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This author views the Mass as a poem (and so much more)

MASS OF THE AMERICAS,WASHINGTON DC

Jeffrey Bruno

Sarah Robsdottir - published on 05/08/23

Fr. Michael Rennier's new book will open your senses to the Mass in a way they never were before.

Fans of Fr. Michael Rennier’s artistic, intellectual yet-approachable style are sure to be delighted by his new book The Forgotten Language: How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives.

I’ve followed Fr. Rennier’s work for years; he sits on the editorial board at Dappled Things Magazine and is a regular contributor to several Catholic sites, includingAleteia. It was a joy to catch up with Fr. Rennier recently to discuss his new book.

It’s so refreshing to focus on the “poetics of the Mass.” How long have you been thinking about this book? Where did you get the inspiration?

Fr. Rennier: “My inspiration, I suppose, is drawn from knowing how much beauty and poetics (the study of creativity and how beauty is made) has affected my own life for the better. As a young man I was stridently intellectual, prideful, and determined to work out my faith on that basis. I ended up depressed and cynical. I had almost quit going to church entirely. At some level, philosophy and theology “matures” a person too quickly and I wasn’t ready for it yet. I needed to first stop relying on myself, develop humility, and look very closely at my life and faith, particularly allowing God to nurture my interior life.

My motivation for writing The Forgotten Language was to remind people that beauty is the main thing because it gets to the heart of the faith. It’s all about reverence and creating a space to encounter the sacred. Historically, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the way the Church has celebrated it has accomplished this quite well. The Mass has nourished countless saints and born tremendous beauty into the world. A Christian essentially must have a poetic outlook because the poetic is the door to the sacred. A poetic outlook holds everything to be a reflection of God’s beauty, and the Mass in particular brings us right up to the threshold of Heaven.

For me, it was enormously helpful to put aside all the distractions and seek beauty. This is how my life changed and I learned to speak God’s language of hope. It was a call to ongoing conversion through mystery and love.

A Christian essentially must have a poetic outlook because the poetic is the door to the sacred.

The Forgotten Language weaves together your experiences of partaking in the Mass with the wonder it deserves and your own journey from Pentecostalism to Anglicanism to Catholicism. What’s the best part about being a Catholic convert? What’s the best part about being a Catholic priest?” 

[Note: Fr. Rennier was raised Pentecostal and was once a pastor for the Anglican Church in North America. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2010 and ordained as a married priest under the Pastoral Provision for former Anglican clergy. Fr. Rennier now serves in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where he lives with his wife and six children.]

Fr. Rennier:Being a convert means that I don’t get to take anything for granted. There was a period of time when the Mass was entirely foreign to me. I came to it like a small child, knowing nothing. I experienced the dense symbolic worship of the Church and the wonder of it immediately drew me into the liturgical life of the communion of saints. Because I had no idea what was going on, the images and symbols were like a fresh well of living water, mysterious and sacred. I didn’t have any preconceptions of how the Mass was supposed to look or sound. The point of sacred worship isn’t so much the wonder and awe itself, but the effects of those experiences is very powerful and causes seekers to turn directly to the beautiful heart of God. 

I love being a priest for the simple personal reason that it’s my vocation, so it’s my best path to happiness and sainthood. What we so often forget is that, if we follow God’s plan for our lives, whatever that plan might be, it might require sacrifice but it’s also a great joy. To love exactly what God loves, that’s my goal.

I don’t know that I’m the best priest around. I’m certainly not the best preacher. I haven’t had to make the sacrifice of celibacy, and I know a lot of priests who are more virtuous and prayerful, but what I love about the priesthood is that it’s not about me. As flawed as I am, God still uses me as his instrument. The priesthood is all about Christ. It’s humbling to participate in that, even as an unworthy servant. Through our vocations, each one of us is being written into the divine poem.

Early in your book, you describe a nature walk with your daughter. You then challenge the reader with the following question: “If creation so generously rewards those who look closely with child-like attention, how much more so will the Mass?” What’s a detail of the Mass that is often overlooked? I know there are many, but could you talk about one that’s important to you?”

