01 March 2013

Why Mass is Awesome

I've always disliked fire-eating theologians, but incense is grand.

As a parish priest and a seminary mentor, I ride a fire-darting steed on roads showered with rose petals….well, not really…but I am often engaged in discussions about theology. This fact is pretty ironic because I have always disliked fire-eating theologians–especially Christian ones. My opinion of most theological debates is like that of a chicken for Kentucky Fried Chicken. I don’t really care that it’s extra crispy-spicy, it's bad for you and it usually ends up with someone getting cooked.

The needlessly complex, droning explanations contained in much of western theology are speculative at best, and more likely the product of Christian polemicists than the legitimate concerns of the average spiritual seeker or sagacious leader. In fact, it is often the ridiculous hair-splitting that turns off the laity, and rightfully so. Those who are called to the priesthood or other ministry, need to understand on a very basic level that throwing hundred-dollar words around an argument tends to worsen the climate, not provide clarity.  I’m all for good use of vocabulary, but usually in matters religious, it is better to err on the side of simplicity and honesty.

This is not to say that I think that theology is unnecessary–quite the reverse–it seems to me to be of utmost importance for anyone who wishes to wear the stole, to come to terms with the ancient arguments and rationalities of our tradition and its predecessors. I look at the study of theology much as I do Drivers’ Ed: you’re learning not to hit other people and stay between the lines. Yield does not mean stop, and follow the rules concerning (liturgical) colors.  But beyond knowing the glossary of theological terminology from adiaphora to Zeus, we need to understand, in a heartfelt way, the beauty and simplicity that a relationship with the Divine can mean in our daily lives.

Theomachy is not a sushi roll wrapped in grape leaves
Just because you know that theomachy is a war between the gods and not a sushi roll wrapped in grape leaves doesn’t mean that you should be the caretaker of souls. Over the centuries, there have been far too many clever clergy and far too few loving and caring ones.

As I have mentioned before, there is much that we can learn from the basic principles that have served as a line of continuity from ancient times to the modern era.  Now that more people have become aware of Gnosticism as an ancient way of approaching the Divine, they are thirsty for more ways of sparking up the Sacred Flame, to employ more tricks of the trade, as it were.  That quest is perfectly normal and, if approached in a healthy, moderate and circumspect way, quite laudable.

Do ut des“I give that you might give”
This is where the Church enters our spiritual scenario.  Going to Mass isn’t just an activity that brings us together with likeminded members of our community.  It isn’t essentially about the conviviality or the inspiring discussions that we share, although those are wonderfully nutritious for our spiritual paths.  The act of religion itself is the thing that binds us together, and opens the reciprocal doors to our great and mysterious origins.

The ancient Roman term for this most basic religious principle is do ut des“I give that you might give”, and it presupposes an environment that depends on the right practices, prayers and rituals to be executed.  This is the inner meaning of sacramentalism:  we are not dependent on “right thinking” when it comes to dogma or doctrine; we are bound together in the communal sacrifice and sharing with the Divine. As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim put it: do ut des is “an exchange of mutually invigorating good deeds between the divinity and his faithful.”[1]

In a nutshell, if we count ourselves as Gnostic sacramentalists, we need not worry ourselves with the endless details and wild speculations of theologians.  For Johannite Gnostics, we can learn how to walk toward unity by the ongoing experience of the Spirit through Gnosis and the celebration of the Sacraments which are not only the tools of our ancestors and the Communion of the Saints, but the means by which we fuel the Sacred Flame within each of us.

So, in short, if you have a local parish and you’re looking for ways to properly improve your spiritual life, go to Mass!


1.                               [1] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2001 translation), p. 257 online.