Recapturing Worship (published Spring 1994)

When I was in Catholic grade school, I was taught to kneel during the consecration of the Host and the Wine. I was in one of those schools still run by fierce little nuns who had very strict ideas of Good Behavior and Sacrilege. For instance, Good Behavior meant girls walking in straight lines up the hill to our parish church, wearing their blue felt beanies or, if they were lucky, a lace veil. Dannielle Deleo's mother gave her a pretty light blue circle of lace that Sister pinned to the top of her long brown hair before each school Mass. The rest of us had the beanies, which I thought were stiff, uncomfortable, and liable to fall off if you ran or if the wind was blowing. It was a year before someone told me that the circle of cardboard inside the beanie was meant to be taken out, not worn while you were wearing the hat.

I was a very small girl, the same size as the others, and the pews in Church came up to our chins. That meant that you had to watch Mass with your head tilted slightly upwards. This meant, too, that if you were looking at your shoes or at a secret note during Mass, Sister was sure to notice. Certainly I was terrified of the consequences of sin or Sacrilege, but I was far from living in fear of humiliation. In fact, I remember first grade as tranquil most of the time.

As part of First Communion preparation we were given a tour of the Church, which seemed huge as a cathedral from a second-grader's point of view. We were allowed to enter the sanctuary, and tiptoed on the thick blue carpet steps, past the white marble altar, to the sacristy. We were allowed to see the places where the priests dressed, where the instruments for Mass were kept, and quizzed on the names of each implement. The tour was given in the afternoon, and the lights were off, so the Church was full of shadow. A sense of holy importance hung heavy in our whispered tour. The tabernacle was pointed out to us, but we were not allowed to touch it. I remembered the Bible story about the man who touched the Ark, who was struck dead for his unmeant violation, and kept my little hands firmly in my pockets as I gazed on the little golden box. Sister told us that the inside was hung with cloth, just as the Holy of Holies was veiled in the Jewish Temple. First Communion was a very big thing, even if it was only a wafer that didn't taste anything like a Nilla wafer. When I was about to receive, my primary concern was terror over stepping forward in the wrong place, but at the last moment I wondered if it would taste salty, like blood did on skin, and felt nauseous. But the host the priest slipped on my tongue was bland and light as a bit of air. It dissolved on my tongue easily -- it did not get stuck on the roof of my mouth as I feared it might (Sister said if that happened, just keep your mouth shut until it dissolved -- under no circumstances were you to scrape it off with your fingers) -- and tasted the way I thought once that manna might have tasted. I thought to myself as I walked back to my pew (flustered in joy at having for once stepped forward in the right place) that if the Israelites had lived on manna for months, I wasn't surprised that they complained. It made tedious eating.

There was another side to my education as a Catholic -- the clandestine-seeming prayer meetings held in the lower Church on Friday nights. My parents were prayer-group regulars, and brought me to the charismatic gatherings, and, yes, the charismatic Masses. "Will everyone please join me around the altar?" the priest would ask after the offertory, and up we would go, mixed with eagerness and tension. On Friday nights, the barriers were down -- the lower Church was a House where I could run up and down the aisles and slide (oh joy!) down the sleek shiny smoothness of the pews -- run and slide. And the altar was fair game, too, during Mass. I remember curiously and hesitantly exploring the hangings on the altar with my fingertips during one Mass. All this was done furtively, because my parents did not want me fooling around during Mass. For me, though, letting down the barriers did not dispel the mystery. The altar did not become "only a table," nor the sanctuary "only a box." This can be seen in that I don't think I ever ventured into the sanctuary on my own, not unless bidden to by the priest. And although I think I might have been bold enough to touch the tabernacle once, I never did it again. I feel an innate sacredness which would be broken by casual handling, a taboo that is enormously helpful in strengthening the religious impulse. Taboos are primitive, we are told, a childish "Do Not Touch" sign; but for me, I did not get rid of my taboos, even when I was older, independent, and could have done away with them if I chose. Instead, I kept them there.

Recently, I was in a monastery with my ten-year-old younger sister and re-experienced the taboos through her eyes. The jolly young friar who was our guide offered us a tour of the Church and led my sister right up to the altar itself to explain the elaborate statues and structure of the high altar.

