up to an encounter with the divine. He writes, “Boredom is not something that is to be avoided but rather is essential to the spiritual life.” Like a master teacher, O’Malley illuminates what is happening during each part of the Mass, both its history and significance.
Even cradle Catholics will learn new things, which in turn will deepen their experience of the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist. In one of my favorite passages O’Malley describes why “Catholics do weird things with books.” He writes,
We paint them, creating illuminated images alongside the text. We kiss them, as if they are an encounter with our beloved spouse. We incense the Book of the Gospels and process with it alongside candles. Not once in my academic career have I adored a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Yet every Sunday, as the Book of the Gospels is processed from altar to ambo, I sing a hymn of praise to God. What are we doing every Sunday? Why do we put smoke all over a book? Why do we adore it, kiss it, and even greet it as a dear friend of ours? It is, of course, because this book is no book. It Is the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst.
Of course, the good magic of the sacraments and the liturgy is still present even if we remain unaware of it. God is present in the Word, in the Eucharist, and in the people gathered, even if no one teaches us to look for God there. But if our attention is limited, and it is, it helps to know where to direct it.
Like many 21st-century American Catholics, and like myself as a teenager, my students often don’t know their own tradition and tend to borrow scraps from all the world’s religions because they were never taught how to enter into the mysteries of their own.
Bored Again Catholic answers questions about the Mass you never knew you had, so that you don’t have to just “make it up” as you go along or search for meaning everywhere but in Christ and his mystical body.
O’Malley’s book makes us curious again. Why does the priest say in the Eucharistic prayer, “Lord send down your Spirit like the dewfall”? O’Malley writes, “The reference to dewfall is related to Israel being fed with manna in the desert.”
Why does the presider say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” when he elevates the Host? Because after Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist said the same: “Behold the Lamb of God…” So much of the Mass is scripture. “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”
Bored Again Catholic is an indispensable resource for all Catholics. It’s full of beautiful quotations and each chapter ends with discussion questions for small groups. It’s also O’Malley’s most personal work. He includes his own struggles with infertility and accepting God’s will and learning how to pray and live eucharistic love.
Bored Again Catholic is, finally, a defense of the liturgy itself, because let’s be honest, if you’re a Roman Catholic the Mass is both a living work of art and an obligation. Making space in our lives for God isn’t without discomfort or worse. We need books to remind us why we bother to show up for the Eucharist at all. O’Malley’s answer is succinct: “Because Christ is wonderful.” And it makes you feel small, because it places you in a river of people who for 2,000 years have been professing Christ’s death and proclaiming his resurrection until he comes again.
Image: Ben White on Unsplash