Ad Orientem has been big in the news (Catholic news, anyway) recently. Cardinal Sarah’s interview and subsequent talk at the Sacra Liturgia, suggesting that ad orientem in the Ordinary form, at least at the Eucharistic prayer, should be the norm caused many responses. His invitation to begin this in Advent, to allow preparation time and catechesis caused a huge Internet debate. Fr Neil’s thoughts on the Cardinal’s interview can be read here.
For those of us who originally came from Christ Church, ad orientem had not been part of the norm, although some Anglo-Catholic churches use it. When Fr Neil arrived in the parish, the previous vicar had re-ordered the church, creating a nave sanctuary and altar facing the congregation. Fr Neil, who trained for the Anglican priesthood at Lincoln Theological College, had little experience of ad orientem, either there or during his curacy, where the practice was seen only at midweek Book of Common Prayer said services.
I had come from a very Evangelical family and so had not even heard of this much before becoming a Catholic. It felt very alien to think of the priest not facing the congregation. My only experience was at the monastery, where the celebrant faces east only when the congregation (members of the community and visitors) had joined the priests in the sanctuary.
In our early days as a group so much felt alien that considering ad orientem was difficult for me as an individual. It seemed to jar against so much of what I had been taught and suggestions to adopt it felt like one more loss, one more sacrifice in a process that had not been easy.
Surprisingly for me, this all changed in Advent. Just prior to the change of season I read a post on “The Catholic Astronomer” blog. Our Home Ed student and I, her teacher, had spent hours on Astronomy. I had become somewhat addicted to this wonderful site, where you could learn about difficulties in travelling to Mars along side some very profound theology. There is much to take in in the post about Advent but I had been particularly struck by the comment on the orientation of churches and ad orientem. This produced an about turn (no pun intended) in my thinking. Over the years, I had shifted from the view of worship as being something “we do to God” to the awareness that worship of God is something that goes on all the time and that we are invited to participate in. Here was this view from a cosmic perspective. Ad orientem reminds us that we have to align ourselves with God and that worship of God takes place on a universal, a cosmic scale. It gives a very different perspective to our place than the evangelical understanding of worship that I had experienced as a teenager and young adult. Ad orientem is something this ex-evangelical is coming to love.
A few weeks ago, Fr Neil preached a sermon explaining his response to Cardinal Sarah’s words and developments within the Ordinariate. Now, in our 4pm Mass the Priest faces ‘East’ during the Eucharistic prayer. For those who are unfamiliar with the layout at St Agnes, there is a stone reredos, where there are signs that a high altar used to be, and a newer altar in the centre of the small sanctuary. Experiencing ad orientem in this setting, rather than at Our Lady of Ransom, where we have our Monday Ordinariate Use mass was very different. Before my Advent ‘epiphany’ I had felt that ad orientem would make me feel distant from the liturgy taking place. I actually haven’t experienced this in practice at our Monday mass but did wonder if I might in St Agnes, a very different building. In fact the opposite was true. Fr Neil and the sanctuary party moved from behind the altar to the same side as the congregation. The effect, for me was that they felt more part of us, the people, than they had before, with the altar in between ‘us’ and ‘them’. There was much more a sense of all of us, priest and people facing Christ and focusing on him.
Our journey as an Ordinariate and as a group has many different facets. God challenges on many different levels and calls us to continual conversion. Ad orientem was very much a challenge and yet is something we have been called to take on. From my individual perspective it felt like a challenge too far and yet is in reality a practice that has deepened my experience of the Mass.