It was a simple observation, probably meant as a throwaway remark, but it has been in the forefront of my mind more and more in recent months. We pay very little attention to those few moments when the priest or deacon opens the missal to the proper place and arranges the chalice and paten, usually because we’re so caught up in pulling out our wallets for the collection. It is a foregone conclusion that it must occur, completely disruptive and immediately evident when it has not taken place, yet places no demands on our attention during the Mass. And this is as it should be, for preparation is a humble event, yet a necessary one. Indeed, the two Latin roots of “preparation” reveal something of its nature: first, that it comes “prae” - “before”, it precedes something in the proper order of things; second, that it is oriented to something that comes after, it is when we “parāre” - “make ready” for something. Too often, however, we forget these roots, and in doing so, we forget the proper place of preparation in the hierarchy of values. To understand preparation correctly, however, we must recognize that the something that preparation precedes, the something for which we make ready - is to act.
“For whether it be the lightly armed desire of youth which it is presumed will press forward to victory, or whether it be the mature man’s determination that will fight its way through life, they both count on having a long time at their disposal. They presuppose, in the plans for their efforts, a generation or at least a number of years, and therefore they waste a great deal of time and on that account the whole thing so readily ends in delusion.” - Soren Kierkegaard
Because of its hiddenness, it is sometimes easy to assume that preparation is of little necessity. Yet how often do we see a deadline far off in the future, put the task aside, and then find ourselves in a panic when it finally arrives? Or find ourselves running late and caught in traffic, cursing our unwillingness to depart ten minutes earlier? Or spend a break from school dawdling when we should be studying for an exam just on the other side of the week? Surely, those men I had accompanied on their run had had months, if not years, of continually challenging themselves to go higher, faster, further. When we forget the chronological hierarchy of things - that preparation precedes action - we find ourselves believing things such as, “I’ll get around to it eventually,” or, “I’ll just wing it,” or, “it won’t be that hard.” These are fallacies that will cripple our ability to take action when the time to act comes upon us - and the time to act will come.
It’s funny: the thoughts behind this piece were first sparked around St. Patrick’s Day last year, then began to come together in a cohesive fashion over last summer, then I began to think of publishing an article for the beginning of Advent, which then slipped to Christmas, then New Year’s, then Ash Wednesday, and now here we are in the midst of Easter day. I’ve put it off again and again for a myriad of reasons - some better than others: not enough content to write about; not being able to finish it in time for a particularly significant day or season; not having studied the topic enough to write about it well; too many other things to take care of - and on and on the excuses have gone. I let myself become so wrapped up in contemplating preparation in the abstract that it took me far too long to remember that there should be a time when the preparatory phase comes to an end and finds its fulfillment in action.
There are a dizzying amount of reasons to remain in the preparatory phase: perhaps we’re afraid of the irrevocability of what we are about to do, or that the end result will look nothing like the perfect vision we have conjured in our head, or we prefer the supposed freedom of not having committed ourselves to a firm course of action, or the comfort of our current situation is simply too tempting to give up. We wait for New Year's to make a resolution, or a birthday to get in touch with a friend, or a deathbed to say what we’ve been longing to say - but it has been months since we were made aware of the change we need to make, or days since we’ve wondered about how our friend is doing, or years since we recognized that we want to have that important conversation. It's true: there is no perfect time, nor ever a perfect result - but what peace have we ever found by ceding our agency to the currents of the world and the whims of others? Perhaps we will never reach a point at which we are completely equipped and ready for what is to come. This does not mean that preparation is useless or unnecessary, but we must remember that preparation is not an end unto itself. We must learn to be at peace with doing the best that we can in the time that is given to us.
A lack of preparation implies that some action is taken, even if imperfect. This is the realm of deadlines, the arena of work and school. Deadlines give us a time in which we must act; we may or may not choose to prepare ourselves adequately for that time, but there must be an act, whether it’s submitting an assignment or not, or taking an exam or skipping it. Once that time has passed (late submissions notwithstanding) the opportunity is over and behind us. The majority of things in life, however, including the most important things, rarely have set deadlines. There is no predetermined age at which one is required to have fully entered into their vocation, or to have had children, or to have become a saint; no one knows when they need to be ready to die. As a result, we focus on our seeming inability to deem ourselves ready for those things, to commit ourselves to those great and terrible choices that will impact the entire course of our lives.
Preparation is ordered towards, only understood in light of, and finds its proper end in action; just as potency is ordered to act; just as an acorn is meant to grow into an oak; just as vows spoken in a moment are meant to be consummated in a gift of self throughout one's entire life. Because the proper end of preparation is action, however, a failure to act is far worse than a failure to prepare; at least the one who may be heedless of preparation has yet the courage and the willingness to answer the demands of the moment and act when called upon.
Perhaps we may not always be able to prepare for specific situations, but by the very act of living, we have been preparing in some fashion for our actions. It is both sobering and encouraging to realize that we do nothing “on a whim” - none of our choices are isolated from each other, or exist in a vacuum. They inform and build upon each other, whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not. By the time we reach college, we have some 150,000 hours of training behind us. 150,000 hours in which we built habits: to act or not to act when the situation demands, to ready or nor to ready ourselves for the choices that we know we must make, to trust or not to trust in the goodness of God and His plan for us.
This is the crux of the matter: do we trust that God will direct our works - the best that we can make of that with which He has blessed us - and perfect them in His wisdom and grace? If we understand and truly believe the Kerygma - that God created us for loving relationship with Him; that our relationship with Him was broken by sin; that Jesus Christ took upon Himself the death resulting from sin to restore our relationship; and that we have the opportunity to respond to that love and be reunited to God - what is there to fear? "Be not afraid!" Pope Saint John Paul II reminded us often.
How fitting, then, is the forty days of Lent when considered in the light of the fifty days of Easter: Lent - the ascent up the mountain - found us casting off the unnecessary attachments to passing things and making room, increasing our desire and capacity for Christ. Easter - the peak of Christian life - in its fifty days of celebration vs. Lent's forty days of sacrifice, reminds us to trust that that which we receive is so much greater than that which we give up; the joy of Easter is something that we can only fully enter into when we have emptied ourselves to receive the superabundance of love and grace that God desires to pour out upon us. Indeed, happy are those who have taken the opportunity to properly set their table, and then joyfully received what has been given in its proper time!
The response God asks of us is to act in trust, to take a leap of faith in His loving providence. Through the little decisions of each moment, we can prepare ourselves to make each subsequent action an act of faith, an act of hope, an act of love. And the greatest of these - the specific and ultimate action towards which all our preparation and prior action is ordered - is love.
It is the subject of love, then, that shall next be considered in our further contemplation of what it means to prepare the altar.