Faith & Thought

The Liturgical Act And the Experience

by Father Robert Lauder

I suppose that all words have a history. In dialoguing with students in philosophy classes at St. John’s University I have found that words such as “subjective,” “objective,” “experience,” “faith,” and some others, I almost always have to either ask the students what they mean by those terms or explain what I mean when I use those terms. If the students and I are using the same words but not agreeing on the meaning of the terms, then communication seems impossible. 

In one class the students and I were discussing a text on the meaning of the word “love.” Several students said that love meant something different for each person or that no one knew the meaning of the word “love.” I pointed out to the students that if no one knew the meaning of the word “love” then we should stop using the word, or if the meaning of the word was different for each person, successful communication would be difficult if not impossible. When I was studying theology as a seminarian I don’t think the word “experience” was ever used in theology classes. I am guessing that the professors thought of “experience” as being too subjective a term. My guess is that in today’s theology classes at St. John’s University, the word “experience” is used often. Why? Because if “experience” means human presence to reality, then if something does not speak to someone’s experience of reality, what good is it, of what value is it? 

As I wrote in last week’s column, I am trying to have a eucharistic spirituality. What I mean by that is I am trying to center my life as a Catholic priest on the meaning of the Eucharist. So I am trying to allow the Eucharist to deeply influence my consciousness and my conscience. In our lives we receive many messages from others in one way or another telling us who we are and what the goal of our living should be. Today it seems to me that we are bombarded with messages from the media. Some of those messages are good, some are not. In trying to embrace a eucharistic spirituality I should allow the messages presented to me through the Eucharist to influence me more than any other messages I receive. If the word “experience” means human presence to reality, then obviously we can be present in many ways. Think of all the different ways that science can be present to reality. I think immediately of biology, physics, and chemistry. Philosophy is another way of being present. 

In “Sacraments & Sacramentality” (Mystic, Conn., Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994, 241 pp. $14.95), Bernard Cooke makes some important points about how we can allow the liturgy and especially the Eucharist to influence us: 

“Our experience of life is the word of God, but its Christian significance and its dictates are not immediately evident. To know what life is telling us about ourselves and about God who is revealed in our experience, we must turn to the revelation contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to the enduring faith of Christians over the past two millennia. Life and the Gospel must be brought into creative encounter with each other; this is what should occur in each eucharistic celebration. … Life and liturgy interact as complementary and reciprocally interpretive words to shape in an ongoing process the hermeneutic of experience by which these people will understand and create their future. Life and Eucharist throw light upon each other; each is meant to be understood through the other” (p. 154-155). 

I think Cooke’s view of the interaction between our experience of life and our experience of Eucharist that should take place when the Eucharist is celebrated is clear but challenging. I think if we can allow the Eucharist to illuminate our experience of our life and allow our life to illuminate our experience of the Eucharist, then growth in understanding each could be unlimited. Human life and Eucharist are profound mysteries and both can tell us about God and about ourselves. 

With his typical clarity, even when dealing with the most profound mysteries, Cooke writes the following: 

“There are two essentially different aspects to this growing awareness of Christ that is meant to occur through Eucharist. The first deals with the Christian community’s understanding of what Jesus was, and of the way Christians have understood and related to Christ; that is there is a growth in understanding what has been. The second deals with a clearer and deeper knowledge of what it means for Jesus to be the risen Christ now as experienced by today’s Christians” (p. 157). 

In the past few weeks I have referred to Bernard Cooke’s book often because I thought his insights might help readers of this column. I know Cooke’s insights have helped the author of this column.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.