The experience of mystery which liturgy offers is found in its God-consciousness and its God-centeredness. This involves a certain beneficial tension with the demands of hospitality, requiring a manner and an environment which invite contemplation (seeing beyond the face of the person or the thing, a sense of the holy, the numinous, mystery). A simple and attractive beauty in everything that is used or done in the liturgy is the most effective invitation to this kind of experience. One should be able to sense something special (and nothing trivial) in everything that is seen and heard, touched and smelled, and tasted in liturgy."
Environment and Art in Catholic Worship
, no. 12, as quoted by Kathleen Hughes, Saying Amen, p. 24.







Paying attention, then, involves the continual practice of discerning the presence of the mystery of God in Christ as disclosed to the members of the worshiping community in and through the ritual actions of liturgical prayer.

An Existential Approach to Liturgy

Part II: Toward Contemplative Liturgical Participation - Mindfulness in Worship


A. Toward a Mystagogical Approach to Sacraments:
In Saying Amen: A Mystagogy of Sacrament,* already referred to in Part I of this study, Kathleen Hughes recommends two methods that orient worshipers and ministers toward a deeper engagement with the mystery of God revealed in Christ - mystagogical reflection and contemplation.

1. Mystagogical reflection:
This ancient form of reflection originated with several of the early Church Fathers, especially Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century). The restoration of the Catechumenate and the Rites of Initiation (1988) allowed many in North America to discover a particularly rich way of engaging the mystery of God revealed in and through the ritual itself.

- a. Mystagogy, technically speaking, describes the final period of the RCIA that involves a form of deliberation, a meditation if you will, by the new members of the community on their experiences at the Easter Vigil. Through such a meditation the neophytes (plus their sponsors and other members of the local community) attempt to open their minds and hearts to the depths of the mystery of God revealed in the Christ.

- b. But Hughes proposes something beyond this specific time called for by the RCIA. She urges mystagogical reflection as a means to appropriate the experience of all sacramental ritual by all members of the community in order to open the way to a more profound encounter with the mystery, the inner meaning, that lies at the heart of the liturgy.

She describes seven characteristics of a contemporary practice of mystagogy. They include:

  • Mystagogy, the practice of mystagogical reflection, is meant for all the baptized, not just the neophytes.

  • Mystagogical reflection is meant to be an essential component of the Christian’s on-going conversion process.

  • Mystagogy makes the sacramental life of the community its central focus.

  • Every sacramental celebration of the community is proper for mystagogy.

  • The practice of mystagogia focuses primarily upon the experience of each participant.

  • The interpretation of personal experience of the rites will tend to use poetic or metaphorical language than prose.

  • Well-celebrated rites are the most critical element for successful mystagogy.

In other words, she strongly recommends that mystagogical reflection become a chief means of the community’s growing in the capacities needed for worship and for living the Christian life.

2. Contemplation:
Hughes defines contemplation as a facet of active participation. She defines active participation in terms of a three-pronged attentiveness needed in members of the liturgical assembly.

  • First, liturgical attentiveness is aware that "liturgy is Gods action." It reveals first and foremost, the divine initiative on behalf of the world through Christ, "drawing us together with the whole of the human race and the whole of creation to form one body in Christ." (Saying Amen, 18)

  • Second, active participation invites attention to the action of liturgical prayer as it unfolds. One needs to attend to what is going on in the liturgy and how one is moving within the flow of the rite.

  • Third, such mindfulness is attuned to ones state of heart and soul. In other words, one strives to be conscious of all those joys and sorrows of daily life and to bring those to the prayer of the liturgy itself. Accordingly, active participation includes more than external involvement. It signifies a quality of interior awareness, of mindfulness, asked of each participant at liturgy.

- a. Contemplation is not easy: The four contemporary obstacles to mindfulness that she lists should seem familiar to most North Americans:

  • noise,
  • the fast pace of modern life with its glut of timesaving gadgets,
  • the desire for material goods,
  • and the struggle of the poor simply to survive.

