The View from the Pew: The Delicate Balance Between Simple and Sensory Worship

Anyone who has grown up within Catholic schools and the Catholic Church knows that mass is a sensory experience. From the moment one walks through the doors, one is met with rich symbols and vivd colors and strong smells. Depending on olfactory tastes, the incense is either beautiful or noxious. The sun breaking through room-length stained-glass windows turns light into a myriad of colors. If a child becomes bored during the mass,  he or she could count beams or try to decipher cryptic, albeit stunningly painted symbols above the altar.  Even if many in attendance have little to no clue what any of it means, there is an undeniable beauty and awe associated with the mass.

Despite many years in the Catholic tradition, I found myself a faithful and enthusiastic Protestant in college and haven’t left the fold since.  Juxtaposed with my nominal and spotty tenure within the Catholic tradition, the Protestant Church was simple, straight-forward, almost austere. Whereas in the Catholic mass, the homily was often muddled and rushed in order to get to the Eucharist, in the Protestant services the sermon was the main event. (I learned quickly that they were services, not masses and that the man up front was a pastor, not a Father or Monsignor; and I still call the Lord’s Prayer the Our Father).

In the Presbyterian Churches I have regularly attended and loved, there are no bells, no whistles, no strong smells, nothing that might draw attention from the Word of the Lord. The gospel is clear and straightforward and the preaching of the Word is the bread and butter of the service, as everything builds to and leads from it. I love the centrality of the preached Word, but I also miss the beauty and drama of the Eucharist.

Having seen and experienced both a deeply sensory form of worship and a profoundly simple form of worship, I find myself longing for the two to be mingled more often. I wish that the rich symbols that attracted both my wonder and confusion as a child had been clearly explained. I love the clear focus on Christ and His Word that has been characteristic of my experience in the Presbyterian Church, and I am not going anywhere. However, I also miss the artistic beauty that is woven into the Catholic tradition through interactive experiences like the Stations of the Cross and kneeling communally in prayer.

God made us multi-faceted creatures and knit us body, mind and soul. Often, God uses the eyes to reach the heart. Abraham needed to be visually overwhelmed by the innumerable stars as he received the promise. Peter needed to see a sheet full of pigs and non-Kosher animals descending as he heard God’s pronouncement of freedom in the gospel. Peter and the disciples needed to have their arm muscles stretched as they drew in a boatful of fish, a tangible reminder that God would be powerful and capable to make them fishers of men.

We humans tend to pull apart things that are meant to be wed together. No denomination this side of glory will perfectly capture worship, which makes me long all the more for the day when all of life will clearly be worship in His presence face-to-face.

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