Notre Dame liturgist: 'Advent forms us in the art of desiring God'

Notre Dame liturgist: ‘Advent forms us in the art of desiring God’

Notre Dame liturgist: ‘Advent forms us in the art of desiring God’

Pope Francis waves during his Angelus in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 3. Advent is a time to be watchful and alert to the ways one strays from God's path, but also to signs of his presence in other people and in the beauty of the world, Pope Francis said. (Credit: Tony Gentile/Reuters via CNS.)

Timothy O'Malley, a liturgist at the University of Notre Dame, believes the liturgy is key to the new evangelization and offers reflections on how Advent is the season for desiring God.

Timothy O’Malley, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Liturgy and author of the recently released book Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life, believes good liturgy is the key to new evangelization.

In an interview with Crux, O’Malley offers his take on how Catholics should seize the many opportunities for the renewal of faith presented during the season of Advent, particularly during a time when many Catholics are returning to the pews after some time away. “If Advent is about anything,” O’Malley says, “it’s an annual season that forms us in the art of desiring God.”

Crux: You write in your book that some boredom at mass is okay and even healthy. How so?

O’Malley: I write about two types of boredom in the Mass: good and bad boredom. Bad boredom is the result of impoverished preaching, terrible liturgical music, sloppy presiding, and an inadequate life of prayer outside of the Mass. This kind of boredom should be fixed through more careful attention to preaching, liturgical aesthetics, and spiritual formation. On the other hand, there is also a good boredom that calls us more deeply into the life of prayer. Too often American religion is characterized by a sense that we have to experience immediate affections if our common prayer is to be efficacious. In the case of the Mass, this often means the undergraduates describe being “bored” at Mass when what they’re actually experiencing is an invitation to enter more deeply into the act of prayer. Good boredom is the way that God moves us from the delight in immediate affections to a deeper offering of ourselves. This kind of good boredom is akin to moving beyond the honeymoon stage of a marriage to the day-to-day art of living together.

The problem is that in an age of the smartphone, where there’s always an experience that can elicit immediate affections, we don’t stay in the period of good boredom long enough. We look to escape from this boredom rather than learn the art of prayer that it calls us toward.

We’ve just started a new liturgical year and a lot of folks think of a New Year as a time to form better habits. What’s your best advice for being present in the mass? 

There are certainly some key habits that one can adopt for participating more fruitfully in the Eucharist. One should read and pray the Scriptures of the day before attending. One should know the structures of the various prayers of the Mass, which allows for fruitful use of the prayer (I discuss these structures in my book). One should spend time with the Psalms learning to enter into dialogue with God. But, perhaps most importantly, if you want the habit of going to Mass, you just need to show up. Regular participation in the Eucharist changes us even if we don’t immediately experience it. So to be present at Mass, literally being present is the most important thing. And if for some reason, you’re distracted by work or family life such that you feel that you can’t pray, still show up. Liturgical prayer works on us in hidden ways, even when we can’t be as mentally present as we’d like.

We’re in Advent and some folks are tired of hearing the same songs over and over. How do you recommend Catholics find new meaning in old traditions?

The meaning, I suspect, is found because the traditions are old. We abide in an age in which whatever is novel is considered good. An iPhone is only good until a better version comes along. We create and recreate ourselves through new technological devices, fashion, and forms of art. We end up existing apart from any history, always having to construct ourselves anew day after day. But in the case of the Church, it’s the old traditions that connect us to a narrative that is not reducible to our individual selves. We light Advent candles, and we connect ourselves with those who perform this act year after year. We sing “O Come Divine Messiah” because this is what we sing on the 4th Sunday of Advent. And it’s what others have sung.

This form of tradition is really important to advancement in the spiritual life. We return to the same texts, to the same themes year after year. But in the year since we’ve last sung out “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we’ve changed. The words may stay the same but they become the lens through which we view our existence here and now.

A religious order, the Carthusians, have a motto that states “the cross stands while the world turns” (Stat crux dum volvitur orbis). This doesn’t mean that we should enter into the silence of our cells like the Carthusians do. But rather that it is in the constancy of tradition, of returning again and again to the same themes, that allows us to engage the world out of a particular identity. One that is not dependent on the changing whims of the Style section of our local paper.

Speaking of Advent, it’s a time of year where many folks are returning to the pews after being away for some time. How can the Church offer them a better sense of welcome that may turn into a more permanent presence?

Of course, there are ways of providing welcome that are obvious. We should probably find ways to introduce ourselves to those who attend Mass. We should welcome visitors in a particular way and find ways to get them more involved in the various dimensions of parish life. We should allow friendships to develop, which will keep young adults engaged at Mass. These are strategies that have been mastered by evangelicals, and they should be used by us too.

That being said, I sometimes fear that we spend so much time considering the art of hospitality that we forget to celebrate a liturgical rite that is worth staying for. In this sense, a better sense of welcome means attending to those dimensions of bad boredom I mentioned earlier. And doing something about them.

I walk into too many Catholic parishes and suspect they have no idea that they’ve celebrated a Eucharistic liturgy in which the fullness of divine love becomes present among us. It seems that no one actually believes what is happening. The liturgy is done quickly, performed almost apologetically. The priest stumbles over the homily, meandering through the narrative of salvation as if it is really devoid of meaning. The Eucharistic Prayer is proclaimed as if the priest is a bad actor who thinks good acting sounds like screaming or reading everything with conviction.

If we welcome people back to a Mass that is so mind-numbingly ugly, treated as nothing but an old meaningless rite, then even if we have an amazing social hour, that Catholic will eventually leave. Hospitality is also an aesthetic act, one that requires us to care for the liturgy in a way in which the returning Catholic discovers the outline of the beautiful God we adore.

What are your favorite Advent prayers and hymns? 

For me, my favorite Advent prayers are the O Antiphons. These antiphons, which we know from the famous hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” are prayed in the Church from December 17th until the 23rd during evening prayer. Antiphons slowly prepare us to desire the coming not just of Christmas but the final coming of the Word made flesh who redeems humanity.

These antiphons function as annual practices of desire for me. The triune God desires to enter into relationship with humanity. In the Incarnation, God has sent a tent up among us in the coming of his Son. Divine glory now fills the created order. God has longed to be with us. And we must long to be with us. The O Antiphons teach us each and every Antiphon to desire the coming of a desiring God.

For Christ’s Advent, his coming, is not just a matter of the past or future. It’s a present reality. Christ comes to us in the Eucharist. He comes to us hidden in the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, the unborn child. He comes to us in those silent spaces where there is no power, there is no glory. He comes to us in our hearts as we delight in prayer. In all these spaces, the Word becomes flesh anew.

But we must desire it. And if Advent is about anything, it’s an annual season that forms us in the art of desiring God.

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