In my current state of being between assignments, I've been able to get to several books I had meant to read but never did. One of the books I'm in now is Dom Augustine Baker's Sancta Sophia, which has already shown up in a couple of posts. It's one of those books that I'm so grateful to have finally got around to reading. Sometimes I think this is an operation of grace; the Holy Spirit means for us to read a certain book at a certain moment in the journey, and makes it happen just that way.
Another book I had meant to read but never got to until now is Peter Steinfels' A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Whether you agree with Steinfels or not, it's an important book. Though still fairly recent (2003), it's a little jarring how dated it already feels, given certain events in the Church: the election of Benedict XVI, Summorum pontificum, the election of Timothy Dolan as president of the USCCB, etc.
I'm enjoying the book, particularly in its communication of a love and reverence for the whole of Catholic experience in the United States. As a convert without a family history in the Church, that's something good for me to sense and feel, and to hold in reverence.
What grabbed me for a post today, however, was a little line in the section in which Steinfels is correcting nostalgia for the liturgy before the reforms following Vatican II, as if this were a time of universal reverence and awe before the mystery of God. As an effective strategy for doing this, Steinfels describes the experience of being an altar boy in the days before the Mass of Paul VI: "Other priests quickly communicated to the altar boys a smug familiarity with all things sacred, a kind of authorized irreverence in which we were privileged to share." (177)
How that speaks to my experience! Not that I was ever an altar boy, but I have received the same initiation: 'Here you go, brother, accept this false liberation to which you are now entitled by being admitted to our little club. It will only end in sadness and is ultimately ordered to your damnation, but for now let me admit you to this happy irreverence that frees you from worrying about God and lets you relax and be yourself.' Boo.
I remember in one place I lived we had a public chapel where there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each weekday afternoon. I would often spend some time praying with the odd assortment (one has to admit) of folks who would come. One day when I was going to the chapel one of the priests asked me bemusedly if I was on my way to join those who spent their afternoons "quietly screaming at the wafer."
That comment hit me so hard that I could hardly pray for a couple of days. It's bad enough that a priest was making light of the real presence of Christ in the sacred species. In a way, though, I was even more bothered by the way he was mocking the prayer and piety of the people. Fine, maybe adoration isn't your thing, or not the way you pray. Maybe you even think it's contrary to the spirit of the reformed liturgy. (You're wrong, but that's not the point.) But none of this grants permission to treat the grace of prayer in someone--as imperfect and confused as it is in any of us--as an inside joke on which we build our own rotten and fleshly communion.
It just goes to show how vigilant and cautious we have to be in any of our disagreements and conflicts. The world, the flesh, and the devil get into them so easily.
When we invite each other into the false liberation of the "smug familiarity" and "authorized irreverence" for the things of God, it won't be long before we are also trying to build our rotten solidarity on irreverence for persons and their experience. And the incarnation has rendered all irreverence for the human person a sacrilege.