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Focus vs. Blur: Multi-Sensory Learning, Motivated Focus, & The Mass: Pt. III

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Part 1 | Part 2Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, we explored how, in a parish committed to the full Catholic paradigm, even something as simple as entering the church can become an exercise in multi-sensory learning, and therefore a highly effective means to help the people become recollected before Mass. In a minimalist parish, however, when the people enter the church, few multi-sensory learning opportunities are available to help them achieve recollection. This absence makes it all too easy for people to lapse into blur and remain stuck there. In Part 2, we considered how active participation will be in proportion to motivated focus, and how tempting it is for bad pedagogy to resort to coercion of one kind or another to make up for the lack of the optimal conditions for learning. In this final part, we will look at a number of concrete examples to confirm and consolidate the argument.

Example: Steve Enters his Minimalist Parish Church

Steve and his family attend a minimalist parish. Since they’ve never experienced anything different, they feel that “This is the way the Catholic Church is.” Steve enjoyed a hearty breakfast so he’s full of coffee, bacon, and eggs. He bustles past the Holy Water font on the way to his habitual pew, forgets to take off his baseball cap, and forgets the Sign of the Cross. Steve doesn’t receive any social cues from other parishioners to remind him of his liturgical manners, because everyone else is neglectful, too. Back in the 1970s, before Steve’s time, the parish church was wreckovated and the sacred art removed, on the grounds that it seemed gloomy and old-fashioned. Today, the only decorations in the narthex are a few announcement flyers tacked to a cork board, so there’s nothing special or different for Steve to look at. When he enters the nave, no one genuflects or makes the Sign of the Cross. People just sit down and chat quietly with their neighbors. Sacred art is also absent from the sanctuary, so there, too, Steve has nothing special or different to look at. He looks around at the other people instead. There’s no organ prelude or sacred music, so there’s nothing special or different to hear. Due to the low buzz of social chit-chat, no one says a mental prayer of preparation. The kneelers were removed long ago, along with the sacred art, so no one has a chance to kneel, either. Incense hasn’t been used since last Christmas, so the church has no special “churchy” smell that might trigger devout thoughts. Steve’s mind drifts back to daily practicalities: did he remember to pay his Visa bill? To blast the people out of their state of blur, welcoming remarks suddenly boom through the church with the mic turned up to maximum volume. During the gathering song, the people stand around looking sheepish while the choir and the pianist plough ahead. Less than 10% of the congregation actually picks up the Music Issue and sings.

A Closer Look at Steve

Steve identifies himself as a faithful Catholic and attends Mass with his family most Sundays. Despite more or less regular Mass attendance, Steve is foggy about the Bible, Church doctrine, and the liturgical cycle. If Father asked Steve, “Who came first, Moses or David?”, or “How is the Mass a sacrifice?”, Steve would stammer in confusion. Steve works as a commercial construction manager, responsible for multi-million dollar projects such as new hotels and shopping malls. He’s expert at roaming a construction site and understanding every physical detail he sees. Steve is also expert with schedules, lists, spreadsheets, and balance sheets. He’s able to coordinate teams of workers with delivery of massive amounts of physical items, keeping everyone and everything on schedule.

Steve’s learning styles combine the kinesthetic/tactile with the analytical. In high school, he disliked his required English literature classes, especially the units on poetry. He felt particularly annoyed when his high school English teacher insisted her students hunt around in assigned texts for symbolism. Why couldn’t the author quit beating around the bush and just say what he meant? Steve isn’t particularly verbally fluent and his listening comprehension is underdeveloped. Secondly, Steve’s visual imagination has been trained by his work to fasten on how physical objects relate to each other structurally, which is a very different kind of visualization than is encouraged by sacred art. Steve finds it hard to visualize the Bible passages he hears in his mind’s eye. He can’t play them in his imagination like a video.

These personal characteristics put him at a disadvantage at a minimal Mass, which depends almost entirely on verbal communication. Accordingly, Steve tends to drift deep into blur during the Psalm. Since it’s poetry, it’s hard to understand. It doesn’t help that the Psalm is said by a lector, not sung by a cantor, especially since the lector steps on his lines and garbles the text. The Old Testament lesson also invites blur, because Steve is foggy about the history and geography of ancient Israel. Who or what were the Canaanites? Once the Liturgy of the Word moves on to the Epistle and the Gospel, Steve misses all the internal references and literary allusions that unite the Bible passages. When Jesus quotes something from the Psalms or the Prophets, Steve misses the connection, and therefore doesn’t comprehend the Gospel as fully as he might. As Steve zones out during the Liturgy of the Word, he can’t help but notice all the deferred maintenance in the church, so he focuses on that instead.

