Monday, March 19, 2012

Participating in the insipid and the dull in this life

There’s something inside each of us that disdains the bland, the insipid and the drab.  Almost each of our senses craves for and hankers after what delights, fires the imagination and excites.  We perk up our ears to new sounds, we look at vivid colours and beauty with intense gazes, our olfactory senses send thrilling impulses to the brain when we inspire new fragrances, and our taste-buds delight in tasting things that fire the imagination.  But give us the bland, the insipid and the drab, and we shut down. 

One of the reasons that the Jews celebrate the feast of the Passover with unleavened bread was, we are traditionally told, because it allowed the bread to travel well.  Because it had no rising agent in the recipe, it was flat.  This lack of yeast also helped it to keep well without going bad or moldy easily.  Another thing about matzo bread is that it is rather tasteless.  So much so, apparently, that there are some kosher gourmet places in New York that make chocolate covered matzo, especially for the children who participate in the Passover festive ritual meals. 

Matzo, the unleavened flatbread that the Jews use at this meal, has a deeper significance than just practicality.  It is basic sustenance, and it keeps one on the edge for a deeper fulfilling, for a time when there will be a more fulfilling meal, when the hunger will be taken not just to the edge, but over the edge.  It makes one somewhat aware that in this life, there is no finished symphony, to put it in Karl Rahner’s words.

When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, he took elements and the spirituality of the Jewish Passover and became the new Passover.  He didn’t just formulate something new fangled from thin air.  He knew his Jewish roots, and from there, he launched it into a new dimension that was unheard of.  No Jew prayed it the way he did.  His disciples must have been flabbergasted, but somehow, they also knew that this was a very significant and momentous event.  They probably didn’t know what to make out of it at that time.

At every Eucharistic celebration after that one, the Church has used the same matter – unleavened bread that Jesus used.  Yes, I have heard so many people say that it tastes like cardboard, that it is insipid, that they wish (in a jocular fashion) that Jesus had used prata, or some sweet bun, or that the Passover was a ten-course exotic meal (Kosher, albeit).  But in the historical context of the Passover being what it is, the elements are understandably flat, dull, and rather tasteless.  They were on a long journey.  It was escape food.  It was not something that they were to luxuriate in. 

Somehow, when we take in all those elements, the communion host begins to have good reason to also be someone insipid, dull and flat to the taste.  It is food for the journey, and it makes us hanker for a greater fulfillment that awaits us not in this life, but in eternity, where the symphony of life is played in all its glory.

Is the Liturgy sometimes experienced as bland, not too exciting, flat and rather lifeless?  Heaven knows how many of these I have been a participant at in my 47 years of going to Masses.  I am sure that you, the reader, have also experienced these too.  Perhaps the hymns were rather drab.  Maybe the preacher could have done better work at his craft.  The lectors may have really messed up the reading and read the Letter of Saint Paul to the Theologians.  And when we are told that XXXX mega church downtown as a ‘lively’ and ‘vibrant’ celebration every Sunday, we compare it with what we have, it can make our celebration look rather ‘dirgey’.  But the ‘fault’ may also be on the participants, where they didn’t bring their best there too – their best attention, their best mind, their best presence, making it their best participation. 

I remember reading a liturgy textbook once where it said very memorably that on this side of heaven, there is no perfect liturgy.  And I think this is very true.  Every liturgy will have something lacking.  That’s because perfect liturgy requires the full giving of everyone and everything present, and it is never about “me” but “us”.  I may have prepared the best homily ever and preached with the flair of Lacordiare, the cantor may have sung with great passion and lovely diction, the lector may have read with such flawless precision, but because each one on the congregation has a vital part to play, it will never be perfect here.  We are not in heaven yet.  This will still be just a glimpse, a shade, or smidgen of what heaven really is.  Right now, we are just to do our best.

Just as the flat, tasteless and insipid host makes us long for a greater fulfillment of its consummation in heaven, so too is every Liturgy meant to make us hunger and thirst that much more for it to be sated and slaked. 


  1. Why do you have to feature a photo of a causasian child? Isn't there a picture of a cute enough local babe to head up your interesting article?

    Frankly, I am quite tired of being bombarded with images of whities left right and centre of every imaginable marketing/publicity media platform.

    Time for a real cultural revolution: and that is to rid ourselves of this cultural cringe (a predisposition to anything smacking of whities)

  2. While I can understand your revulsion to this so-called 'cultural cringe', try to understand too that I have tried very hard to look for an Asian bored, yawning child in stock-photo images, and couldn't come up with anything suitable. Notably, there are thus, far more caucasian bored, yawning children, than Asian ones! Isn't that good news then? But at least the article itself is "interesting", as you have noted. That's far more important. The photo was just an embellishment. You didn't miss the forest for the trees! Thanks for the comment though.

    Fr Luke

  3. Good post, Fr. Luke.

    As Fulton Sheen said, we only get out of the mass what we put INTO it; so complaining that the mass is "dull, lifeless and bland" is rather a reflection of our own insipid-ness, or lack of fervent participation.
    Btw, St. Paul's letter to the Theologians - that must be right next to the Book of Moses (?)
    Peace and Joy,

  4. Somehow you have made a rather ‘’dry ’’ and ‘’insipid’’ subject quite palatable and - interesting too. I guess it’s because you have cut it down to bite-able size for us for easy digestion – ( jocund rejoinder to your prata ) I have tasted the matzo once and if taken in small bites and chewed slowly it tastes better than rye bread – nevertheless, dry and bland.

    You said - ‘’ .....that on this side of heaven, there is no perfect liturgy...’’ and I don’t think I can quarrel with that - because the mass is meant to be participative liturgical worship for the whole congregation and not a performance for an audience on the look-out for perfection, so it cannot be orchestrated to perfection. However, for each and every individual in the congregation, I am sure that there comes a day when the mass was just ‘’perfect’’ for you – not because the choir was that fantastic or that the lectors ‘’ read with flawless precision....’’ or the preacher preached with much conviction ( though that helps, sometimes......) – but because somehow – you feel deep within you, a thrill that at this particular time and space you are alive, freely doing what you really wanted to do......gathering together to worship in words and song the One who made all this possible. So again, what you said that “ perfect liturgy requires the full giving of everyone and everything present.....’’ is true. For the problem is always with the self.

    Celebrating the Eucharist in the community requires preparation even if we are not the preacher, lectors or cantor – especially spiritual preparation or we would end up like the little tot yawning in your post, except we would not be so engagingly candid in showing our boredom! Sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt and if one is not properly attuned to worship, one ends up treating it as routine and .....even receiving the Host can become ‘’bland and insipid’’. Indifference would be the most insufferable hurt !

    God bless you, Fr.