Summary of If Your Mind Wanders at Mass by Thomas Howard

If Your Mind Wanders at Mass by Thomas Howard, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1995. 


Since the apostolic era, Christians have approached Mass, as the central act of worship, with both great ardour (spontaneity and devotion) and profound solemnity (ritual (words) and ceremony (actions) that have been tested and dignified by ancient usage).

“It is often supposed that genuine ardour calls for spontaneity: that is, if we are wholehearted and fervent about something, the best way to register this is by giving voice, quite spontaneously, to whatever our heart feels at the moment… And yet this is not the whole story. It is an oddity about us mortals that when we come to the most profound experiences of our lives (eg. birth, marriage, death) we become aware of the pale inadequacy of our own ability to respond with anything like an appropriate weighty response and find that we have to reach for something precast and structured… we need something greater and sturdier than what our private attempts of the moment can gain” (8, 9, 10).

“Since worship, along with the other central mysteries of our human existence, outstrips our own spontaneous attempts at responding adequately to the event at hand, we all find the help we need in words and movements handed down to us by wise tradition” (13).

“Far from cramping us and stultifying our originality, the ritual words set us free and lead us out onto vistas immensely higher and moral radiant than our own staggering phrases could have reached. This is the reason for all that is written down in the prayer books and missals used in Christian worship. As we make our own voice one with the immemorial voice of the Church, we find that we are caught up into something much bigger than the tiny pool of our own resources” (15).


1: The Center of Christian Life

“We are not spectators. We are not an audience. We are the congregation, brought together (congregated) to do something — all of us, not solely the priest up there at the altar… No one else can offer me to the Lord. This is an act which I alone can carry out” (24, 25).

“We are not yet ready to bear the “weight of glory” hinted at in the liturgy. But insofar as we make it our practice to come expectantly, and to participate attentively, and to respond obediently to all that the liturgy proclaims and makes present, we will find that we are indeed well on “the Way” and that our whole being is gradually and steadily drawing nearer to that joy for which we were created in the first place, and which we forfeited when we, in our Father Adam and our Mother Eve, made our grab for something we felt should be ours (and not thine, O Lord). In the liturgy we begin to learn to give back — to offer — to God that which is his in any case: that is, ourselves and our world” (26).

2: Go. The Mass is Finished

“Go, the Mass is finished. This means, not “OK. You have discharged your weekly obligation. Now go live your Monday through Saturday as you wish, then come back and worship for another hour.” Rather it means “Go — and carry with you, out of this church into your daily routines, all that you have meant and done here… Go, says the Church, and let there be no rupture between what you have said and done in this hour and what you say and do for the other hours of your week. Here is the pattern. Here is the cue. Here is the whole truth of your life, concentrated, focused, clarified. Go” (28-9, 31-2).

“What you are doing in the Mass is focusing, bringing to a sharp point, what you are to do every minute of your lives, namely,… you should be consciously making your offering to God of whatever you are doing or whatever you are undergoing” (30).

3: Liturgy: The Work of the People

Liturgy, a word that refers to the Mass, comes from a Greek word that means literally “the work of the people,” that is, the people of God offering their sacrifice of worship and praise in union with the sacrifice of Christ.

4: Heavenly Worship

“The words and actions of the liturgy are like our script. Here is how it is done in these heavenly courts. Join in. So says the heavenly throng. So says the Church… What we do not want here is Tom, Dick, or Harry’s notion of the moment, affecting as those notions might be. We need the language and deportment of heaven” (44).


5: Introductory Rites

Entrance Song: Also known as the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon, this is a text from Scripture that “strike the note, so to speak, for this day’s liturgy. It anticipates the themes that we will encounter in the readings from Scripture and that belong to this day in the Church’s year” (47).

Greeting: By making the sign of the Cross, “this formula, so apparently commonplace, does two things: it invokes the ineffable splendour of the Most High himself in his triune majesty, and it places those who utter it under his reign” (48).

“By an act of my intelligence and will I serve notice to my own innermost being and to hell and its minions that I wish to be found in the court of this heavenly Sovereign, where nothing but holiness is admitted… Because this is so daunting a situation, we mortals so desperately in need of salvation are immediately encouraged with the following: The Holy Trinity greets us with “grace… love… fellowship” (49).

