August 2013

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary

We might have a wonderfully rich religious culture, but by and large, we have lost the key to it, writes Judith Scully.

BY Judith Scully

Her name was Stephanie and her parents owned a holiday house just a block away from one of Victoria’s best surf beaches. She’s probably a busy mum now, but back then she was in her final year of high school and one of a small group of teenagers who attended my monthly Sunday night catechist class.

I remember her particularly because when a retreat weekend was suggested, Stephanie’s parents offered us the beach house. The highlight of that weekend for Stephanie and the rest of the group was a midnight meditation on the beach, an experience that, for once, left them speechless. Mine was the Eucharist gathering. The parish priest of our small country town joined us late on the Sunday afternoon to celebrate Mass. I see it still – all of us, including the celebrant, in sandy shorts and bare feet, gathered around the spindley-legged coffee table.

At the time it was just so ordinary – some familiar Scripture that morphed into our story – the bread of our three days together, the wine of what it meant and how it touched us, then the linking words as the celebrant effortlessly pulled it all together into Jesus and his presence, gave it a wide world dimension, then gave it back to us in the bread and wine of Eucharist. In retrospect I have found that Eucharist extraordinary.

Somehow we’ve lost touch with the deeper dimension of the ordinary and its milestones, unlike the Christians in the early centuries of the Church. They looked beyond the marketplace familiarity of everyday things like bread, wine, oil, water, light and touch, and let them open out into soul-nurturing that we label sacraments.

The milestone moments of life are wrapped up in rituals, gestures and symbols. Australians celebrate occasions such as birthdays, grand final day, the Olympics, Anzac Day and funerals with colour, light, and storytelling. These we express in ritual gestures and responses that involve not just our senses, but touch us in the wordless depths of our souls.

Why is it that so few Church liturgies are able to do that? Why don’t they touch into our God-hunger? Maybe it has something to do with a one-size-fits-all approach.

We live wrapped around in the stories and experiences that hold our God-given uniqueness. When a loved one dies, the grieving family and friends look for meaningful ways to express that. I think we need to be careful in the ways we limit how that happens. Diocesan guidelines use language with deep theological implications and practical, if restricting, directions on just how to do this. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know what they are talking about.

We might have a wonderfully rich religious culture, but by and large, we have lost the key to it. The religious symbols and language meant to help us express the grief, hope, expectations and love we feel when death edges into life have lost their meaning in a welter of other images and responses. Hence the need we feel to lace the Requiem Mass with words and music that do express, however crudely, what we struggle to find words for.

By and large the wording of our liturgical celebrations is strongly masculine. One of the highlights of my years as a pastoral associate was the opportunity to craft liturgies for what was known as the Third Rite of Reconciliation. It was a rare opportunity for a woman to open up a Gospel story, to layer it with words that connected with the ordinary of people’s lives, to depth familiar symbols.

Whole families filled the church on those occasions, not just to receive a sign of God’s forgiveness, but because they left feeling affirmed in the dailyness of the struggle to live out the Jesus message.

I don’t like being labelled a Roman Catholic. I’m an Australian Catholic and I want my liturgical celebrations to reflect that. When Blessed John Paul II visited Australia in 1986 he said, “Look, dear people of Australia, and behold this vast continent of yours. It is your home, the place of your joys and pains, your endeavours and your hopes. And for all of you, Australians, the Way to your Father’s house passes through this land. Jesus Christ is this Way”.

His words recognise that God has written a sacred story across our land – Uluru’s red heart, crumpled brown earth, now and again rivers, green paddocks, ancient purple mountains, cities that hug the coastline and blink-and-you’re-through-them towns. Our religious and spiritual journeys are set against this backdrop of Australian landscape and way of life.

The Book of Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). Could our vision be a twenty-first century Australian Church whose liturgical symbols and language are no longer pre-packaged, but steeped in an Aboriginal spirituality of the land, a spirituality that recognises that not all sacred spaces are to be found in church buildings?

Judith Scully

Judith Scully is a retired pastoral associate. She lives among the gumtrees in Warrandyte Victoria, where she posts on her website WORDS from the Edge Her first book, "A Gentle Unfolding", will be published in August 2018.

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