(Photo by Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com)

Treating liturgy as therapy obscures its deep truths

  • March 9, 2023

As the Church, we have embarked again on our Lenten journey, that season of bright sadness during which we consider our sinfulness and the call to repentance. 

Lent is first and foremost the journey to the Cross and to our Lord’s glorious and radiant Resurrection at Easter. That is our destination. The repentance to which we are called and the forgiveness that God freely gives us are bound up in the Paschal Mystery. It is the Risen Lord who saves us through His trampling of death by death. Through His Resurrection we are born to new life and called to join ourselves continually to Him.

Living that new life in Jesus Christ demands a relationship with Him and a desire to partake in the life of the Holy Trinity, into which we are called through our baptism. We can do nothing without God and all things come from Him. 

But, how do we come to know God? Certainly, we encounter Him in the Holy Scriptures, in the beauty of His Creation and in the love that we share with one another that is a manifestation of His love for us. Yet, as we move through this season of Lent into the great events of Holy Week, the Church in her wisdom gives even more: the sacred liturgy. 

In my own Byzantine rite, the seasons of Great Lent and Holy Week abound with beautiful liturgies. Each offers its own beauty and the opportunity for us to be drawn more deeply into prayer and into the reality of the events of the Passion, no longer simply historical events but “now” events made present for us in these days. 

The weekday Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with its beautiful chants, the deep devotion of the Matins liturgy of the 12 Passion Gospels on Good Friday, the haunting funeral dirges of Jerusalem Matins on Holy Saturday and the ecstatic joy of the Paschal Divine Liturgy draw us into a very deep and sacred mystery. 

I previously wrote that “when we are in prayer, when we are actively responding to God’s call, when we are liturgical, that image and likeness of God redeemed in Christ shines with the light of the Resurrection… and there, in front of that altar, we are fully ourselves.” 

Our experience of the liturgies of these seasons can affect us deeply and sometimes we feel something so profound in our serving of the liturgy that we are offered a glimpse into the divine life. Yet, the goal of the liturgy is not an emotional high. It is not there to satisfy our need to feel good. If we expect an emotional experience each time we attend church, what happens on that occasion when we don’t feel anything at all?

The sacred liturgy exists and has the same profound depth and power whether we feel anything or not. Perhaps we have caught our minds wandering at Mass, thinking about where we are going for brunch, wondering why the kids in the front pew seem possessed or why the fellow next to us smells so strongly of boiled cabbage (it’s a Ukrainian Catholic thing.) 

While we might come from the liturgy having not felt anything, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the liturgy; it has to do with us. One does not need to feel something when we pray in order for the prayer to be valid, true or heard and received by God. Prayer, and especially liturgical prayer, orders us towards God, not God towards what we think we need to get out of going to church. 

One of the reasons I have heard from those who attend church infrequently as to why that is, I hear some variation on, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it.” The sacred liturgy, the Mass or the Divine Liturgy is not therapy neither is it entertainment. It is not there to satisfy our wants. 

In fact, the sacred liturgy is not about us; it is about Jesus Christ. When we come to understand this about liturgy, that it is not about me, we will find that it actually frees us. We become freer to enter more deeply into the theological meaning of the liturgy, its mystery, its great beauty and there to encounter our Lord in the most holy mysteries of the altar: His precious body and blood that bring to us “the healing of soul of body.” 

And there is no earthly therapy that can give you that.

(The Reverend Andrew Bennett is a deacon of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Canada.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.