Interview with Audrey Seah, our Resident Scholar

Ms. Audrey Seah, a doctoral student in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame, will be Scholar-in-Residence at St.  Michael’s from July 13 to August 3, where she will offer an educational program entitled “Liturgy & Sacraments 101” for parishioners and interested  others. These sessions will meet 5:30 – 6:30 PM on Wednesdays and be repeated 9:10 – 10:10 Sunday mornings. We are excited to welcome Audrey to our parish, and especially for the opportunity to gain deeper insight into our faith through her research and wisdom! We asked Audrey a few questions to help everyone get to know her a bit before her arrival. Read on:

Tell us a little bit about your personal background.

I was born and raised in Singapore. I left when I was 16 and have spent most of my adult life in the U.S. My bachelor’s degree is in music composition, but no one hires composers, really, so I ended up working in digital marketing after graduation. I attended Protestant churches throughout my youth, but was never baptized for various reasons. In my early 20’s, I came to learn about the Catholic Church and was baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2007. After becoming Catholic, I began to seriously discern a call I felt to serve the Church in full-time ministry. I eventually quit my job as a digital marketing consultant and became a youth minister. After a year, I decided to pursue a degree in Liturgical Music, thinking that it would be a good way to merge my musical interests with service to the church, but God had other plans. I am now starting my sixth year of theological studies, and have four more years ahead of me as I work towards a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies. Exactly how these things all happened is a long story — ask me if you’re curious!

How did you first become interested in liturgy?

I was at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia, and was participating in a pre-WYD program run by the Jesuits, called MAGIS. They had different streams in the program and I chose the “music” stream simply because it sounded fun. At that time, I had already given up any hopes of being a full time musician or composer—I was doing very well in digital marketing. The two weeks at MAGIS, however, thrusted me back into a world I had forgotten gave me so much life. Over two weeks of composing, learning, and making music for various liturgies, I discovered a side of the liturgy I never paid any attention to before. I was suddenly given a whole new perspective to worship, and I knew I had to do something about it.

What’s your particular area of interest within liturgy/liturgical studies?

I am mainly interested in “postmodern” sacramental theology. What that means is simply the way the sacramental life is conceived and understood in the contemporary world. Today’s world is a diverse world. However, this diversity really isn’t anything new; rather, it is the realization that diversity can be a positive thing and the embracing of that diversity as a locus for theological reflection that is. Within this context, I am interested in the relationship between liturgy and culture, sacramental participation among “disabled” persons, and the doctrine of baptism by desire.

How have your liturgical studies changed your appreciation for the Church’s forms of prayer?

I remember my first experience of a Catholic liturgy. I was six and attending a convent school. One day, the sisters had us first graders wear white dresses and carry carnations in a procession. I didn’t know why, nor what for. I don’t even know if it was a Mass or something else. I don’t remember much of what happened, but I remember feeling like I had been sitting in church for an eternity—we sat in the sanctuary facing the congregation, in two neat rows; our only task was to keep our carnations held upright. I had no idea what was going on, and it was B-O-R-I-N-G. The next time I attended Mass, I was 22. Having only been to protestant churches with more evangelical worship styles, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. No wonder no one wants to go to church. This is super boring. The priest is reciting prayers from a book—Who does that?! Is he just lazy, or what?” You get the point. I was not impressed. Suffice to say, I have come a long way from my first experiences of the liturgy.

“They have eyes but they cannot see,” says Psalm 115:5. The two liturgies I describe above are similar to the ones I experience now, yet I now see and appreciate them differently. Liturgical Studies has shown me two things: 1) That our liturgies are expressions of the Christian worldview—a vision communicated, an icon of our identity; 2) That seeing is a verb. What I see in the sacramental mysteries are always only glimpses of God’s mystery and his love for me. Appreciation for worship comes only when I keep my eyes open, knowing humbly that there is more to see than I can ever take in.

What’s something you wish every Catholic knew or understood about (the) liturgy?

That the liturgy is a gift. But the liturgy is not necessarily a gift I want, like the foldable bike on my Amazon wish list. The liturgy is more like the ugly Christmas sweater from grandma. I may not appreciate it when I first receive it, but I begin to treasure it because of my relationship to the giver. Before I know it, I’m wearing the sweater every Christmas, loudly and proudly. When a gift is more about the giver than it is about the recipient, one no longer asks what it is that one can “get” out of the liturgy, but why the gift was given in the first place. The gift, then, becomes a profound symbol for communicating one’s love for another—God’s love for us. It is in this way that the liturgy is not a mere window to the divine; rather, the liturgy allows us access to the loving gaze of God upon which we the faithful are converted.

What are some of the more fascinating things you’ve learned or insights you’ve gained about the liturgy through your studies?

I am most fascinated by different theologies expressed in the way various cultures celebrate Mass. In Uganda, for example, the faithful clap at the consecration as a way of welcoming an important guest to the banquet. In some Eastern rite churches, kneeling on Sundays is strictly prohibited, for kneeling is a symbol of penance and thus, deemed inappropriate for a joyful celebration of Christ’s victory over death. These differences do not imply that what we are used to in Roman Catholic American churches is inferior or better, but simply different. Different ways of worship express different manners of being Christian, different senses of spirituality, and different social and theological priorities. They tell us something about the people of God, their fears, their joy, and their dreams. Most importantly, these differences challenge us to recognize the different presences of Christ—in his ministers, in the word, the Eucharist species, song and prayer (Sacrosanctum Concilium 7)—as it is manifested in different ways, so that we may gain a fuller understanding God’s mysteries and the Christian worldview.