Penitential Rite: “This is one of the few places in the Mass where the focus is turned on me. It is not a particularly flattering turn of attention… Here is this company there need be no furtive and hugger-mugger concealing of squalid and embarrassing little (or big) truths about ourselves… these routine words open up staggering vistas for us if we pay attention” (52, 53).

Kyrie: “The Kyrie is not a sort of hopeless plucking at his garments, a kind of timorous pawing of his arm, coaxing God to be nice to us. Rather, it comes from our profound confidence that he has had mercy, he does have mercy, he will have mercy. And there is as much a note of exultation in the acclamation as there is of supplication” (55).

Gloria: “The hymn, which goes back to Christian antiquity, presents us with words of pure praise… which takes us beyond the merely “useful”, the utilitarian, we might say, into that realm where the calling back and forth in the great seraphic antiphons of what is true turns out to be the central activity of the universe” (57, 59).

Opening Prayer: Also known as the Collect, this prayer “collects us”, so to speak, petitions that are appropriate to the day, and articulates them as a sort of touchstone for the day’s liturgy.

6: God’s Word Proclaimed

“Scripture appears in its most characteristic usage when it is read aloud at the liturgy… as essential components of the central activity of the Church, namely, the celebration of the Eucharist” (61-2).

“Thanks Be to God”: The liturgy says that “this is the response asked of us to the Word of God, no matter how unsettling or inconvenient it may be at the moment” (63-4).

“The liturgy is a strong and faithful tutor. If we pay attention to it and dispose ourselves to assent and desire to come, albeit slowly, into those precincts of felicity to which the liturgy bids us, then indeed we will find ourselves “assisting at” the celebration more and more wholeheartedly” (65).

Responsorial Psalm: “Here is ancient Hebrew poetry, so beautiful, so full of the deepest aspirations of the human heart… In them we encounter the human person in all of its mystery as it struggles to articulate itself in conspectu Dei (in the sight of God)(65, 66).

“The antiphons of the Mass are early training in the great choreography, in the great ringing antiphon before the enteral perichoresis, the “Dance” of the Persons of the Trinity. The seraphim know this; and in the liturgy we begin to be introduced into this blissful antiphonally. When we respond to the Psalm, we are taking our first steps in the Dance” (69).

Gospel: The great solemnity in which the Gospel is read (on feast days, for example, taken from the altar, blessed, procession, incense) shows that we are “approaching a most holy moment here, and it is essential that our entire being, our thoughts, words, and affections, be found under the Cross of Jesus Christ, which is the sign of perfect obedience to the Father’s will” (70).

Homily: Homilies should be intensely Bible-centred, probe to the marrow of the texts in question, and issue profound challenges to the faithful. The faithful should keep in mind our Lord’s words: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).

7: Profession of Faith and Intercessions

Creed: “Appearing as it does in the liturgy, the Creed takes on a solemnity. That is, it takes on a certain weight and dignity, and there is even a note of exultation here which accords well with the whole action of the liturgy… There, like a great banner unfurled for all heaven, earth, and hell to see, is what we — Christians — believe” (74-5).

General Intercessions: “This part of the liturgy ushers us into one of the most profound mysteries of the Christian faith… How can our petitions alter the titanic march of events?” (76). What is it that we actually hope for from the Church’s intercessions? The Church, which is “drawn into the mystery of Christ’s priestly self-offering for the life of the world” (78), offers herself and her intercessions for the life of the world in the same shroud of darkness over Calvary.

8: Preparation of the Gifts

“What is enacted here in the liturgy illumines the whole fabric of life for us… whereby God’s grace takes what we bring him — anything — and changes its substance, by the same mystery which turned the Crucifixion, that most botched of all miserable events, into the salvation of the world. This which I find to be my lot (this obscurity or weariness, or this twisted spine or malignant tumor, or this daunting task, or even the unobtrusive routines of my day) — this may be brought as the bread is brought at the preparation of the gifts to be changed by grace into salvation for me” (83, 85).

‘“Blessed be God for ever.’ Again, what a mouthful. We praise him both for his bounty in creation and in supplying our needs, but also for the mystery of his grace, so painful to us as it may be at times, whereby he transforms the stuff of our life into glory” (86).

