By Samuel Keyes
It is a commonplace among liturgists of a certain generation that liturgy should contain mysteries without being mystifying. I have often — I hope respectfully — disagreed, mainly because I do not understand the difference. That may be because I am less intelligent than these acolytes of reform (no doubt any whiff of affection for something like a cappa magna will seal the judgment in their minds). Or it could be that any real encounter with mystery (i.e., God) must be mystifying, else the mystery in question is no mystery at all, just the banal representation or explanation of some already acknowledged abstraction. Mystifying need not mean arbitrary or pointless, which is probably the real problem with certain attachments to tradition as much as with attachments to idealized reform.
In any case, teenagers provide a useful case in point. As much as I’d love to wax poetic about teenagers’ attraction to tradition, doing so would stretch the truth of my experience. It would be easier to observe their almost universal distrust for the traditionalism of reform — the pious apotheosis of participation and meaning, terms that lost their cultural intelligibility just at the moment they became popular in mainstream catholic and ecumenical discourse. What is meaningful is love, friendship, Chipotle or lacrosse, or whatever happens to matter in the moment. It is not meaningful to sit around and hear people formed in the 1960s counterculture explain what it means to find meaning. They love hearing stories of the Civil Rights era, or the experiences of their international classmates, but these function on a personal level, not as vindications or critiques of preconceived social convictions.
I wonder if that same personal attraction draws them, in numbers that always surprise me, to some of the more striking moments of traditional Catholic devotion. When I started in high school ministry, I was told that no one would possibly be interested in kissing the cross on Good Friday. But roughly half of the school came forward — more, indeed, than came forward for foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, which, while it is a little more awkward, is less fraught with overtly religious meaning. Just when our students grow more and more secular, they also seem to be more and more attracted to ritual.
Another example, also from the Triduum, is the watch on Thursday night with the Sacrament. I had to ask students to stay no more than 30 minutes at a time, because our little Marian side chapel was growing too crowded. (The featured picture is from a rare moment between shifts when I thought taking a photo wouldn’t be disruptive.) They would show up in droves and sit there in complete silence.
Who knows what they were thinking about or praying? But I am not so cynical as to think that their minds were still stuck on the Snap universe or their grades or boyfriends. It is not so difficult for me to imagine that the quiet and the holiness of the space were welcome relief from the frantic pace of boarding-school life and the expectations of modern American college-prep culture.
I don’t mean with these examples to assert either a diagnosis of ritual decline or a prescription for its renewal. For every example of teenage enthusiasm for orthodoxy I can give other examples of enthusiastic immorality or boredom with Christian teaching. That’s less a generational judgment than a reminder of basic human inconstancy. But amid those inconstancies, working with teenagers has certainly reminded me, over and over again, never to underestimate God’s ability to move the heart. Our job isn’t to sift through the tradition and find all the “meaningful” bits worth passing on; it’s to continue the whole messy project and trust that God will use it.