Can our prayer be too big?

"Dwight Howard" by Keith Allison
When I was 26, I got a job as the director of liturgy for a parish in Minneapolis. I was in charge of planning all the liturgies, training ministers, making sure we had musicians, providing scripts for the priests for special events, and many other things. I was also in charge of planning the Easter Vigil. If you have never been to an Easter Vigil liturgy, it is the biggest liturgical event of the year for a parish. It’s like Sunday Mass on steroids. There is a lot that happens and there is a lot to coordinate. If it is done well, it is an amazing experience.

My first Easter Vigil

My first year on the job, I wanted to make a good impression. I spent months planning and preparing. I lined up scores of volunteers to help. I sweated over the details of the physical environment. I held rehearsals for all the ministers to make sure they knew their parts. I created a detailed script that covered every possible question. When the big night finally came, I was so nervous that I could almost see my heart pounding through my suit jacket.

The liturgy began about 8:00 p.m. in pitch black darkness in the parish parking lot. At a cue from me, one of the ushers ignited the new fire—a bonfire that broke apart the darkness. From that, we lit the paschal candle and processed, by candlelight, into the church.

We sang, we read from Scripture, we prayed, we baptized catechumens, we anointed them, we shared the Eucharist together at the Lord’s Table. It was a grand and powerful liturgy, and I was exhausted but elated at the end of it. As people were dispersing, I said to one of the key volunteers who helped make everything happen, “Wasn’t that a wonderful liturgy?”

“It was very nice,” she replied, “but I never felt like I got to pray.”

The Mass as prayer
The Eucharist contains and expresses all forms of prayer: it is "the pure offering" of the whole Body of Christ to the glory of God's name and, according to the traditions of East and West, it is the "sacrifice of praise."
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2643

I was a little stunned. It had seemed to me that we had been praying non-stop for about three hours. It took me a long time to understand what she meant.

Quiet hour

Many Catholics have been raised to think of Mass as “an hour with God.” The idea is that our lives are busy and frenetic all week. Sunday Mass is one hour out of the whole week when we can be still and pray quietly to God. The volunteer was looking for that “quiet hour” at the Easter Vigil when she could meditate and escape the stress of ordinary life.

While this is a common understanding of liturgy, it is inaccurate. God is not absent from our lives during the week. Sunday is not supposed to be the only day on which we pay attention to God. And Mass is a dramatic prayer event. It is a prayer that includes lots of silence, but it is not meant to be quiet. All good dramatic events have an ebb and flow to them. There are still, quiet moments in most dramas, but the event itself is seldom quiet.

Think of a basketball playoff game between your team and their fiercest rival. The game has seesawed back and forth and now, in the final seconds, the score is tied. Your team recovers the ball and drives to the basket. The shooter leaps skyward, headed for a sure layup that he’s executed a thousand times. But just before he reaches the basket, he’s fouled by the opposing team and misses the shot. There is one second left on the clock.

Until this moment, the sound in the auditorium has been deafening. But as your player stands at the free-throw line, preparing to take his foul shot—the one shot that will win the game and the championship—everyone is holding their breath. The fans are suddenly quiet. The player bounces the ball twice, bends his knees, shoots, and—swish! He’s won! You’ve won! Everyone goes crazy with cheers and hugs.

True contemplation

At what moment in this game was “basketball” happening? All of the moments, of course. And it is that way with Mass as well. The entire event of the liturgy is prayer. We sometimes think that true prayer is “contemplative,” and we might think that means quiet and somber. But the basketball game and the Easter Vigil I described were both contemplative. That is, everyone was completely focused and centered. But they were not always quiet.

The way to think about prayer is not to think about the volume level. Rather, think about what the prayer is for. What is it supposed to do? If what you are doing is a big, powerful, once-in-a-lifetime event—as it is for the catechumens who are being initiated—then you need a big, powerful prayer.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts because your insight is valuable. Please add your thoughts to the comment box.

  • How do you think of prayer?
  • Have your ideas about prayer changed over your lifetime? In what ways?
  • Do you think of Mass as “quiet time” or as a dramatic prayer event?
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