One of my favorite aspects of being a musician was the challenge and the thrill of blending my instrument with those of the musicians with whom I was playing. Being the soloist on occasion was wonderful, but truly it was more exciting to hear my clarinet blend with the oboe, for example, so that it sounded like one instrument, one unique sound. Similarly, there is nothing better than singing in a choir when it is able to become as one multilayered voice. This union of voices, or any other instrument, involves listening as well as some skill, but when it occurs it is a moving experience. Without this union there might be a voice that blares above the choir, or an orchestral instrument dominating the melody when actually playing harmony, or worse, a total cacophony of noise obliterating the intention of the music. This concept also holds true in our liturgical gatherings in which the amalgamation of voices in unity is equally important in singing and speaking our prayer. We do more than just prevent chaos. Rather, this harmony is an integral part of being a community united in Christ. And not only is this unity crucial during the liturgy, but it is important that we take it out the door with us. First, it strengthens the community in every way, and second, peace flourishes when we are one.* This peace arises from the shared desire to offer love and mercy to one another, and it fosters trust in God as we work together to lift up the uncertain or powerless. In short, unity offers hope.
The practice of joining voices in unified prayer goes back to the origins of all organized religious and liturgical practice. For Christians the essence of perfect unity in prayer is found in Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request to teach them to pray: the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus certainly intended this prayer to be universal and foundational. It was for individual private prayer, but as the perfect prayer it was also meant for communal gatherings. Therefore, along with the Eucharist it was at the heart of the Mass from its very beginning, joining the early Christian community into one Body. Their unity in prayer moved them to share all their material goods in common and then their love moved them outward to the poor. (See Acts 1:13-14; 2:42-47; 4:32-37) St. Paul eloquently described this unity when he explained how we are one Body with Christ as the head and we, the many parts (or members). This unity culminates in various gifts of grace in addition to the faith, hope, and love which are received by all the members at Baptism. (1 Corinthians 12&13) As the Church grew, religious communities began to flourish with the same focus on communal sharing of goods and prayer, centering on celebration of the Mass and prayer together multiple times each day, (99.9% of which was sung.) They came together in choir, facing each other in two sections, each side alternating between listening and singing (chanting) the Psalms and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours in unison. Religious communities and lay people still pray this way, blending their voices into the cadence of the assembly. For those praying in this way, this union is a sublime spiritual experience which also serves to strengthen the bonds of the community.
Every time we attend Mass we are invited into a similar experience in prayer which encourages our attentiveness to the worshipers around us so that we do not simply think of what ‘I am saying,’ but of what ‘we are saying’ as a Body. Additionally, the unified cadence of the assembly offers an important reminder that our connection also goes beyond those who are in the church. Even the prayers of the liturgy point outward: for example, every version of the Preface prayer, (said by the priest before the Holy, Holy) ends with a declaration that we join our voices in prayer with the angels and/or saints. In other words, when we pray together, we are united with all the living faithful, all those who have gone before us, and all the choirs of angels. Power and grace abound when the entire Church prays in this unity. Our unity builds up the community, not just within the church building, but beyond the doors. Just as in the early Church, founded on the Body and Blood of Christ and built up by the apostles through the Holy Spirit, we are called to share our prayer and our material goods to work toward unity in the larger community, and hopefully in the world. Thus, praying together fosters unity and brings peace.
As we focus on prayer this Lent, we can consider the ways we are called to be unified during prayer as a gathered community; that is, we can listen and consider our responses more attentively during our prayer at Mass. Additionally, when we pray at home, we can be mindful that our private prayer also makes us one; whether meditating, or praying a Rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet or any devotional prayer, we are joining ourselves with a vast army of pray-ers. In these times it is especially important that we pray intentionally so that the bonds of the community are strengthened, cultivating trust in God and fostering hope, which in turn builds peace among peoples. The foundation of the Church was built upon this, so that even when we are by ourselves, we are actually never alone. We are one people, one Body headed by Jesus Christ who is our hope, our strength, and our salvation.
May we cling to the strength that arises from unity, empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that our faith may not falter, nor our hope waiver! May we pray with both the humility to blend our voices and the boldness to form a strengthened community! And may we find wisdom and peace in prayer! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Remember, unity does not mean that the members of a community are supposed to be totally alike. Rather, like an orchestra (to use the metaphor above) there needs to be different voices which blend in union. It does not mean a loss of identity of the members, but a blending that is not possible unless the many work as one. Being one was something Jesus spoke of and it was what He prayed for us at the Last Supper, for example, (John 17:20)
1. Painting, The Orchestra at the Opera, Edgar Degas, 1870.
2. Icon, Cristo Pantocrator by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this icon at fineartamerica.com/featured/cristo-pantocrator-175-william-hart-mcnichols.html
3. Fresco painting, The Institution of the Eucharist by Blessed Fra Angelico.
4. My photo, Bern, Switzerland.
5. My photo, sheep peacefully gathered together; taken just outside of Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland.
