St. Anthony of the Desert, the fourth century Egyptian founder of monasticism, had a conversion experience unlikely to occur today, at least not easily. What happened? He found himself surprised at Mass. After the death of his parents, Anthony was questioning the course of his life, wondering what the Lord might want of him. According to his biographer, St. Athanasius:
He went into church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account, Immediately Anthony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears (three hundred fertile and very beautiful arourae), so that they would not disturb him or his sister in the least. And selling all the rest that was portable, when he collected sufficient money, he donated it to the poor, keeping a few things for his sister (2).
Why would such a conversion be unlikely today at Mass? Because we celebrate Eucharist quite differently than the ancient church. Because we no longer come to Mass, like “servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks” (Lk 12:36). Because we no longer come, ready to be surprised.
Anthony had no idea what would he would hear at Mass that day, and, if he went expecting to hear from the Lord, he would have had to do just that: listen attentively as the readings were read to him.
Toward the close of the Middle Ages, however, a new expression of piety entered Christian worship. Remember that, until that time, most people were illiterate. They went expecting to hear and to see Eucharist, but certainly not to read it. On the eve of the Reformation, however, the rich—and only the rich—began to own their own texts, beautifully lettered manuscripts produced by monks. These didn’t, however, reproduce the texts of the Mass. Rather, they contained individual readings and prayers to be said by the pious, while a Mass, which they no longer understood, was celebrated around them.
As the Reformation dawned, this notion of the individual seeking God on his or her own terms, combined with the printing press, produced a radically changed piety. Protestants and Catholics both began to port books to worship. Protestants, their bibles; Catholics, their prayer books.
For both, the liturgy became less of a mysterious presence that one encountered and more of a text that one studied and mastered. Like most things in life, there was an up and a down side to this development. Positively, people took personal responsibility for their spirituality. Negatively, they were tempted to think of the divine as something that they mastered, rather than the other way around. God became an object of knowledge, an insight to be acquired, rather than an individual to be encountered.
When the Second Vatican Council reintroduced the vernacular to the liturgy, the hope was that what Saint Anthony had experienced could happen again. God’s Word might surprise us at Mass. Obviously, the Holy Spirit, God’s great surprise, can’t ultimately be frustrated, but the Council essentially asked what we should be doing in order to open ourselves to the Spirit. Listening attentively would be a start.
Sadly, many Catholics, especially in the first postconciliar years—when lectors often weren’t adequately trained—quickly adopted the practice of following along in their books, and not only for the readings. They began to read everything, as a line-prompter in a theatre might. The only thing unexpected in such an approach to worship is the occasional mistake of the minister.
But we’re supposed to be surprised by a person, not an error. In his stunningly rich and beautiful encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis talks about the relationship between faith and love, reminding us that faith is an encounter with a person, not simply assent to a body of knowledge. He writes:
Faith’s hearing emerges as a form of knowing proper to love: it is a personal hearing, one which recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10: 3-5). It is a hearing which calls for discipleship, as was the case with the first disciples. “Hearing him say these things, they followed Jesus” (Jn 1:37).
Our goal, especially at worship, isn’t to master a lesson or to study a text. It’s to meet a person, someone who can surprise us. This is why we stand for the Gospel, and often accompany the Gospel book with candles. Like citizens on their feet for the president, we are recognizing the presence of a person among us.
Saint Anthony didn’t simply receive an new insight at Mass. He didn’t proofread a text; he encountered a person. Listening with all his heart, perhaps even straining to hear, he heard a voice that captivated him. And that’s all it took. He fell in love.
Wisdom 18: 6-9 Hebrews 11: 8-19 Luke 12: 32-48