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Sursum Oculos: Why the Priest Lifts His Eyes During Mass

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The following post is the latest from frequent contributor Fr. Donald L. Kloster, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport. Fr. Kloster has recently been assigned to St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut as parochial vicar. He is a graduate of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary Philadelphia, having completed his Master’s Thesis in Moral Theology. A native of Texas and a graduate of the University of Texas (Austin), Fr. Kloster also spent two years as a student (and then novice) at the 7th century Benedictine Abbey of Disentis, Switzerland.

The eyes of the priest are raised to the cross nine times during Holy Mass. In the Traditional Latin Mass, the cross is placed directly above the tabernacle. The priest is instructed to raise his eyes to continually keep his focus on the over arching symbol of our faith. I was reminded at a recent parish Mission that a Catholic always needs his eyes heavenly focused. Spiritually keeping our eyes downcast is not an option. Our Lord wins the epic battle for souls and triumphs with His unending Caritas. Sacred art, sacred architecture, and the Holy Mass demand that we cast our eyes toward Him and that we are not dividing our eternal interests in any other direction.

For the first time in the Mass the priest raises his eyes to the cross for the Munda Cor Meum. He has just finished the gradual and he walks from right to left; the epistle side to the middle of the altar. He raises his eyes and bows profoundly gathering spiritual strength to proclaim the gospel toward the pagan north. After the Munda Cor Meum, he continues to the gospel side of the altar. In a Solemn High Mass, the gospel is read outside the sanctuary but still facing north. In a Low Mass or Misa Cantata, the priest reads the gospel at the altar and should insure that he is facing north instead of a merely 45 degrees as the Missal is placed.

The second eye elevation comes at the Suscipe Sancte Pater in offering the host. The priest is before the tabernacle offering to God the larger round priest’s host for the impending sacrifice. It should not be lost on anyone that the host is round to represent the unending nature of God as the Alpha and the Omega. The host is of an elementary nutritional food group which has superseded the Manna in the desert.

The third eye elevation lasts the entirety of the Offerimus Tibi where the chalice is offered. Wine contains sugar and therefore one could subsist on wine and bread (as opposed to say bread and water) forever in a biological sense. It has often also occurred to me that there is a connection between Our Lord continually bleeding out during the Passion, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His priests not immediately lowering their eyes during the third raising of the eyes, strikes me as a deference to that total emptying.

The fourth eye elevation is at the words Veni Sanctificator. For the first time, the priest separates, elevates, joins, and lowers his hands. The priest implores God to purify him as he blesses the oblata and then moves to the lavabo. The lavabo is no bereft symbol, it has a deep connection with the purification rites enshrined in the Old Covenant. God desires holiness and unspoiled servants to administer the re-presentation of Calvary. The priest spiritually removes his shoes as he conducts his priestly service for he is on holy ground.

The fifth eye elevation is directly after returning to the center of the altar. It is after the lavabo, but before beginning the Suscipe Sancta Trinitas from a medium bowed position with folded hands on the mensa. The priest is preparing to complete the first full offertory circular turn back to the pre-sanctified gifts. This moment marks our invitation into the Holy of Holies; our invitation into a window of the heavenly reign of the celestial court where the Once and Future sacrifice is offered without end. The Mass of the faithful here commences and the baptized are admitted a glimpse into time standing still.

The sixth eye elevation is at the words Deo Nostro in the versicle Gratias Agamus of the Preface. The Preface directs us in the seasonal mindset of the Liturgy. The preface is a solemn preamble to the Canon. It is also ushering in the Sanctus which harkens to the angelic salutations of the angels in the book of the Apocalypse. One would be remiss not to mention that there are only two places in the Sacred Scriptures where one can find the threefold repetition; Isaiah and Revelation. The Old and New Testaments are seamlessly joined. The priest is here preparing himself to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the Mystical Body of Christ.

The seventh eye elevation is before the words Te Igitur in the beginning of the Canon. The priest joins his hands in front of his breast; separates, elevates, joins, and lowers his hands while raising his eyes to the cross. This is the second time the priest circles his hands while being in the everlasting circle of the Divine Mystery. The intensity of the Sacred Mysteries is rapidly gaining velocity.

The eighth eye elevation is at the words Elevatis Oculis in Caelum before the consecration of the Sacred Host. He is completing an octave of eye elevations in anticipation of calling down the God-man upon the altar. All of the angels are prostrate as they anticipate the wondrous miracle of Our Lord keeping His promise of dwelling among us continually and in perpetuity. The heavenly court is rapt in adoration.

The ninth eye elevation is before the final blessing as the priest begins the Benedicat Vos. The priest raises his eyes to the cross for the final time, extending, elevating, rejoining, and lowering his hands while bowing to the cross at the word Deus. For the third time, the priest has circled his hands in concert with the final complete circular turn of the Mass signaling the mystical exit from the Heavenly Liturgy.

All of us must ask ourselves where it is we are gazing. Any man gains his being, his essence from somewhere. To often, the gaze of modern man is an introspected one. It is not just a question of a liturgical gaze in the confines of our parish church. It is a gaze which should go with us always. The priest says Holy Mass to bring to the Church the bounty of the Holy Trinity from above. His gaze is instructed by the rubrics to keep returning to the raised eye position. The faithful consequently cannot afford to have their eyes focused anywhere else either.

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