There is little more humbling than the words said as ashes are applied upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is humbling mostly because it is a reminder that we are finite, and although created by God in a miraculous way, we will all face death at some point. These words call to mind who we are before God: He is the Creator and we are but the created. They emphasize our total reliance upon God for everything, and that as sinners we periodically need to orient our heart back to Him. Furthermore, the ashes are a symbol of sorrow because in them we recognize our sinfulness; thus, they move us to penitence by emphasizing the effort needed to cleanse what has been sullied. Lent offers the time to re-prioritize our choices so we might choose that which leads us closer to God and eliminate that which moves us away. In humility we must recognize our own unworthiness for such a gift of mercy during this prescribed time, but not without understanding that those words on Ash Wednesday offer hope, too. One of my first Scripture professors, Fr. Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B., once said that “humility means to be in touch with the Truth.” Thus, the hope-filled truth is that while we are sinners, we are loved sinners, and in His unbounded mercy God never ceases to offer opportunities for us to return to Him.
During Lent we are encouraged to redirect our lives through three important practices. First, prayer leads to a deeper spiritual life, aiding our growth in relationship with God and therefore in holiness. Prayer also moves us outward to others because it leads to growth in love and compassion. Second, almsgiving and doing works of mercy moves us to consider what we have and whether we have become too material, helping us examine our levels of generosity and hospitality. Finally, in doing penance we atone for any areas of sinfulness to which we are prone. We also grow in simplicity; as we practice abstinence and fasting we become more aware of our hungers and the result of them. We should ask ourselves, “For what do we long? Are the things we long for leading toward God or away from Him?” Abstinence and fasting teach greater discernment as we examine our choices and desires, but coupled with prayer they also teach us to realign our focus. For example, one Lent I decided to give up coffee and within a couple of days I thought I had made the 'worst' Lenten choice of my life. I love coffee and therefore the struggle was so difficult that quite soon I wanted to give up; however, I knew I had made a commitment. The result was that when my ‘interior whining’ finally quieted down, I realized that the point was not to focus on myself and what I was missing, but rather to focus more on God. It was not about me or what I gave up, but it was about what, or rather, Who I filled the emptiness with. It turned out to be one of the most powerful Lenten experiences ever. No matter what we have chosen to sacrifice, it should lead us into greater humility and also to gratitude for God’s mercy.
Remember that in the second creation story (Genesis 2), God made the first human creature out of the clay of the earth, that is, dust and water. This creature was called A-dam which in Hebrew literally means ‘of the earth.’ Then God lovingly breathed His own breath into A-dam and life entered this creature. Again, remember that the Hebrew word for ‘breath’ (ruah) also means ‘spirit,’ hence the spirit or soul of A-dam was filled with God’s goodness. God then provided a companion for A-dam; taking a rib and thus sharing the clay and ruah, He created He-vah, (which means ‘living’), who is now identified as a woman while A-dam is identified as a man.* Therefore, as descendants of Adam and Eve we are all essentially from the earth insofar as we are creatures filled with the breath of God, that is, with a soul. The story provides a reminder that we are sacred, created to be in a relationship of love with God. It reveals that God intended everything to be for our happiness, even though we also see the result of our capacity for making the wrong choices, as revealed in the next chapter of Genesis. But it is important to note that Adam and Eve were centered on God at first, and then shifted their focus to self. Thus, God began the process of sending His Son for our redemption.
“Humility means to be in touch with the Truth.” We are dust and we are in need of redemption: that is the truth. Perhaps our intention this Lent can be to pray for the humility to see ourselves in truth. But in standing in this truth, let us remember that God is rich in mercy and bountiful in love. Therefore, He sees the good and the beauty that lies beneath whatever is in need of healing. God wants us to return to Him with all our hearts because He deeply desires that we have our wounds bound up, find new life in His love, and rejoice in Heaven with Him forever. If our sin is keeping us from this realization in truth, it is our humility in doing penance, offering alms, and doing good works that will open our eyes just a bit more. Yes, our humility will move us to the Truth, who is Love.
May we embrace the humility of our finiteness and our total reliance upon God! May we grow spiritually through our efforts at prayer, almsgiving, and abstinence! And may we be moved to hope and gratitude for the mercy and love of God! Let us meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I described A-dam without using a pronoun because in the original Hebrew the ‘earth creature’ is an ‘it’ until the rib is removed and the woman created. Only when Eve is created are terms for gender used. Thus, without the female, he is not a male and vice versa; both are intended for companionship with one another in love, in an intimate relationship, just as God wants to share with them. They are equal in God’s sight, but are created with distinct roles.
1. My photo, Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy. What looks like a cloud is really dust coming from the mountain in the strong wind present while we were up there. The rest is ash.
2. Painting, Works of Mercy, by Olivuccio di Ciccarello. This scene depicts almsgiving.
3. Mosaic, The Creation of Adam, found in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.
4. Icon, Our Lady of Kiev, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. When I think of humility being in touch with the truth, Our Lady comes to mind. I picked this icon to remind us to pray for the triumph of her Immaculate Heart and for reparation of sin. You can purchase a copy of this in a variety of mediums at fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-grace-vladimir-002-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. Ashes from Clip Art.
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Heart Speaks to Heart