May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

Benedictine Sisters Reflect on the Meaning of the Mass

Many of us grew up fearing eternal punishment for not attending Sunday Mass. It was enough to guarantee our presence in the pews every week. Today, however, many no longer participate in the Eucharist. Why should we? What can we get out of it?

Eucharist, Defined

"The Eucharist, or what we commonly call the Mass, means thanksgiving," Sr. Rachel Bergschneider, OSB, says. "It is a community prayer that is the prayer of the Church. It is also an action, just as Christ's death and resurrection was an action. We participate in that action by our deliberate choice to be broken for others. And we give thanks for that blessing."

Although thankfulness may not always be the most pressing emotion we take through the church doors. The late theologian Henri Nouwen says, "To celebrate the Eucharist ... has everything to do with gratitude. ... But gratitude is not the most obvious response to life, certainly not when we experience life as a series of losses! Still, the great mystery we celebrate in the Eucharist and live in a Eucharistic life is precisely that through mourning our losses we come to know life as a gift. The beauty and preciousness of life is intimately linked with its fragility and mortality. ..."

A Loving Embrace

Being thankful, Nouwen acknowledges, is not necessarily something we can command of ourselves. But, nestled within the warm lights, scents and voices of the church on a Sunday morning, shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors, we might be touched by sensations of forgiveness and joy that we hadn't planned on ... but find ourselves grateful to feel.

Nearly indescribable feeling forms the basis of a reflection on the Eucharist by Catholic columnist and theologian Ronald Rolheiser, OMI. He says in all his years of studying the Eucharist, he never had the Eucharist explained to him, because - like a kiss or an embrace - the Eucharist is a physical act, where God accepts us for who and what we are. Rolheiser references this parable:

A young Jewish boy kept running away from school. In desperation, his parents asked their Rabbi to talk with him. Instead, the Rabbi picked the child up and held him to his heart for a long time. Without a word, the Rabbi put the child back down, and the child began to attend school willingly.

The power of no words, but of embrace, is celebrated in that story. Rolheiser says it illustrates how the Eucharist works: "That is why the Eucharist, and every other Christian sacrament, always has some very tangible physical element to it - a laying on of hands, a consuming of bread and wine, an immersion into water, an anointing with oil. An embrace needs to be physical, not only something imagined."In other words, God holds us during the Eucharist, like a loving adult holds a child. "It's why Jesus gave us the Eucharist," Rolheiser concludes.

Receiving the Embrace ... and Passing it On

During the Eucharist, we listen to the Word of God, confess our sins, and participate in the Last Supper where we, as the Disciples, receive Christ's body and blood. And we do it over and over, the same old thing, every Sunday. Why do we? Why should we?

"Sometimes people have the perception that going to church is just following laws," Sr. Marilyn Ring, OSB, says. "For sure, Jesus didn't say, You have to go to church. He asked us to visit the prisoners, heal the sick, love our neighbors as ourselves. But he gave us the nourishment to do that with the Eucharist.

"If you believe that old adage, you are what you eat, you can conceive of the power of Communion in a new way," Sr. Marilyn continues. "Receiving Communion together with others gives us the fuel we need to be the Body of Christ for one another on Earth. Jesus gave us the Eucharist because he no longer lives on Earth except through us; he no longer forgives on Earth except through us. When I receive Communion, it's a reminder for me that Jesus gave his Body and Blood for us, and that he asks us to become Him for one another."

Sr. Rachel agrees. "Participating in – more clearly named than attending - the Eucharist allows us to receive Christ's very life in order to be able to go out and do what He did: spill our lives as He spilled His for others."

Praise and Honor

Christ's gift to us becomes, as well, our gift to Him when we come together in community for worship, Sr. Marilyn adds. "Human beings need to praise and honor God. We have needed to do so since the beginning of time. This honor and praise takes on greater significance when it's done as a community. I tell my students (at Augustana College) that participating in community prayer is similar to cheering with many other people at a sports event. Alone, it's not as powerful, but together, we are enlivened."

Benedictine Oblate Noreen Haiston, Davenport, says she participates in daily Eucharist in order to give something to God. "I don't think of it as what I can get, or take away, from the Mass," she says. "I think of what it is I can give, in praise to God, in understanding of my neighbor."

The Miracle of Joy

Letting the experience of the Eucharist wash over us – even when we don't feel like being there – can change us, the Sisters say. The prayers, from the cry for mercy to the hope for everlasting life, can produce a profound and enduring effect.

"Sometimes you have to work at being present – body, mind and heart - during the Eucharist," Sr. Teresa Ann Harrington, OSB, says. "But if you open yourself to it, you will be changed by it."

The change may be most evident in the way we relate with others. Those who seek to be Christ for one another "see it as their mission to persistently challenge their fellow travelers to choose for gratitude instead of resentment and for hope instead of despair," Nouwen writes. "And the few times that this challenge is accepted are enough to make their lives worth living. To see a smile breaking through tears is to witness a miracle – the miracle of joy."