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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Mass and Poustinia this Easter

Poustinia is one way to deal with these High Holy Days without the Mass. The word poustinia means desert or wilderness. In the Eastern Churches, members of the faithful sometimes retire into the wilderness to fast on bread and water and read the Holy Bible. To be drawn into such solitude is a great gift even if it happens only once in a lifetime is a great gift. We are dealing with a once in a lifetime moment now, and the grace of poustinia may be part of it. One of the hardships of being in poustinia, especially in remote locations, is that Mass is difficult if not impossible to attend. So for those who participate in the Eucharist everyday, going into poustinia means not being able to be physically present for the liturgy. Yet, when you go deep enough into prayer, no matter where you are, the Liturgy of the Body of Christ is present. In fact, you have entered into the heart of the Mystical Body, the deepest spiritual center in which the Eucharist is the source and summit. In all the trials and hardships that make up the silence and solitude of the wilderness, the true poustinik goes ever deeper into the Eucharistic mystery—never away from it. Just as those who periodically forego the Eucharistic Liturgy to enter Poustinia, we find ourselves in our homes unable to go to Mass. Yet if we enter deep into prayer, just as is the case in poustinia, one discovers that faith brings what is most essential close to the heart. The Church is not less important if we are in solitude. Her worship not less vital for our relationship to the Lord though we are cut-off from our communities. This is because, in the liturgy, the Bride of Christ provides such multivalent access to the inexhaustible treasures she possesses in the Bridegroom—in both visible and invisible ways. This bold access is opened through a beautiful dance of words and signs, symbols and cultic acts - each of which is drawn from the Holy Bible with sober intoxication whether or not we realize or understand it. The Savior established them—for He preached, and when Christians worship there is still preaching even when we cannot hear it. He took bread, blessed it, and gave it to his disciples. So too the mystical Body of Christ continues His saving actions even when we do not see or hear them. It is not the case that the public worship of the Church is superfluous even in life and death situations - for martyrs have suffered death for the sake of going to Mass. While prudence and charity bid that we keep distance from each other for a short time, there are evils worse than a virus that only the visible worship of the Church can address. The State and experts are simply not qualified enough to protect us from such things—for humanity is made to praise God and when we do not, our dignity is diminished and integrity put at great risk, and this never ends well. Yet, current circumstances call for prudence, and rendering Caesar what he asks for may well keep the most vulnerable among us safe. There are those, however, whose role it is to render unto God what belongs to God, and so by their actions on our sake the interest of the state is subordinate to the interests of God. In the Eucharistic liturgy, everything the Church knows by heart is at stake: man pouring out his heart to God and God crying out to man, a mutual exchange sealed by the Blood of the New Covenant Christ. It is a tangible and concrete reality and prayer enters into this same concreteness if we let it. It goes deep into those cultic acts of Christ to find our hearts: taking the Bread and the Cup, blessing them, giving them, and allowing them to be consumed by us. These are all supreme acts of prayer and contemplation just as much in this moment as they were that night when these acts were first offered. Anyone who assists in these acts with humble faith is suddenly made vulnerable to the saving power that the Lord communicates through them. Yes, it is best to be able to see with the eyes of one's own body and hear with one's bodily ears the Church's physical celebration—for our faith is not a cerebral trip, it is about the redemption of the body. At the same time, though we are miles away, separated by walls that make it impossible to see or hear that awesome prayer—the eyes and ears of our hearts, if we will hold them in that stillness that love still knows, listen and gaze on the invisible mysteries that the rites signify. We feast on the same Eucharistic Lord whose desire to be our food never ceases. Whether we are deep in the wilderness and quarantined at home, nothing can separate us from the love of God even as the Church communicates it in the most tangible and concrete ways. Christ works through others, whether or not we see their work. Mediating the rites so that this very exchange between God and man might realized by those newly present is the priest. He can act in the person of Christ because Christ instituted this priesthood when He commanded "Do this in memory of Me." When the priest obeys this command, the same power that went out from the Cross goes out anew, whether or not his obedience is visible to us. In all these ways and so many more, the power of the Lord is always at work making all things new whether we see it or not, whether we hear it or not, whether distance facilitates it or not, whether faith allows us to be present to it or not. The priest can and must offer the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours for our sake—and this is a spiritual reality that goes beyond live-streaming a video. Beyond his homily, even a very good one, he not only represents the actions of Christ but as well our actions before God. He not only speaks for the Lord, but he also speaks for the Church before the Lord. The priest is the instrument of the memory of the Church—recalling what Christ commanded so that the conversation that He opened up might be renewed again in time and space. Yet the great mystery that the priest unveils is the same mystery already given to us by faith. When no priest can minister to us physically present, the priesthood of Christ is not physically absent: Christ the High Priest is ministering all the more and relies on the ministry of the priest even if hidden from the eyes of the believer. Mysteriously, even when hidden from our sight, because he is Christ's instrument, somehow his prayer and sacred action unleash Christ's ministry to us. The mysteries the Church discloses in her worship are not unknown or remote to the believer even when the believer finds himself physically separated from the Church. Distance, walls and any other obstacle is never more powerful that faith alive with love. The disciple knows what is being celebrated because the same reality lives in his heart. The indwelling of the Trinity implies that the pathways to Mount Zion are in the heart, that there we enter the great gathering of all the angels and saints in great canticles of endless praise around the Throne of Grace, that within we know the descending of the whole heavenly Jerusalem, that united to Christ as his Body we offer undaunted intercession that pierces into the tabernacle not made by human hands, that in the very depths where we cry out to the Father, He Himself welcomes us into His bosom. To unveil to us this dramatic but invisible reality, the Risen Lord works through the rites of the Church though we are in the wilderness and separated from them. What does this mean practically? It is not a matter of technique or method - though the Christian tradition is rich with those from Lectio Divine, to the Rosary to the Jesus Prayer - just to name the most popular. Instead of a technique, however, prayer is primarily about a very simple movement of love in the heart. It is faith humbly stretching out to the Risen Lord and begging with tears. It is a great stillness and silence that yearns to see His Face. When our hearts ache for Him the most, it is hear the He is in our midst, eating and drinking with us - for His body and blood communicate to us the same aching love that He has known from before the foundation of the world. To make our homes into a poustinia is to open our hearts to the grace of a deeper Eucharistic encounter. It is not enough to read the Bible with our eyes - we must read it into our actions. Turn off the diversions. Leave your fear behind. Do not let petty bickering rob you of this grace. Reconcile with your brother and sister. Persevere in bearing with them and find ways to relieve the frustration that they suffer. Say what edifying things can be said to build up their faith. Do not be drunk on wine or frivolous diversions—but filled with the Holy Spirit. As for the experts and the politicians, let the talking heads talk to themselves for a little while. If it is something important, you will learn it in plenty of time. But for some few minutes or even a couple of hours each day not even the experts get to make an absolute claim on your existence. Because the Church is at prayer, you can enter into the wilderness to seek the Lord and this is something no one can prevent. You do not have to go beyond the privacy of your bedroom to find this spiritual desert. Humbly ask Him who even more humbly offers Himself to you. Seek the Living One who seeks you even more. Knock and the door will be open by the One who has patiently awaited you in love.

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