Yesterday I took the kids to Mass for Ash Wednesday - that "NOT Holy-Day-of-Obligation" (but nobody believes you) celebration in the liturgical calendar. People go to Mass on Ash Wednesday who may not go to Mass even for Easter or Christmas. It's that kind of a day. Exciting. Fraught with possibilities.
Anyway, I was trying to turn down the "excitement & possibilities" amongst my tribe of short people when a young-ish guy popped through the doors and glanced to the left, to the right, and then straight at me. He frowned and said with a slight tease in his voice, "Don't you do holy water anymore?" I realize that in writing that may sound rather cryptic, so I'll explain. First, by "you," I can only assume he meant, "you people, here at this parish," because I had "done" holy water as I entered the church. Our parish has a large baptismal font filled with holy water in the foyer/narthex - there are no little fonts near the doors once you come through and approach the pews. Unwittingly, my friend had walked past the baptismal font and entered the nave, expecting to bless himself inside. He was jarred by the absence of the expected little bowls. So I told him where the holy water could be found, we smiled at each other, and he went his merry way. He returned a few minutes later and, this time a little sheepishly, said, "Thanks. (pause) ...I haven't done this in a while." More smiles all around. That's a cool thing about "Ash Wednesday Not a Holy Day of Obligation But People Who Don't Normally Do This Come".
But it also reminded me of one of the most profoundly essential parts about being Catholic. People expect to know what to expect when they come to "do this" (in memory of Him). This guy, despite however long it had been since he'd been inside a Catholic church, knew there is SUPPOSED to be HOLY WATER when you first walk in. He knew it with enough certitude to be a tiny bit sarcastic when he found it missing. Everybody knows just what to expect from the Catholic Church - the same old, same old.
And so it was for me fifteen years ago, when I was poised on the brink of making a sloppy exit from the Catholic Church....bored to tears with the same old, same old. I say it was shaping up to be a "sloppy exit" because it was so entirely other than a "clean break". My attendance at Mass was spotty and listless. My intellect and emotions thrashed against a great deal of Church teaching. I was (lukewarmly and distractedly) thirsty for something spiritual, and the Catholic Church felt as dry and flat as the desert. Sometimes the music or the preaching fed that part of me that was lazily hungry, but mostly....it didn't. So I was fading off - but not seeking anything new. That kind of sloppy.
Until, an ancient cliche: one devastating event, followed by several smaller aftershocks, left me lonelier and more turbulent than I'd ever imagined possible. I was completely broken, with more raw pain and anger than I could handle on my own. I had no one that could possibly help me bear it. I didn't even have enough friends at hand to simply distract me. So, I did the perfectly cliche thing and remembered God, made time for God, clung - desperately - to God. I was still wholly uninterested in anything the Catholic Church (or any other church) had to offer, but I wanted everything God might have for me.
At that time I had so many roommates, I found that my best chance for a quiet and private place to pray was in a church - so I began dropping in to a small, pretty church quite regularly. It was always empty, silent, beautiful - a balm and a salve to the soul. I had found a place of peace. I began looking forward to that daily time of quiet prayer with the ardor of an addict. I needed that peace and I was sometimes frantic to get to my quiet church.
Thus, I was not pleased to pop my nose inside one Tuesday and find other people there. Many other people. There were not simply other people present, but there was a Mass going on. I was irritated by and resentful of the intrusion. What the heck were people doing at Mass on a TUESDAY? I was barely conscious of the existence of weekday Masses. (And why should I know about them? I'd only attended Catholic schools since kindergarten.....)
I don't know why I stayed, but I did.
I do know why I stayed. It was sheer grace.
"Taste it again for the first time." That old ad is the only way I can articulate what happened next. I limped grudgingly through the Mass, but when it was over, something inside me was - different. I went to Mass again the next day. And every single day that week. And the next week. And the one after that. Because it was the same old, same old. BECAUSE of that fact, not IN SPITE of it. But by "old," I now meant ancient...... stable......a rock upon which to rebuild my life. That which had previously been the object of boredom and contempt was becoming the source of consolation and order. And it wasn't inspiring preaching or heart-wrenching music I was falling in love with. There was no music or preaching at these daily Masses - it was simply The Mass, stripped naked of the Accessories that had formerly distracted me from The Face. The Mass became the one part of my day in which I could know exactly what to expect. And that was (and is) profoundly comforting. It is more "home" than home is. I've had a lot of homes. Any of them could be destroyed tomorrow. All of them can and have been dramatically changed. They simply don't have the permanency of two thousand years of undestroyable "sameness".
In the decade and a half that followed, I came to understand and appreciate so many things about the Mass - and the Catholic Church - things that twenty one years of Catholic education had failed to communicate to me. (I'm sure that others had tried to explain and teach me some of these things, but for the most part, all I had heard was blah, blah, blah.) No one can understand or explain the Church except by loving her first - just as no one can truly understand or explain any woman except by loving her first! In pain I learned to love the Mass, and from that, all else followed.
All of this was brought back to me yesterday, by the man who had not "done this" in a long time, and by his shock that possibly something might have changed during his absence. For better and for worse, the Catholic Church is not known for change, or novelty, or trends, or....surprise. Which is, I think, at the heart of the absolutely shocked reaction to Pope Benedict's announcement this week. Or else, why on earth would it surprise anyone when a frail and elderly man retires? But whether you are a non-Catholic, an "orthodox" Catholic, or a "liberal" Catholic, you just don't expect something other than the same old, same old from the Catholic Church. We expect an elderly, white-haired pope - and we expect him to keep pope-ing along until he eventually dies and another elderly, white-haired pope is elected. The whole world expects a certain stability from Rome, whether we realize it or not and whether we like it or not! We hear that the Church should change this, or change that, or get with the times....but then there is such shock when the Pope "retires" (or the holy water is moved). We live in an age of rapid and prolific change, of much instability and uncertainty, with loss and pain always hovering over us - I think that deep down, we need to know that there is something tangible in this world that will always be there.....the same. I think that something is the Church. And I surmise, from the relief on the face of Mr. "Haven't Done This in A Long Time" - as well as from his hasty retreat to the Holy Water font - that the same is true for him.
this video is absolutely HI-LA-RI-OUS! click below to view.