Tag Archives: sacrality

#27 — Sacred Words

Catholicism is filled with sacred words to accompany the sacred gestures, time, space, and objects.

The most sacred words, of course, are the words of Scripture, and within that, the Gospel accounts. One of the first things visitors notice is the treating of those words as sacred. When the priest or deacon begins the reading, saying, “A reading from the Gospel of…”, parishioners make three small crosses with their right thumb: one on the forehead (belief), one on the lips (desire to proselytize), and one on the breast above the heart (desire to keep the words in one’s heart). Thus, the sacred words are a catalyst for sacred gestures.

Prayer is another moment when sacred words bring forth an accompanying gesture. When a Catholic begins a prayer, she intones, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and makes the sign of the cross simultaneously. The one without the other is incomplete, and while it might become a mere habit with some Catholics, I’ve seen some obviously sincere moments was parishioners cross themselves, and that sincerity itself is moving.

Not all sacred words are for all Catholics, though. Some obviously are reserved for priests. Blessings and absolution come to mind, but they’re not the most important sacred words a priest can utter; the Eucharistic Prayer is. The highlight of the mass is the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. They revere it accordingly. Of course this is not always the case: unconsecrated hosts are simply that — hosts. So there comes a moment when, according to the Church, the Holy Spirit transforms the hosts. A skeptic might say, “Hocus pocus — nothing more than cheap parlor magic,” and I myself said the same thing for years. Yet whether or not it’s effective is not my point here: the fact that the tradition of sacred words continues is somehow admirable. I suppose it’s the faith that impresses me.


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#24 — Sacred Gestures

For a long time I felt a little ill at ease when I was attending a Mass and realized I wasn’t doing the gestures everyone around me was doing. On entering the Church, they dipped a finger in holy water and crossed themselves; I didn’t. When crossing in front of the tabernacle, they stopped genuflected or bowed; I didn’t. Just before entering the pews, they genuflected and crossed themselves; I didn’t. When the priest opens the Mass with “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” they crossed themselves again; I didn’t. When they spoke the creed or the Confiteor, I remain silent. When they struck their breast during the “mea culpa” phrase of the Confiteor (at least in Poland), I remained motionless. When they made the sign of the cross on their forehead, their lips, and their heart before the reading of the Gospel, my hands stayed by my side. I stood when they stood, knelt when they knelt, and sat when they sat, but otherwise, I was strictly an observer.

And I felt conspicuous.

At last I began going through the motions, literally and figuratively. What an odd feeling to begin crossing oneself at the age of thirty-eight.

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#11 — The Tactile Church

Georges de La Tour 011

Georges de La Tour: Büßender Hl. Hieronymus

I am aware of the tactile sensations of my body in a Catholic church in a way that I never was in any Protestant church.

Part of this goes back to my first experiences with Catholicism in Poland. Going to a Mass with someone — most often, K — I knew would be painful. It was not that I hated the liturgy or thought it a waste of time. I knew it would be physically painful: there was very, very rarely free space in any pew, so we spent the Mass standing or kneeling. On a stone floor, this was always tough on my already-injured knees and prematurely-paining back. It added an ascetic dimension to Mass.

Yet mortification of the flesh is not the only — or most common — sense that I think of Catholicism as tactile. Anointing, genuflecting, crossing oneself, baptizing, and kneeling all heighten, in one for or another, one’s awareness of the body. As a non-Catholic, I often feel the distinctness of my lack of action when the individual before me genuflects before entering the row of pews and I don’t, or when my neighbor crosses herself along with everyone else and I don’t.

I wonder if that would change were I to follow suit…

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#3 — The Sacred

The Papal Altar

The Papal Altar (Photo: G Wong)

The sacred — an idea that, in the ancient world, was an everyday reality. To be sacred is to be “consecrated: made or declared or believed to be holy.” It’s only been in the last few centuries that this notion disappeared from the everyday life of Everyman.

In a Protestant church, the idea of the sacred is almost non-existent except in a historical, Biblical milieu.  The Ark of the Covenant was sacred; the showbread and the Holy of Holies were sacred; God’s name is, in some sense, sacred. But in the sense that time, space, gestures, words, or objects can be sacred, Protestantism proclaims loudly and, for its own part, definitively, “No!” Only God is sacred. Nothing on Earth is truly sacred.

The rest of the religions in the world beg to differ. And Catholicism (as well as the Orthodox East) in particular would argue that there is sacredness on Earth. Indeed, Catholicism is, in part, all about bringing that sacrality to humanity on a daily basis.

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