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The Good Boredom of the Mass

Review: Timothy P. O’Malley, Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing).

Review by Christopher Yoder

What a wonderful book! Timothy P. O’Malley, who directs the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy (and contributes to Covenant), has given the Church a good gift in Bored Again Catholic. Intended as “a lay primer for participating in the liturgy,” it is a “pastoral sequel” to his earlier Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014). It reminded me of books like Timothy Radcliffe’s Why Go to Church? or The Strangest Way by Robert Barron or Being Christian by Rowan Williams — books written for lay Christians, offering winsome and creative interpretations of the sacraments without sacrificing theological depth.

Each chapter offers a spiritual reflection on a part of the Mass and ends with a prayer, along with questions and practices: “For the next week, slowly profess the Creed during your prayer time or before going to bed. How has this changed the way you pray the Creed at Mass?” Throughout, O’Malley tells stories of how habits gained from praying the liturgy have transformed moments of difficulty and pain in his life. And his reflections always remain grounded in the reality of family life, and alert to the lives and concerns of young adults. This attention cashes out in practical suggestions for living out faith at home, and in some memorable analogies (one of my favorites: the Gloria in excelsis as a fight song — not of the Fighting Irish or the Sooners, but “of those who have chosen the way of peace”).

The title is a bit of a hook. While O’Malley opens with a discussion of boredom in its various forms, it’s not a major focus. But it does catch your attention. “Within the Catholic imagination, boredom is not something that is to be avoided but rather is essential to the spiritual life,” he writes.

If you are bored in church, something might have gone wrong: shoddy liturgy, sloppy homily, strip mall architecture — or, more often, simply your indisposition toward the Lord. This is “bad boredom.” But, O’Malley says, there is also “good boredom,” which is roughly the opportunity to exercise the “ability to let the mind wander and wonder alike.” Boredom can be a “sweet and saving gift,” because, when seen rightly, it is an invitation to a deeper encounter with Christ Jesus. If the Mass is boring, that is because it is not a technology of entertainment but a summons to enter more fully into a mystery. To put it differently, the state of boredom in worship is, as Wittgenstein might say, an invitation to “work on oneself.”

Closely related to his discussion of boredom is what O’Malley has to say about “making space.” This, he argues, is how to understand the post-conciliar emphasis on “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy: “We are called to make a space within ourselves for God to act among us.”

The capacity to make space for God is necessary for spiritually fruitful participation in the liturgy. And recognizing its importance is why O’Malley underscores at several points the value of silence in the liturgy.

“In order for us to hear God’s word, to grow accustomed to delighting in the salvation of divine speech, we must become practiced in the art of silence. The Mass is not about communicating our speech. Our words. Our ideas. But about creating a space in our lives where we can encounter the creative, life-giving word of God.”

Attempts to stave off boredom can end up collapsing precisely this receptive space.

“Love bade me welcome.” This line from George Herbert could summarize O’Malley’s interpretation of the Mass. From beginning to end, he understands the liturgy through the lens of love. It’s what I find most compelling about his approach. Here is a florilegium:

“We kiss the altar because it stands among us as a sign of Christ’s total act of love. What can we do as human begins but respond with a kiss to such a gift?”

When we profess the Creed, “it is almost like we are renewing our marriage vows with the Bridegroom. I will be yours. You are mine.”

“The Eucharistic Prayer invites us into the school of love. To learn precisely what love is by entering into the life of the Trinity.”

And at the end of Mass, we can say, “We have heard the story of salvation, that narrative of love that is to make sense of our lives. We have received Christ’s Body and Blood, becoming one with Love itself. And now we depart from our parish, blessed by the living God, to make a home for Love to dwell outside of our parish.” This image of making a home for love to dwell draws together O’Malley’s dual emphases on making space for God and on love. Altogether, it makes for a deeply attractive presentation of the mystery of the Eucharist.

Bored Again Catholic is written for lay Roman Catholics, but Christians in any liturgical tradition will benefit from it, and I mean to make use of it in my teaching on the Eucharist. Highly recommended.

 

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