Fr. Rennier: I guess you could say I’m an incense aficionado. I’m constantly searching out new blends of incense. I’m worse, in this regard, than a wine snob. I love everything about incense – its history, the fragrance, the visual symbol of the smoke rising to heaven as prayer, the way it’s ground up and burned away as a sign of sacrifice, and the added solemnity it brings to our worship.

So many consider incense to be an optional detail. Maybe you go to a Mass that includes it and maybe you don’t. But if you look at the atonement sacrifice in the Old Testament, incense was a vital part of it. Incense was a necessary piece of the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. To me, this means that, at the very least, the main Sunday Mass each week really should use incense.

Details matter. The way a priest carefully cleans off the paten to be sure no particles of the Host fall to the ground; well-trained altar servers; singing the prayers instead of saying them; taking the time to become proficient at chant; having nice vestments; not rushing through the prayers; ringing the bells … Every single detail seems small but each one adds to the rich mosaic of poetic meaning in our worship. The heart of a poem is in the details, each and every one of which is mysteriously connected to some great reality of eternal significance. These details, I might add, include you and me. It matters that you are at the Mass. It wouldn’t be the same without you.

The heart of a poem is in the details, each and every one of which is mysteriously connected to some great reality of eternal significance. These details, I might add, include you and me.

You not only challenge readers to see the Mass more poetically, but to see life itself more poetically as well. You describe the process as one that leads to a unique life and a deeper a state of contentment. What are your three best hacks for living a more poetic life?

Fr. Rennier: Pay attention. Slow down. Give more space to silence. These three practices will be enormously helpful in reorienting you to a poetic outlook. A poetic outlook is one in which everything has deeper meaning – parenting, hobbies, friendships, prayer, your morning walk, the food you eat, the music you listen to, literally everything – and it all starts at the Mass. Every moment is bursting to overflowing with God’s love and resurrected life. You can almost hear the fluttering of the Holy Spirit around every corner.

Tolkien calls it the Great Romance of our lives, the way in which the Eucharist beckons, the way Christ situates himself at the heart of life and transfigures existence. By contrast, being a practical, functional person, a self-proclaimed “realist” is, as Chesterton says, only disappointed romance. Beauty is able to peer deeply into reality.

There is such a powerful use of language, imagery, and metaphor in this book. The message itself often feels like an epic poem. Who are some of the writers and poets who have inspired you?

Fr. Rennier: Thank you for that compliment. There are so many writers out there that I admire. I almost hesitate to name any because I’ll leave so many out. I will say that the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had a great effect on me and was influential in my conversion. Shakespeare seems, somehow, to actually be under-rated. His stuff is really amazing. Vittoria Colonna is a renaissance poet I love who writes these gorgeous sonnets. I also like all the modern American and French poets, people like Pierre Reverdy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Lowell. Their work is relentless in searching out beauty. They’re all searching for faith.

Lastly — and this might be a really cruel question — but The Forgotten Language felt like a compilation of remarkable ‘one-liners.’ So much that I finally stopped marking up the book somewhere in the middle, because I’d determined that I loved the whole thing. Here’s the cruel question: If you could pick only ONE LINE from your book to sum up the essence of your message, what would it be?

Fr. Rennier: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem in which he compares the sky to the blue mantle of our Mother Mary, writing, “I say that we are wound / With mercy round and round / As if with air.” He feels her arms around him like the atmosphere. He hears her heartbeat.

Our family has an image of Our Lord’s Sacred Heart hanging on the wall in our living room. Under this picture, my wife has sat in the armchair and nursed our children to sleep countless times. She’s in no hurry. She patiently cradles her babe as the moonlight slants through the window. If need be, she will hold that child for eternity. In a way, she very much does hold them for eternity.

That image moves me deeply. Almost to tears.

In The Forgotten Language, I write, “When you go to Mass, listen closely. Do you hear the heartbeat of Mother Church?”

This is what I want my parishioners and readers to take to heart – reality is God and his love and you, held in the arms of our Blessed Mother. This is the Mass.

The Forgotten Language: How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives (208 pp.) was released by Sophia Institute Press in March 2023. It is also available at Amazon.com. To keep up with Fr. Michael Rennier, look for his articles at Aleteia and at michaelrenneir.wordpress.com. 

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LiturgyMass
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