One day, Nettie Holmes, my fourth-grade teacher at St. Robert Bellarmine, was teaching our class how to go to mass. A thin brown sweater draped in acrylic over her shoulders, she pointed to the altar, where the priest would go in an actual mass. hold the host. “Now is the time,” she said. “It is time.”
Wafer and clanking of bells, then silent church, infiltrated by a real presence.
She said it almost with…anger isn’t quite the right word. But in that edgy way when you really need to break through the brick wall of a 10-year-old’s mind and let them know that a thing really is that thing. The bread becomes body. Finger pricked, dark eyes lit, it is time.
If you are a follower of Catholic doctrine, the mass, and in particular the consecration, dominates all human reality. Nothing greater metaphysically can happen; at least not since the original incarnation. The words and rituals of the liturgy as a whole: Invocation. Writing. Petitions. Eucharistic prayer. Next, Elevation: It’s all focused right there. The world revolving around this silent and motionless point.
The great Catholic irony is that the Mass – that mad rhythmic ripe activity at the heart of the church – is oddly, oddly, the right and proper place to air our concerns about the Mass itself.
If we are alienated or bothered or just plain annoyed by the church we attend because of issues with the liturgy (the a-poetic translations of ritual prayers, a cantor unable to hit the high “do” as wonderfully as we hoped, the priest’s uncanny smart haircut, how long and loud the choir girl rings the bell, the syrupy port used for the Eucharist, how the priest turns his sermons into “Firing Line” talking points, a pre-Communion announcement that includes the comforting phrase “Catholics in good standing”); if we are bothered or even exasperated by issues within the Catholic Church as a whole (those who endure disputes over money, power , sex); if any of these simple annoyances or hurts orbit the troubled galaxy of our consciousness, the great Catholic irony is that the Mass – that mad cadenced activity ripe in the heart of the church – is oddly, oddly the right and the right place to bring our concerns about the mass itself.
The very soul of the very place that excites its ecclesial anger may be the only place to fully, existentially deposit, heal and even, so to speak, consecrate our anger.
Some Catholics are (perhaps) not quite sure that the Eucharist is really the body and blood of Christ, and the Mass is probably the most appropriate place to bring those doubts about the body and blood of Christ.
Sadly (but dutifully) saying the word “consubstantial” in the Nicene Creed may be the only true and proper place to mourn that we have to use the awkward word “consubstantial”.
Mrs. Holmes is waiting, waiting right there, to tell us the purpose of it all.
Jeremy Driscoll writes, in a wonderful and arrogant statement about Catholicism: “God does not address the world vaguely but through the Church. And in a unique way through the liturgy of the church. The document “Sacrosanctum Concilium”, of the Second Vatican Council, declares that the Mass, “because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his body the Church, is a sacred action which surpasses all the others”.
In other words, this is it.
During the Eucharistic prayer, we adore with, literally, all the angels and saints in heaven; who always sings, a chorus of thanks and praise to God; who sing regardless of whether the humans below are praying with them at mass or squatting in a field digging up a tuber.
When we go to mass, writes Driscoll, “we bring our lives…and say ‘do something with it.’ Make our lives what your life was and is.’ We go humbly and implore Christ to help us be like Christ.
Jaroslav Pelikan calls worship “the metabolism of Christian life.” It is in worship that we can cast out all of our hurts, pains, doubts, confusions not only about our daily lives and our troubled world, but about the aesthetics, languages, doctrines and practices of our church; we send it all into the purifying furnace in the heart of that same church.
One Sunday evening, I drove home to the icy sidewalks of my neighborhood mass and wondered if I myself was living, even though I claim to believe it, these metaphysical points of faith about what happens in the liturgy. Does attending mass and praying with a billion seraphim and being silent at the elevation really become a felt thingsomething consoling, something that really transforms his relationship with the church?
Because frankly I had found it extremely boring when the priest that evening, at the consecration, cantilever his whole torso dressed in white above the altar, inches from the host, and spoke directly and maddeningly slowly with the pancakeas if intoning into a small intercom instructions to a dining hall of 4-year-olds being corrected: “Take this… y’all… and eat… this.”
It was surprising and weird and awkward and robotic and one thing I didn’t like being up front.
Ultimately, no one else can “ruin” our experience of Mass – or anything – unless we let them.
What I’m really tempted to do is find another mass. Whatever the reason for the rubric for which he makes this elaborate lean (the origin and intent of which I don’t know and will leave to the priests to debate), his style of doing this rubric is over the top.
Nevertheless. I’ve heard that whatever bothers us on the outside usually means there’s something we need to change on the inside. Ultimately, no one else can “ruin” our experience of Mass – or anything – unless we let them. A moment of annoyance or even rage at someone else kindles a wedge, a thorn in us that always gets caught in the witchy branches of others’ unchanging actions; and which needs to be sanded. Contemplating something downright frustrating at liturgy is just another opportunity for us to learn how to let go of being bothered by frustrating things, a chance to ask for peace to accept what we cannot change.
(And just to say that my parish priest is not personally rigid, but rather warm and kind, someone you want to be with.)
The mass we went to is exactly the mass we had to go to at that time. The church as it is, here and now, is exactly as it should be right now. God only acts in things as they are. If the recent restrictions imposed on the Latin Mass disturb us in a cataclysmic way, then these restrictions were aimed directly at us, to shake a festering wound in the soul. Accepting reality exactly as it is, not resisting the truth of a given moment, not fighting what we cannot change is the only way to completely break down the border walls at the entrance to grace. of God into the fearsome territory of the soul.
God enters the thin places, where we are frayed, disturbed, helpless, and there he does the deep work of purification, of recovery, of redemption.
I am not writing any of this about the beautiful metaphysics of mass and church to recruit any self-exiled Catholic to the pew. There is no expected result here. But perhaps it is good to know that, whether we are present or not, this banal and sublime ritual continues; the candles flicker, the smoke rises, the altar server yawns ; mercies are implored, Samaritans honoured, guests uplifted. The mass continues, everywhere, and, in a way, wherever we are, it is always present to us.