I want to begin with a disclaimer. I've been trying to figure out how to articulate an experience I had on Christmas. I'm not sure words can do justice to the experience. But, I figured that I should try.
Over a decade ago, while I was a diocesean semenarian, I was taught by some great guys how to properly serve the Holy Mass. I had, of course, learned the rubrics at my home parish. However, the guys at the seminary taught me how to internalize those rubrics. I was taught how the order of worship, the physical actions, are an intrinsic part of Liturgy. They taught me the significance of each action. But, more importantly, they taught me how to make each step, each gesture, an act of prayer.
I've always treasured this gift. It's always served me in my Catholic life. After all, does not the Church affirm that the Sacramental Life, i.e., the liturgical life, is the constitutive character of Christianity? Everything is ordered to worship and everything flows from worship. The physical movements in the Liturgy, regardless of one's mode of participation, serve as the vehicle for offering a spiritual sacrifice to the Lord. This is why fidelity to the rubrics of the Liturgy, especially the Mass, is so important. It's only through the fixed structures in the Liturgy that the authentic spontineaity of the spirit becomes fully manifest. It is a fundamental mistake to think that the reverse is true. Regularity is a necessary condition for contemplation.
As a Dominican friar the gift that those men gave me has grown, developed, and flowered in various ways. Yesterday, however, that gift reached a level of intensity that heretofore I'd never experienced nor anticipated.
There's a new monestary of Carmelite Nuns here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of us friars have been offering Mass for them at their chapel when we are able. These nuns exclusively use the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite in their Monestary. So, when we come to their Monestary we celebrate our own Dominican Rite of Mass. Usually it is a Low Mass or a Missa Cantata (High Mass). However, on Christmas we were able to celebrate a Solemn Mass for them. I served as the Subdeacon for the Mass.
[For those unfamiliar with the Dominican Rite (or other more ancient forms of Mass as celebrated in the Latin Church I would suggest consulting your favorite search engine) it is similar to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.]
The order of Mass according to the Dominican Rite is complex. There's a lot to remember –– especially for the Subdeacon. You'd think that, as a result, it wouldn't be conducive to contemplation. My experience, however, was remarkable. I've served as an acolyte for both the Low Mass and the Missa Cantata regularly. However, serving as a Major Minister in our Rite had a different feel to it. It was intense.
God has granted me, over the years, a few opportunities where I've found myself in a spiritually enraptured state while serving Mass. It can be embarasing when it interferes with liturgical duties. But, my experience on Christmas was different even than this. It was as if I was given an opportunity to experience the truth about liturgical time. We say: in the Divine Liturgy of the Church our human time enters into eternity. This is how the Mass is a re-presentation of Christ's Paschal Mystery. It's not a repetition of it, simulation of it, or some new sacrifice. Each time Mass is offered we access the one Sacrifice that Christ made for us all. We stand at Calvary with the Blessed Mother and all the faithful. I believe it! The Mass lasted about one and a half hours; yet, it felt like five or ten minutes. But again, it wasn't like getting sucked into the online world or video games or some task of interest. Indeed, a similar phenomenon can occur in those sorts of activities. Instead, it was ... well ... different. The experience had a different character, a different feel. The intensity I experienced was radically peaceful. St. Theresa of Avila's "sober innebriation" is the only phrase that seems to fit.
My mind is still swimming as a result of this experience. I'm still trying to fit together and articulate its profundity. Each detail of the experience held deep significance. For instance, wearing a Dalmatic for the first time was really akward at first. Yet, on the other hand it was a tremendous confirmation of my vocation to be a priest. Holding the patten before my eyes while covered with the Humeral Veil brought to mind the descriptions of those holy angels who veil themselves before the presence of the Lord. The symbols used in the rite are amazing. They help the human mind realize that in the Liturgy we are joined with heavenly realities. We become true participants in a Cosmic Liturgy. For that brief time I was deeply aware that we were in the midst of the angels and saints worshiping God in both spirit and truth.