“The Mass is the most useless thing we can do, and by that, I mean it’s the highest thing we can do.” So says Bishop Robert Barron in his new film series on the Mass. I recently watched the first episode, and something that he said really grabbed my attention. “Mass,” he claims, “is the most useless thing we can do … Heaven is a place of utter uselessness. Mass, in its playful uselessness, is a great anticipation of Heaven.” Now, before we all chuck our Sunday plans to come to church and head to the lake or the nearest pub playing the Sunday game, let me also point out that Bishop Barron also echoes the Second Vatican Council in reminding us that the Mass is the “source and summit” of the Christian life — in fact, the most valuable activity we could choose to engage in. So, the Mass is at the same time both useless and valuable.
We need a moment to wrap our heads around this.
The key here lies in the word “playful.” Bishop Barron defines play as an activity which has no purpose outside of itself; it is something done for its own end. Work, on the other hand, is always a means to another end. For instance, we work to get paid so that we can buy the necessities of life. In our society, we tend to think that work is more valuable than play, but Bishop Barron challenges us, saying we have that backwards. We have impoverished the traditional meaning of play to mean something not important and not valuable, when it was once seen to signify the highest form of human activity. In the study guide that accompanies his series on the Mass, he writes, “We find our freedom in the things we do with no thought to utility, which is why our work may make us wealthy, but our play is what makes life worth living. Play, therefore, has the higher value.” Play is the highest form of human activity because, having no purpose outside of itself, it is free from utility and practicality. It is a good pursued for its own end, and is therefore more beautiful, more precious than work.
To say that this has caused me to look at things in a way I have never seen them before would be an understatement. My pragmatic, hard-working, task-driven, list-making German genetics are ready to launch into high rebellion, but the more I ponder this wisdom, the more I am intrigued, because we do tend towards imbalance. We all seem to be frantically working at an increasingly faster pace without in some sense knowing why; we feel compelled, trapped in the pace of American life. We lose the joy in valuable work and even turn what we name play into work by pursuing it not for its intrinsic good but for some externally imposed prize or gain. This hinders our ability to be good stewards of our time, limiting our ability to love both God and our neighbor well. This is not the freedom Jesus has promised us.
I believe recapturing an appreciation for human activity which we pursue simply for its own end (play) can help us to put our work (necessary and good) in its proper place and perspective, and free it to serve the greater good. This in turn, frees us from the slavery we feel towards the tasks we engage in every day and helps us to order them properly. It can assist us in being good stewards of our time; receiving the time we have been given as a gift and striving to live each moment in God’s will and for his glory. Inspired by Bishop Barron’s wisdom, we can begin by fostering a deeper appreciation for the most important “play” we can engage in — the Mass. May we see the time we spend at Mass as the most valuable and highest form of human activity; not as a means to an end, but rather to simply be with the Almighty; to worship, to offer our love and our lives and to receive in return his gift of himself.