This Sunday, concludes the series of John’s Discourse on the Bread of Life. The conclusion of the chapter draws our attention to a topic which we do not hear so much of these days: Virtue.
However, there is a connexion between last week’s discussion on the rubrics and this Sunday’s topic on virtue. Last week, I elaborated on the importance of rubrics, meaning the Church’s prescription for how the Mass is to be celebrated. In the previous part of John’s Gospel, the accent was expressly on the Real Presence. The Magisterium rightly emphasises clerical faithfulness to the rubrics because we are dealing with a mystery so profoundly divine. The Church needs to guarantee that what you are getting is the Real Thing1 and since it concerns a matter of eternal life, there is a need to protect the people in the pew from abuse arising from the arbitrary whims of the priests.2
Since Vatican II’s so-called “renewal”, the laity has been subjected to a barrage of liturgical abuses, from as subtle as a seductive suggestion of a warm welcome3 to the blatantly destructive in the name of progressive novelty and inculturation. Such a negative development should not come as a surprise because rubrics are cloaked in a certain rigidity that runs counter to the spirit of spontaneity. In fact, faithful adherence to the rubrics runs diametrically opposed to freedom loving spontaneity.4
It is said that since the inception of Modernity, there has been an obsession to occupy the mind.5 An obsession fuelled by our loss of place amongst reality. Since we can no longer grasp reality in itself, we necessarily turn out attention to subjective meaning.6 Thus, as long as the “mind” is not involved, rubrics belong to the category of mindless repetition of meaningless gestures.
Finally, an aversion to rubrics is undoubtedly influenced by a myth of the pristine past (Protestant in origin) whereby the rubrics are viewed as expressions of the centuries-old encrustation of the true celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Christ was rather informal and rubrics just made His “meal” so stiflingly formal.
Now the rubrics direct our attention to how John Chapter 6 ends this Sunday. Firstly, the conclusion turns out to be an anti-climax. It certainly was not the ending that Jesus would have hoped for. But, I suspect the Lord was not at all surprised. He knew that He was at a point of no return. He resolutely did not back down. Joshua in the first reading provides the key to understanding what it means that we face a Saviour who does not back down. According to Joshua, it is time for the people to choose either to serve or to abandon God. The same scenario is re-enacted in the this Sunday where Peter must answer for the Eleven: “Lord to whom shall we, go for you have the words of eternal life”? The same is now presented to us.
It is about choosing God and of course, there is no suggestion that strict adherence to the rubrics should be equated as choosing God.7 Choosing is more than choices. For if choosing were merely choices, all of us would qualify as experts because our supermarkets and shopping malls are temples of choices. Instead, the Lord challenges Peter and the Eleven tochoose.8
The second reading gives us a clue about this choosing as it speaks of the relationship between a man and woman in the context marriage. We all know that a wedding does not a marriage makes. Instead, daily one chooses to be a married man. Your vows do not make you a husband. Your daily choosing makes it so. Usually, the choosing does not feel good especially after a quarrel or a strong disagreement.
To choose leads us into the territory of virtue. According to St Thomas, virtue is defined as good habit bearing on activity. Essential to the notion of virtue is habit. Not every habit is a virtue but every virtue will involve some form of habitual activity. According to the Catechism, a virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself, in other words, to excel. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. For the goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.
How do rubrics come into play with regard to the formation of virtue? Firstly spontaneity is over-rated. Granted that some of the best times we ever had may have come from the times we acted spontaneously.9 But, by and large our lives are organised according set repetitive rituals. And yet, that does not mean that our lives are meaningless. In this context, the “dull repetitive” Mass we celebrate reminds us that there is an asceticism involved because life’s purpose is not restricted to searching for self-fulfilment only but through self-examination, self-correction, self-mastery and penance as both physical mortification and spiritual reparation, we trudge towards heaven. However, when we forget heaven, then we will forget that there is a difference between feeling good and being good. Spontaneity appeals to our sense and need to feel good, whereas, a virtuous life stresses the need to be good. We sometimes mistake goodwill as the need to be good, as if goodwill is good enough.10 Goodwill is not enough because the language we use for the Eucharist is sacrificial and it challenges our comfort zone.