9: Eucharistic Prayer

Preface: “The Lord be with you… and with your spirit.” The liturgy is our tutor. It puts in our mouths the right words: as we learn to say them, the habit may seep into our inner being. Hell, or egoism, of course, hates this sort of greeting. “Out of my way, fool,” says hell.” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” says the sullen Cain. Then, “Lift up your hearts.” We were made to do this… having been made in the image of God… we gather up everything we are and do in a privilege act that is ours alone… “We lift them up to the Lord.” Once again antiphonality draws us into the solemn, measured, rhythmic movement proper to matters of such weight (93-94).

Holy, holy, holy.” It is an acclamation of nearly insupportable solemnity. We mortals scarcely know how to dispose ourselves properly for a moment like this. The Preface helps us… by focusing on one aspect of God’s saving actions towards us and, in the light of such acts, links our mortal praises with that of “all the choir of angels” as they cry Holy! (95).

Hosanna.We greet him who comes to us now on this altar, in this solemnity, under the humble species of bread and wine, as he came humbly long ago on a donkey.

Canon of the Mass: The liturgy now approaches its apex… here in the Canon of the Mass we come to the culmination of all that has preceded this point (96).

Consecration: “No other religion has come even near this notion of God himself actually dying for his people and giving himself to them as their nourishment” (98). “If there is one point above all others at which not only our intellects, but also our very imaginations, halt, it would be at this point in the Mass… no pictures help us at all at this point” (98).

“Ah. Domine eus. Miserere nobis. How shall we, distracted and wayward and self-absorbed creatures that we are, be changed into the image of this One who is Love incarnate? We bring nothing but a tissue of venality and cravenness and pusillanimity and perfidiousness and vanity. Alas! Lord, I am not worthy! Depart from me, Lord: I am a sinful man! Woe is me! Against thee and thee only have I sinned! Kyrie eleison!… And what do I hear from the Most High… “Neither do I condemn thee… Come unto me… Thy sins are forgiven… Come and dine” (103)

Memorial Acclamation: Then we hear, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”, and we respond with one of several acclamations which state, in stark and utterly brief form, just what it is which we celebrate here in the liturgy… It is as though the Church summons all of heaven, earth, and hell (yes, the devils) to note. This, and nothing less or other than this, is what we celebrate, O all ye whom we summon to record: we declare, loudly, gladly, and unabashedly, what is true! (104).

The Great Amen: Then “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.” And we respond, “Amen.” So be it. With one word we speak volumes… this is the whole work of sanctification in me… this is the entire Gospel (106-108).

10: Communion Rite

Lord’s Prayer: Although this prayer can easily slip into the category of “rote” and, for some people, can be rattled off as though it were mumbo-jumbo… the Church would be slow to dismiss such rattlings off too fiercely. For one thing, we mortals scarcely ever grasp the full weight of what we are saying to the Most High. And second, presumably in even the most machinelike rapping-out of the words, there flickers somewhere int he recesses of the person repeating it some rag of intention, however fragmentary, that prayer go up to the ears of heaven. The Divine Mercy has a way of attaching far more credit to such rags that we parsimonious souls might grant” (109-110).

Sign of Peace: This greeting, found here in this ceremonial setting, is, in fact, what love says to all men, and you who are assisting at the liturgy are given the chance to begin to learn the script of heaven, so to speak.

Breaking of the Bread: The Host is broken. Why? Because it was the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ broken for us on the Cross that is our salvation (116).

Communion: “… Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb…” Mysteries multiplied and compounded! The blackness of Golgotha dispelled by the heavenly invitation to “Take and eat.”

“How it can be that this wafer “communicates” a mystery as birth and death. Nay, it is infinitely greater, since it is not only our own souls at take in the transaction: Almighty God himself comes to us (119).

11: Concluding Rite

Suddenly the Mass ends… What we have done here is to preside over and inform, nay suffuse, our whole week… We are not allowed to stay at the altar. We have to go back out  to committee meetings, traffic jams, laundry, dirty diapers — where we will be enacting what we have encountered in the liturgy (121-122).

We may recall how St. Matthew pictures the Last Supper: immediately after they had shared the bread and the cup he has, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out” (Mt 26:30). Having been nourished by the Lord’s own Body and Blood, we move out to take up the next thing. (The disciples did not do very well in this matter, as it happens; we pray that we do better.) (121-122).

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