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Congregation, Fellowship and Prayer

From Meditation Before Mass
by Romano Guardini

The Congregation and the Church

When churchgoers enter the sacred precincts they come as individuals, each with his particular talents and circumstances, worries and wishes. Each takes his own stand, confronting the others. Each is isolated from the others by all the sentiments summed up in the words "I not you": indifference, strangeness, mistrust, superiority, dislike and enmity by the hard crust developed in the struggle for existence and by the disappointments that past good will has experienced.

This then, is the mental state of the average worshiper as he steps into church, stands or sits or kneels. Certainly there is as yet little of a member of a congregation about him. Leaving aside the questionable and the out-and-out wrong that his state brings with it lovelessness, pride, ill will and so forth let us try to get an idea of the kind of life that is pouring into the church. We have a roomful of people, each with his private thoughts, feelings, aims a conglomeration of little separate worlds. The bearing of everyone present seems to say "I," or at best the "we" of his closest associations: his family, friends, dependents. But even this inclusion often really means little more than a widened self-esteem. The single ego is stretched to a natural group-ego that is still far removed from genuine congregation. The true congregation is a gathering of those who belong to Christ, the holy people of God, united by faith and love. Essentially it is of his making, a piece of new creation which finds expression in the bearing of its participants.

When we read the prayers of the Mass with this in mind, we notice that the word I appears very seldom, and never without a special reason. It is found quite clearly in the opening prayer of contrition when each one present acknowledges his sins; and in the credo, when the individual, conscious of his personal responsibility, expresses his belief in divine revelation; in the prayers immediately preceding holy communion. As a rule, we is used: we praise you, we glorify you, we adore you; forgive us, help us, enlighten us. This we is not spontaneous, but the carefully nurtured fruit of genuine congregation.

Now we begin to see what we are after: not a communal experience; not the individual's great or joyous or overwhelmingly foretaste of the union of many before God which may sometime sweep through him, filling and sustaining him. Like all true experience, that is a gift of the hour which is given or withheld; it cannot be merited. Here, though, it is a question not of an experience, but of an accomplishment; not of a gift, but of a required deed.

. . . . The real antonym of community is not the individual and his individualism, but the egoist and his selfishness. It is this that must first be overcome, and not by frequent and prolonged association, but by mastering the mind and the will; this alone allows us to see others as they really are, to acknowledge and accept them, to make their desires and anxieties our own, to restrain ourselves for their sakes.

To do this we must have solitude, for only in solitude do we have a chance to see ourselves objectively and to free ourselves from our own chains. Someday, perhaps on some special occasion, we will realize what walls of indifference, disregard, enmity loom between us and the other man, and before Mass or during the beginning of it we will make a real effort to break through them. We will remind ourselves that together we face God; together we are congregation not only I and others in general, but this man, that woman over there and the believer next to me. In God's sight they are all as important as I am perhaps much more so braver, less selfish, nobler, by their features, by their gestures, are perhaps great and holy souls with whom I am fortunate to find myself associated, because the surge of their prayers sweeps me along with it to God.

Then we will let the other believers into the inner circle of our lives, present ourselves to God with them, linking our intentions to theirs. We will consciously, earnestly pray the we of the liturgy, for from such things congregation is formed.