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Posted January 25, 2007

Book: Meeting Mystery
Author: Nathan D. Mitchell
Orbis. Maryknoll, NY. 2006. Pp. 288

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

Liturgy or divine worship, as Vatican II teaches, is “an exercise of the priestly office of Christ . . . an action of Christ the priest and of his Body which is the Church.” It occurs, however, as Nathan Mitchell reminds us, at the intersection of three distinct but interdependent liturgies: the “liturgy of the world,” the “liturgy of the church,” and the liturgy of the neighborhood.”

But how is liturgy to be celebrated today, in post modernity, when the meanings of these three realities — world, church, and neighbor — have changed radically? What shape will liturgy take when the world is no longer Europe and America, when even Earth itself is no longer the center of the universe, when the “globe” has become truly global? With what rituals will Christians worship God when the church is no longer the church of the West but when more than two-thirds of Christians will live in the so-called third world — in Africa, Asia, and South America — amid non-Christians? How will Christians meet God when their neighbor is no longer an SUV - driving, Starbucks - consuming, Internet-surfing suburb-dweller but the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor?

Meeting Mystery helps us find answers to these troubling questions that our postmodern, mulitcultural, multireligious, globalized world poses to the heart of the Christian life.

It begins by reflecting on the meaning of ritual as rhythmic and repetitive action.

An Excerpt from the Book:

We began our chapter by reimagining ritual’s roles through the “Zen” eyes of Roland Barthes’s “fictive Japan.” We saw that, whereas we in the West tend to “overfeed” and “fatten” ritual symbols with multiple meanings, a Zen perspective is comfortable with loss and absence, with emptiness. Such a perspective, I suggested, may also be valuable when it comes to analyzing the roles and risks of Christian ritual. As the work of theologians such as Louis-Marie Chauvet has shown, absence asks us to abandon our infantile covetousness for mastery over meaning, and to let God come toward us in a gracious — indeed kenotic — movement of self-donation. To insist that faith and ritual risk meeting absence and emptiness has nothing to do, therefore, with atheism (which proclaims God’s death) or with indifferentism (which says the question of God is of no consequence to humanity or its future). But it has everything to do with the conditions that make mature faith (and its embodiement in ritual acts) possible in the first place. In this connection, we have much to learn from much-maligned deconstructionists like Jacques Derride. Derrida makes no claim to be a theologian, yet he well understands that “faith and its theology grow like desert flowers in a desert place, blooming when all the elements conspire against it. . .

[I]like an experience of something that will, in a manner of speaking, knock us dead.” He knows that any search for the God who is “totally Other” (and not a figment of the imagination, a conclusion reached by reason, or an alibi for our behavior) will lead straight to the desert, the place of absence and emptiness. “The essence of faith par excellence,” Derrida writes, is that it “can only ever believe in the unbelievable.” Faith begins not as “content” but as conversion, a saying yes to “the stranger to come. . .yes to the stranger to whose shores” we may espy “without attempting to land. . .to explore. . .or . . .to conquer.”

The proper correlative of “the presence of absence” is thus not doubt, denial, or despair but the unquenchable desire of faith, a desire born when the spice-bearing women arrived at the tomb and found it, precisely, empty. Faith is desire for that utterly Other, desire whose goal is not possession (grasping God on our terms) but dispossession (saying yes to the Stranger whose sores can finally be neither reached nor conquered). It is desire that “renounces the momentum of appropriation,” desire that is not “driven by the passion of a [human] subject for possession. . .for something determinable, but by the passion for the impossible.” Faith, finally, is what drove Christian mystics to “pray God to rid us of God,” to “seek God without God,” to insist that God is met not within the reassuring economy of familiar truths and platitudes, but in the heart’s desert and the soul’s dark night.

Table of Contents:

Part 1: The Hyper-Reality of Worship

1. Ritual’s Roots

2. Ritual’s Roles and Risks

3. Ritual’s Rules

4. Ritual’s Realm

Part 2: Polyphony: The Languages of Liturgy

5. The book of the body

6. Ritual Speech and the Logic of Metaphor

7. Parts and Participation