Faithfulness to the rubrics of the Eucharist resembles the practice of virtue in the sense that they call us to mortify this need to feel good. This asceticism fits in with the requirement of truth because it involves a humility of obedience and also the application of moral virtues to the irregularity of Man’s fallen nature. As such, virtue has a lot to do with the faculty of choosing to the point that we become habitual in our choices for good. The first time you get up to give your seat to an elderly person, it is tough because you would be thinking, “What would people say”? But if you persist, even if you feel it against your nature, you will soon find yourself doing it without even thinking of it. That is the power of good habits.
All of us want to go to heaven, I presume. Or as the case may be, for many of us, heaven can wait because we are uncertain about the quality of heaven—we have not seen it nor have we tasted it and we have never had it so good in this life. But, seriously, if we want to go heaven, then virtues are the steps we need to bring us there. In that way, slow and steady, through regular practice, just like we observe the rubrics, we forge a road, that by habit will bring us to the gates of heaven and to reach there, the only Bread and only the Real Thing that can carry us there and through the gates is the Bread of Eternal Life.1 The import of this insistence is gleaned through the principle of ecclesia supplet meaning that the Church provides out of h er treasure of grace, the proper remedy for the defect of the minister’s action. It is a theological and canonical principle which holds that even if there is some common error, such as in the jurisprudence or the performance of a sacrament [see 1983 CIC 144.1], as long as the minister intends to do what the Church intends in that action, the nature of the Church “makes up” for any insufficiency or error on the priest’s part. It is a helpful pastoral principle to guard against scrupulosity. A good example of the Church supplying jurisdiction for an act would be a penitent going to a priest, not knowing that the priest lacks the necessary faculty to hear confession. His sins would be forgiven. However this principle rests upon the “intent” of the priest. It cannot be applied willy-nilly if a priest deviates from what is prescribed by the Church… for example when the “formula” necessary for the forgiveness of sins is not used or the formula for the consecration is changed —words necessary for the validity of a sacrament. It follows from ecclesia non supplet quod ecclesia non habet—the Church cannot supply what the Church does not have.
2 Each time a priest deviates from the norm of the celebration, the congregation would be left wondering what he would do next. Is that not a form of distraction where the celebrant draws attention to himself rather than to the worship of God?
3 For example, in the name of community building, the “Sign of Peace” is moved to the beginning of Mass so that we can enter into the feel of the Mass more easily.
4 Rubrics suggest of staid, lifeless and automatic following of rules and regulation. In its opposite, we have spontaneity. Tied in spontaneity with adrenalin and you have a fun-filled cocktail. However, spontaneity may also be a sign of disrespect. A good example would be an invitation we want to send to a person of importance. Even though the intention might be noble to invite someone however, the leaving it to spontaneous chance highlights a disrespect which says, “I would like you to come to my party but then it does not matter whether you can make it or not”. Thus, anything that is important, we circle it with a certain respect that can only come if we delineate it properly. Otherwise, it is too chancey and ultimately demeans what we intend to do. Spontaneity is also superficial and shallow.
5 The present stress on child-development may just be symptomatic of this obsession with occupying the mind. Kumon or kindergartens, pre-school or playschool all are geared to give the child a head-start. You must have seen how a child goes for his “family” dinners (accent is on family) carrying an iPad. We care about their prowess in all sorts of talents but what about socialising them into a life of virtue? We do not see the need for the body (yes, the hand-coordination etc etc) to be educated into a posture of “relationality”—a child sitting and conscious of his surrounding, not being able to take part in the conversation but nevertheless he is there. No. Instead, we enable a child to enter into his little self-enclosed world oblivious of the body’s relation to others who are present.
6 The brain is constantly trying to excite itself so that it knows that it exists. This is corollary of the Cartesian, Je pense donc que je suis. I think therefore I am. If I do not think, do I exist? A certain compulsion to engage the mind has not set us free but that instead it has imprisoned us in a solipsistic loop of self-validating ennui.
7 You would have heard of the Irish saying “Paddy goes to Church on Sunday but Paddy goes to Hell for what he did.
8 If price is a function of supply and demand in economics, then choosing is a function of freedom. In order to be, we need to choose. And here, set before us are not just choices but hard decisions to make for in our choosing, there will be life threatening consequences.9 Like the time you decided to up and go to Bali where you met the most beautiful girl who has since become your wife. It may be true for some but certainly it is the stuff for Hollywood movies.
10 All of us possess goodwill and that is where it resides… at the level of intent. Many of us like help but it is never convenient like during an accident. If at all we slow down, it is hoping to catch a glimpse of the blood-splattered victim of accident to see if he or she is alive. And we move on.