Consider what is happening here. Steve needs everything that the minimal Mass fails to provide. Steve needs the kinesthetic guidance of liturgical gesture, plus cues from bells and smells to help him focus on what’s most important. He needs sacred art to stimulate his visual imagination, so that when he hears Bible passages, he can see them in his mind’s eye. Steve needs homilies that explain the Big Picture in clear, direct terms. Instead, Father builds up his homilies on an inductive model similar to the way Prof. A teaches, with jokes, anecdotes, and quotations from the popular press. Father expects the congregation to assemble these bits and pieces into a personal Big Picture and discover for themselves how the bits and pieces relate to the Gospel. Some parishioners do this, most are left with underdeveloped concepts, plus warm personal regard for Father.  Steve would also benefit greatly if Father included some traditional lists in his homilies: three of this, four of that, seven of the next thing. Steve’s analytical mind could take hold of these lists and use them as scaffolding to organize and remember everything else. Steve needs quality sacred music to fix important prayers and Bible passages firmly in his memory.

What about Father?

Father is greatly loved and respected by his parishioners. Nevertheless, the obvious torpor during Mass makes Father feel downhearted. Why don’t the people sing? Why are they so passive? Where are the teenagers and young adults? Why are there so few volunteers and so little in the collection basket? One of Father’s brother priests in a nearby parish attempted to energize his parish through a form of coerced focus when he introduced a Pentecostal-style praise band in place of the piano and choir. This led to a rebellion among the traditionally-minded members of his parish, most of whom complained mightily, some of whom migrated to the EF parish an hour away, and a few of whom dropped out of the Faith altogether. Father knows better than to introduce a praise band, much less a giant video screen.

If Father decided to give his parish a liturgical upgrade, how should he proceed? Would current volunteers be offended and quit? How would his brother priests react? What about the bishop — would he approve? Father learned in the seminary to avoid authoritarian forms of parish leadership, but the progressive forms don’t seem to work well, either.

To break out of his trap, and to lead his people out of their blur, Father needs to let go of the false politicized opposites of authoritarian vs. progressive, or traditionalist vs. contemporary. A complete Mass is something different and better; it cannot be categorized in such a limited way. Father may feel more free to make beneficial changes if he realizes that a complete Mass will give the people what they actually need as human beings — something for everyone, according to the precepts of the Vatican II Fathers and the great tradition.

Steve’s Christmas Midnight Mass experience

Steve, his wife Alicia, and their two kids were invited to spend Christmas week with Alicia’s sister Beth and her family. Beth and her family attend a complete OF parish, where Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is one of the highlights of the liturgical year. Never before had Steve attended a complete Midnight Mass. When the kids were little, he and Alicia thought the 5:00 PM Christmas Eve casual Family Mass made more sense. Better still, since the Family Mass was over at 6:00 pm sharp, they were able to attend the Christmas Eve party a friend hosted every year.

As the Midnight Mass unfolded in its majesty, Steve was startled to see how his children were completely absorbed, not restless at all. He felt the same way, although sometimes a little embarrassed because it was easy to miss a cue and not bow, or kneel, or chant, or make the Sign of the Cross at the same time as the rest of the congregation. Steve was stirred to the depths of his soul by the splendid music with organ and trumpet, the excellent choir, the festive Christmas decorations, and the beautiful paintings and statues visible everywhere in the church. The liturgy lasted over two hours, but never dragged. At last Steve knew what the priest meant by, “Lift up your hearts.”

On Christmas Day, while Alicia and Beth were busy with the turkey, Steve went jogging to work up an appetite for the feast. The responsorial psalm chant kept echoing in his head. Not only did Steve remember the words, but he couldn’t forget them even if he wanted to, because the words bonded to the melody so well. Usually, he semi-ignored the Psalm because it was too hard to understand; now, he realized that he got it. Steve also realized that something about the Offertory had made a huge impression on him.  Why did those clouds of incense seem to make the rite so different and special?  Why did he feel so absorbed as he watched the priest, the deacon, and the thurifer bow to each other, and hand the incense thingy up and back? When the thurifer incensed the congregation, everyone stood up and bowed in unison, which made Steve feel respected and included. Steve realized that after a “normal” Mass, the kind he was accustomed to, he felt as if he’s just watched TV. The Christmas Eve Midnight Mass made him feel as if he’d made a personal contribution to something truly important.

Unpacking Steve’s Midnight Mass Experience

Throughout the complete Midnight Mass, Steve experienced an integration of Big Picture concepts with multi-sensory learning opportunities, reinforced by spaced repetitions. During Midnight Mass, Steve achieved such a high level of motivated focus that on Christmas Day, parts of the Midnight Mass keep on playing in his head. Even though Steve was only vaguely aware of the symbolism behind the actions, and the theology behind the symbolism, the rite opened up his heart and mind so he became ready to learn more.

