For the first few days of our annual directors’ meetings here in Combermere the local directors of our various mission houses give their reports about the life and work of their houses. We get something of a birds’ eye view of the apostolate from these reports, which aids our subsequent meetings.
Yesterday one of the directors, describing the very secular milieu in which they are operating and the people they minister to, used a telling phrase. She said “It is as if we are all prisoners of the horizontal.” Even in the local church scene, so often the sole focus would be on social justice or building community or things of that nature; outside of the church milieu the exclusive ‘spiritual’ concern was with nature and the environment.
‘Prisoners of the horizontal’ – that is a nifty turn of phrase. There is nothing wrong the horizontal. God made nature! God desires community! God most certainly wants us to act justly and create a just world. But all of this without God is shallow, drained of the depth, richness, fullness of life and meaning it truly bears.
And that brings us to the next part of the Eucharistic Prayer in our running Thursday commentary on the Mass, in which we pray:
In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
The horizontal is always meant to burst forth from its bonds, its flat experience of reality as it is, here and now, to reality as it really is, imbued with the light and love of the eternal and the divine. At the Eucharist we are indeed in the community of believers, celebrating in unity and being strengthened (please God, if we are doing it right) in the bond of charity, empowered for the work of building the kingdom of God on earth.
Yes, indeed, all of that is so, or it should be. But this is only so, can only be so, if we are borne up from the horizontal in a wholly vertical direction, carried up to heaven mystically, in the Holy Spirit, and enfolded in our horizontal and earthly worship into the worship being done at the ‘altar on high’, from which all these graces and heavenly blessings flow.
The Mass is the great prison break of humanity. We’re going over the wall, folks, and woe be to the guard who gets in our way! ‘You’ll never take me alive, coppers!’ We are not created to be prisoners of the horizontal; the horizontal itself – the world and all that fills it – is not meant to be a prison for humanity. The horizontal in truth lives in a perpetual embrace of love with the vertical, earth with heaven, God with man.
And in that, the horizontal, life as it is, the world as it is, receives it true meaning, its deeper beauty. And in that reception of meaning and beauty, it receives a greater gift yet, and that is the gift of hope. Because the horizontal—nature, or good human relationships, or a just society—well, all of that stuff eventually wears out. The flowers die. The relationships fail us one way or another. The United States elects Trump or Clinton to the presidency. Everything fails, in other words. The horizontal needs the vertical particularly to embrace it at the moment of failure and to redeem it from that failure. ‘Creation is subject to futility’, but God is not.
And the really beautiful thing is that we truly do not have to rack our poor little brains to figure out how to break out from the horizontal prison to the vertical transcendence. God has come to us, and the way out and through, up and over, inward and deep, is as near as the nearest altar where bread and wine—the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands—are taken up into the very heights of heaven so that heaven can enter the very depths of the human heart and penetrate the created order with the light of eternity.