- - i. Five results of these contemporary obstacles to contemplation follow:

  • the loss of a capacity for conversation
  • an avoidance of silence,
  • a habitual exhaustion,
  • a greed that breeds violence,
  • a crushed spirit.

- - ii. But, at the same, time a longing for more substantial values also exists within many:

  • for beauty,
  • solitude,
  • freedom,
  • simplicity
  • a new love for the earth and the greater human community.

Hughes identifies this deeper longing as a desire for God, "the desire that is the beginning and the end of paying attention." She names this desire, contemplation. (Saying Amen, 22)


Paying attention, then, involves the continual practice of discerning the presence of the mystery of God in Christ as disclosed to the members of the worshiping community in and through the ritual actions of liturgical prayer.


3. Four Phases of Contemplation:
Hughes names four aspects of a contemplative engagement of liturgy: awareness, reflection, reception, and transformation.

  • Awareness refers to that quality of personal openness to the sensory and physical aspects of liturgical prayer.
    • One attends mindfully to bodily investment in ritual gestures (bowing, sitting, kneeling, processing), learning to move without haste.
    • A person becomes present to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that make up the kind of ground level activity constitutive of ritual.

  • Reflection upon one’s experience of bodily engagement in the liturgy follows upon awareness at some point.
    • Ones mindful presence to ritual postures and liturgical symbols yields questions directed toward uncovering the meaning of ones experience as a participant (Why do I feel differently in one posture as opposed to another?).
    • It also leads toward understanding the meaning of the actions themselves (What does my response have to do with what is happening as the liturgy itself unfolds?).


  • Contemplative Reception signifies the step one takes toward contemplation.
    • Relying upon ones sensory awareness within the ritual process and "rational" reflection upon that awareness, reception describes the stage of entering into the prayer of the heart.
    • Here, with Mary of Nazareth, who pondered many things in her heart (Lk. 2:19) a person gives himself or herself over to the power of the symbols or postures, turning it over and pondering the mystery hidden with in them.
      • "Paying attention is not a preoccupation with the elements of the liturgy but a movement from that which is seen and heard and felt to the God who, through them, opens us more to divine encounter, using the whole of our experience to draw us closer if we are open, hospitable, and receptive." (Saying Amen, 27)


  • Transformation of the individual and the community follows from awareness, reflection, and contemplative reception.
  • Full, conscious, and active participation leads people, gradually and over time, into a more profound transformation into the mystery that the Church celebrates.
    • Even though there are numerous obstacles to liturgical engagement – the numbing effect of ritual-become-habit, a demand for "good feelings" at liturgy, the pettiness or indifference of human nature, a deprivation of meaningful silence, and the guarding of leisure time…
    • Hughes trusts that a contemplative engagement with ritual action over time will serve as a remedy to the liturgical and spiritual malaise of North American Christians.


B. Toward a Contemplative Liturgical Participation by means of an Existentialist Approach:

- a. An 'Existentialist' Approach offers a specific context for the community’s mystagogical reflection and liturgical contemplation.

- - i. It first recognizes that the Word, the prayers, the ritual symbols and ritual gestures all draw members of the liturgical body into the "life and death matters" that mark the Christian path. This approach puts the focus on those aspects of Mass and sacraments that call God’s people to a continual "dying to self."

- - ii. Second, it seeks to make a place within both mystagogical and contemplative reflection for that facet of human living that simply and powerfully resists such an invitation.

- - iii. The wager here is this: that, by learning to hold both the mystery of God’s action in Christ (as revealed and celebrated at liturgy) together with the mystery of our "sometimes acceptance / sometimes rejection"of God’s action, that a worshiping community will discover a deeper level of conscious participation at liturgy.

- b. Finally, the following pages describe in more depth the 'Existential' context of our liturgical prayer. Admittedly, this approach focuses more on the "rejection" aspect of our human relationship with God, self, and others.

- - i. But, it does so in order to serve the "acceptance" aspect of this relationship by simply seeking to avoid the dangers of Pharisaism or pretense.

Copyright © Robert F. O'Connor, S.J., 2000. All Rights Reserved.

*Kathleen Hughes, Saying Amen: A Mystagogy of Sacrament, (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999),

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