"Brother Patrick," she said hesitantly, "can I touch that?" She pointed to the tabernacle, "I've just always wanted to," she explained lamely.

"Certainly you can, so long as you do it reverently," said the friar, and Maria reached out a finger and traced the gold rim of the door. I wondered if she were thinking of the story of the man who touched the Ark, too, daring to see if touching the precious gold would electrocute the sacrilegious or not. Her curiosity seemed to stop there, as mine had. Now, as an adult, I needed to not touch the tabernacle or the altar, with the same passion that I needed to touch them as a child. Because I know that my mind is more arrogant and more prone to minimize: I am inclined to be a wise fool. We are protective of our mysteries.

If I were to touch the tabernacle often, casually, I would be tempted to believe the lie of my senses, which would tell me that it is only a metal box surrounding flakes of bread in a canister. But if I do not touch it, I find it easier to believe what it really is: Christ, beneath the appearances of bread and wine. Luckily I am a layperson and likely to remain one, and so can go without having to fight off the complacency the clergy face of taking the Holy One for granted, since He can be so casually handled, locked up, unlocked, distributed and disposed of. They have to face the challenge of Divine Humility in becoming passive Bread. I can adore the Divine Majesty from the pews in the ignorance of the loyal peasant.

That is why the laity are often so grieved, shocked, and angered at the abuse of the Holy Presence. They are still free to encounter Christ briefly, romantically, and freely. They are not bound to Him by marriage to the Church. When you are married to someone, romance has a great possibility of dying fast and hard. I think of one priest in the parish where I go to daily Mass who hustles through the Eucharistic Prayers brusquely and irritably, whose gestures are flurried as butterflies, and whose passion goes into sermons on social justice delivered with black accusing eyes. He seems bitter and impatient with the whole ritual, and I am inclined to judge him daily. But, thinking about it, he is spouse of the Church (though he seems to be seeking a divorce at times), and I really can't judge him.

Another sadness is the altar boys at my parish, who slouch all over the sanctuary, and handle the Chalice and Cyborium like dumbbells. Compare this with the deferential treatment of the eucharistic ministers (who are mostly female) and I can see why some people think they have a case for altar girls and women's ordination. My mother used to counter this with, "Of course women are more reverent than men. They've always been that way! But that's precisely why men are called to be priests and women are not, because men have a lot of catching up to do!"

It is certainly harder to teach little boys to be orderly and quiet and to not charge into the sanctuary as if it were a football field than it would be to teach little girls like my younger sister. But God always sees more in us than we see in ourselves, and He is determined to get more mileage out of the males than we females would think possible. The perennial temptation of women is to do the man's job for him, and the perennial temptation of man is to let her do it. But men should lay down their lives for their wives and children and become fathers. That is the call upon men -- to be fathers, physically or spiritually. And the call upon women is to support them in doing this. Neither should try to do away with the other. It is another sort of taboo.

I am trying to remember how I acquired my sense of the sacred, and I think that the term I would give this inborn, bodily, earthy piety is Jewishness. For both the Catholic and the Jewish religions are sacramental, and Catholicism borrows many of its practices freely from the Jewish religion. As I have had limited contacts with real Jewish families, I have to pause to ask the reader to excuse any ignorance in my statements.

From time to time I feel it -- something very Jewish, very much in the gut. There is a feeling in your tongue after you recite Scripture in a ritual prayer, a stillness that comes from staring for a long time at a burning candle -- you can feel the faith within you. My family was a big fan of prayers: Christian Passover meals, Polish Christmas ceremonies, Advent and Lenten prayers, Sabbath rituals for Sunday, and the Divine Office were taken up and used again and again in the seasons of my childhood. There is nothing like continuous affirmation of faith to change your soul. Participating in the ritual of faith in God, according to the seasons, changes you according to the turn of the wheel, links your self to the rises and falls of nature.

That is how we humans sense eternity, participating in the ritual, returning again and again to this place where we have been before, to say words aloud we have said before, to re-gouge the grooves in our subconscious. As in the daily prayer of the Hebrew children, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone." There is a thrill like a ram's horn blast running through these words. The very illogic of them excites and mystifies: you know that the Jew saying them could hardly say them loud enough for all of Israel to hear, yet he or she would was preaching to the Israel who did hear: themselves. As though where one Jew was, was Israel.

