Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How NOT to Design a "Contemplative Eucharist"

I want to start by saying that any attempt to have eucharist with lots of silence is very welcome, but if such eucharists are not thought through in every detail they can be self-subverting. There is a huge difference between a eucharistic celebration with large amounts of silence and a contemplative eucharist.

Contemplation is a process of simplification and transcending of distinctions; it allows the ego to cease its endless activity. In theory, every liturgy should point beyond itself ("every true sacred sign effaces itself") but the religious zeitgeist is such that most liturgies, often with the best intentions in the world, end up being occasions of mutual ego-massage for the in-group, and devaluation of the non-performers. They tend to allude unconsciously more to TV advertising than Christian history. The eucharist I am about to critique was one of these latter.


It was a medium sized downtown church of traditional design in a small city, really little more than a large town. Its main services were very popular. The late-Sunday-afternoon eucharist, advertised as a "contemplative eucharist" was attended by 8 people, including the celebrant.

The first jarring note occurred as soon as I entered the church. As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I saw a table with a guardian sitting behind it, a few small leaflets and a large pewter plate with a dollar bill on it, rather like the tip jar that desperate or cynical employees place by the cash register in some restaurants.

I nearly turned around and walked out. People do not come to "contemplative" eucharists either to be forced to engage a gatekeeper or to be immediately reminded of money. There should have been no one at that table, and if they were so worried about someone nicking the dollar on the plate, they should have put it somewhere else or, better, omitted it. They would have been much more likely to have attracted donations by its absence.

Then I turned to the altar, which had been pulled forward to the top of the steps going into the choir/sanctuary. It had so many candles on it that it immediately reminded me of one of those TV ads (I rarely watch TV) where a similarly lit bathtub is featured, hinting at all sorts of self-indulgent pleasures. Less is more, folks.

In the choir were seated the celebrant and across from her a man whose function was painfully to be revealed. The rest of the small congregation was scattered in the east-facing pews. The celebrant was wearing, incongruously, an alb with lace insets and a monastic scapular in liturgical green. Any time I see a non-monastic wearing a scapular the dressing-up agenda screams its presence; the liturgical color made me want giggle through my despair. The contradiction of the juxtaposition of lace and scapular (the latter traditionally denoting a life vowed to simplicity) was almost too much.

Everyone should have been seated either in the choir or the pews and the celebrant should not have vested. A single candle on the altar would have sufficed.

I looked at my leaflet and groaned—silently, I hope.

There was a rather sappy opening prayer by the celebrant and then the aging tenor warbled the Phos hilaron. This sort of solo singing cannot fail to be toe-curling in so small a congregation; it was jarring and inappropriate.

It would have been much more effective if someone had read the Phos hilaron slowly, prayerfully and anonymously from within the congregation, followed by 10 minutes of silence. The other prayer was extraneous and could have been omitted entirely.

Then there was a "non-scriptural reading" which turned out to be a TV-style testimonial, read so fast that it was thankfully mostly incomprehensible. Such testimonials may have their use but have no place in a eucharistic rite, much less what purports to be a contemplative eucharist. This piece of uninspired sentimentality was followed by a psalm crooned by the tenor. Both the testimonial and the psalm, much less the singing, should have been omitted. They were cringe-inducing.

A contemplative Eucharist needs only one reading, and that read at a very slow pace so that each phrase is allowed to drop into the silence and resonate, like the resonance of a drop of water in a very deep well. It doesn't matter which of the appointed texts is read, and if none of them have any depth, then a suitable one should be chosen, the shorter the better, followed by at least ten minutes of silence.

Then the gospel was read, followed by five minutes of silence.

The intercessions followed, which were low-key and offered spontaneously without grandstanding, for which I was extremely grateful.

Then those of us in the pews gathered rather foolishly around the altar while the celebrant held up what looked like a glorified hamburger bun from a boutique bakery. This would have certainly been an occasion when hosts—gathered before the eucharist started from the table in the narthex with the leaflets—could have been presented one by one by each person present and broken into the paten. [see the post "Rite for Contemplative Eucharist" under January 2006 in this blog]

Then the celebrant rattled off the entire canon, from the Sanctus onward. The canon is full of excess verbiage and conflicting theologies. It would be much better to have a period of silence around the altar and a brief epiclesis taken from one of the ancient liturgies or spontaneously offered (on the condition it is free from trendy jargon and forced sentiment).

After we received communion and nearly failed to execute a feeble Taizé chant, sung with embarrassment onlyy by those who recognized it (I wasn't among them, and, again, it was inappropriate) we went back to our pews. I can't remember if there was a prayer of thanksgiving but the celebrant insisted on a priestly blessing, which seemed jarring and redundant. Then, suddenly, everyone was chit-chatting around the altar about diocesan politics.

I left in silence, tossing a dollar in the tip jar under the gimlet eye of the doorkeeper, vowing never to return.

3 Comments:

Anonymous jane smith said...

I've just discovered your blog - your account of the contemplative eucharist (so called) really made my chuckle (rather unkindly, I'm afraid).

Reminds me of a contemplative prayer group I once attended. Well meaning, but somewhat off track.

Stil, I suppose we are all beginners!

I certainly am.

11:00 am, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Readers might like to look at the Rite for Contemplative Eucharist in this blog on January 22, 2006.

12:59 pm, May 19, 2012  
Blogger Mark Gladding said...

Thank you for this...we are launching a contemplative eucharist in my parish this Sunday....I feel better about my choices now !

5:10 pm, November 29, 2012  

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