Let’s zoom in on the rite which made such a huge impression, incensation during the Offertory. Why was this rite so beneficial to Steve’s motivated focus? One answer is that Steve simultaneously experienced every type of multi-sensory learning except the gustatory (which was soon to come at communion time).chartDuring this rite, Steve was able to see a wide variety of related actions, plus hear sacred music that supported the actions and added to their emotional impact. He could see the smoke and smell the incense, watch the swings of the thurible, and hear the gentle jingling of the chains. The gracious courtesy of the bows, the dignified and stately pace of the action, and the logical order in which each person gave or received incensation all contributed to the total powerful impression. His attention was drawn to many different physical objects with sacred meaning, and to many different people performing different liturgical roles. This succession of objects of attention stimulated Steve’s internal self talk: “Now the Deacon is swinging the thurible”. Internal self talk deepens attention by naming people and things, so nascent concepts begin to organize sensory impressions. When the entire congregation stood up in unison and bowed as they received their incense, Steve no longer felt like a mere spectator, but like someone who had participated in something important.

What did Steve learn by Osmosis about the Hierarchy of Spiritual Authority?

Steve realizes that the Offertory Rite at Midnight Mass made a huge impression on him, but finds it difficult to put it all into words. He’d learned by osmosis. Profound sensory memories had transitioned to his working memory, and were on their way to permanent storage in his long-term memory. The internal self talk that named discrete physical objects and people was only the first step in assembling the Big Picture, however. The transition to long-term memory will not be complete until learning by osmosis transcends the naming stage and becomes bonded to organizing concepts. Steve is ready to ask, “What does it mean?” He needs theology to answer the question—and for the first time, he might even be open to some theology. This is one of many fruits of a complete liturgy.

When Steve was in his early 20s, he glued a “Question Authority” bumper sticker to his pickup truck’s tailgate. Today, in his late 30s, Steve still has major trust issues about big, powerful organizations–and for excellent reasons. He trusts individual people he knows personally, and he trusts small local organizations he can observe at first hand. For many years, unfortunately, Steve has been disappointed by false promises and disastrous policy blunders made by politicians from both parties, and he’s well aware of scandals in Big Business and Big Finance, especially since the Crash of 2008. In his work as a commercial construction manager, he’s seen corrupt bargains made between local government officials and union leaders from the building trades. Steve’s default setting is to associate authority of position with dishonesty and manipulation. Accordingly, his habit of distrust toward big organizations spills over onto his attitude toward the Church, especially after the clergy scandals. He likes and respects Father, but is not involved in parish activities and doesn’t know how far he can trust the huge global Catholic Church.

Many fundamental Church doctrines are profoundly counter-cultural. For many lay people, one of the worst stumbling blocks is the authority of the Catholic hierarchy. Our culture is deeply confused about the difference between authoritarianism and legitimate authority. Authoritarianism is an ideology that turns authority into an idol and worships it for its own sake. It is irrational and ego-driven, so people rightly feel distrust and do their best to avoid being controlled by authoritarian organizations. Legitimate authority, on the other hand, serves the common good with reason and humility, and so deserves our trust, respect and cooperation. To add another layer of difficulty, the whole concept of hierarchy seems alien to our democratic culture, where equality is highly esteemed as a social good.

Steve was fascinated by the Offertory Rite at Midnight Mass because it simultaneously oriented everyone toward Our Lord and modeled hierarchical relationships among the priest, the deacon, the various lay liturgical ministers, the musicians, and the people. Everyone had his or her own role to play, plus a specific rank in the hierarchy, but all were equal in dignity and all treated one another with courtesy and respect.  This experience challenged Steve’s unspoken assumption that authority is usually manipulative and abusive to the lower-downs. The rite demonstrated how the priest exercised his legitimate authority in an interactive and cooperative way, so everyone participated and everyone was included. If, later on, Steve were to encounter a theological explanation of what he’d seen, the explanation would make intuitive sense.

Learning by osmosis tends to be short-circuited in a minimal Mass because so many multi-sensory learning opportunities are truncated or omitted altogether.  In the absence of these multi-sensory learning opportunities, memory storage is relatively weak and disorganized. Abstract theological concepts seem disconnected from lived reality.  When people have only foggy notions of fundamental concepts, the Big Picture remains disjointed and incomplete. Without a fully formed Big Picture, it is much more difficult for the heart, the intellect, and the will to make a permanent commitment to the Faith.

To Sum Up…

Multi-sensory learning theory provides us with one more way to appreciate the wisdom of the Catholic liturgy. The beauty of a complete Mass is much more than “art for art’s sake”. Form follows function, and the function of beautiful worship is to sanctify the laity.

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