I do not like to pass over too quickly the heritage that was our blessed Mother's and our Savior's. There must have been a reason for all those times Christ went to the synagogue and the Mother of God recited the Shema. "The conditions must be fulfilled." That quiet respect for tradition. What I love about Zeffirelli's masterpiece, Jesus of Nazareth (I am willing to admit that perhaps it justifies the whole existence of the celluloid technology) is its tender Jewishness. The image of Jesus in a prayer shawl -- He was a Jew. How could we ever forget? Why would we want to? That sense of being part of a people, a people set apart.

Family ceremonies -- with candlelight and long prayers -- I moaned through them as a child, but looking back they seem to have been one long chain of candles, of ritual, harmonious as Gregorian chant. For us, our faith had to be more than just the Sunday Mass, and so we pulled on a wealth of Christian prayers to supplement our faith life. We held a Christian Seder meal on Holy Thursday and brought out the Advent wreath before Christmas -- we prayed a shortened form of the Office mornings, on and off according to my mother's bursts of determination that we would pray together every day. And, my favorite, we practiced the Lord's Day celebration, a simple service on Saturday evening to begin Sunday, analogous to the First Evening Prayers of the Office. We made Saturday dinner a festive meal, and began it with long prayers and the sharing of bread and wine. And although it was a casual extended grace, it had its degrees of solemnity.

In my mind, I never confused it with the Eucharist, although I did confuse it with the Seder. The Eucharist was Mass, where we knelt and worshipped the Bread: Lord's Day bread was simply bread, to be buttered and stuffed in your mouth and eaten (and if you ate too much, you lost your appetite for supper).

Now that I am older, I have strange longings. I long at times for a mass, where the priest and people are conscious of the ritual: where we can kneel and worship openly and together, raising our voices. I'm no fan of silent Masses. Nor of chatty Masses where the priest tries desperately to make everyone feel comfortable.

There is a priest at a Catholic university who frustrates me to tears by his polite request that the congregation stand for the Eucharistic prayer. The last few times he asked at a Mass I attended, I quietly knelt, crying inside of being robbed of our chance to worship. In a world where we stand up when the President comes into the room, where we stand to greet the Principal, where we stand to salute the flag and hear the Hallelujahchorus, the very act of kneeling acquires a sacred significance. If the "new theology" will not allow me to prostrate myself before the God of the Universe, my body feels as though it has lost its God. Certainly I can worship him with my mind, but for the Jew, and for the Catholic, that can never be enough.

I think, at times, that a happy medium between the twin Masses of my childhood: the charismatic and the solemn can be reached. This summer, I went to Rome, and was done over in wonder by so much that I saw. Our guide was a Swiss nun, a resident of Rome, who gave us "insiders access" with exclusive and excellent tours of the churches in Rome.

Going down the darkening streets after a day of touring, Sister suddenly pulled at my arm (it must be a Germanic thing to hold onto people's arms, I think, but no one can hold mine without reminding me of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland) and began to lead me towards a little church in the square -- a pillared and Mediterranean but unremarkable looking church. "I want you to see this," she whispered in my ears, and led me inside.

The church was full of darkness and light, space and closeness, noise and music, as rows and rows of black-haired young people stood squeezed into wooden pews, with clouds of incense rising over their heads, clouding the ancient ceiling. Their voices rose in unison in an unbearably beautiful chant. It was not complex (except that it was in Italian) but it strummed all of the strings of the heart in a single, vibrant melody. I had the experience of listening and watching with such forgetfulness that it was three minutes before I realized that tears were running down my face.

It was a Byzantine rite community at Evening Prayer, and those five minutes in a crowded church have edged out and superseded all of the memories arranged in my photographs and journals. I have no picture of it but the one in my head, and I cannot forget it.

And I wonder if that life will ever infuse our Catholic liturgies, which are aching with the weariness of revival without relief. It is possible. I think I could even stand during a liturgy with that music (I am told that the European Catholics stand) if I was allowed to sing music with that grandeur.

So I wonder, and pray, and gnaw at the edges of my nails as I type, and think. Of ways to recapture worship, that elusive spirit of liturgy. It must be possible.

If not, we are in more trouble than we imagine.


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