Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Comfort levels

I recently attended a Solemn Evensong at one of the more Anglo-Catholic churches in New York City. Whenever I'm in a "high-church" setting, I'm always reminded of the half-year I spent at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Roman Catholic parochial school in Portland, Maine. I was in the third grade.

My mother's reasons for sending me to that school had nothing to do with the religious education I inadvertently received... (I probably studied my catechism with much more zeal than was warranted, since I would never be receiving First Communion in a dainty white dress and veil like the other little girls in my class.) I was a protestant, an alien in a sea of Roman Catholics. Nobody seemed to mind, or if they did, they were not obnoxious about it. Perhaps it was felt there was still time to save my immortal soul, or perhaps the nuns simply followed Jesus' teaching to welcome the stranger.

As a class, we would attend the Stations of the Cross every Friday. I was transported to a foreign world. One whiff of the incense, the sight of all those flickering votive candles in their little red containers... the beautiful (somewhat gory) statues with their hearts exposed in their chests, tears like pearls glistening on their cheeks... something hushed and holy was present there in a way I'd never experienced in my Southern Baptist/Unitarian/Congregational checkered past.

But I was not thoroughly trained in those mysteries; I got just enough to be dangerous. I, too, learned the Act of Contrition and patiently waited to say my confession, only to be recognized and gently pulled out of line. "You aren't required to say confession, my dear."
"But I want to, I want to do a penance."
"Well then, why don't you sit over here and say the rosary. That is one of the penances."
But, even as a seven-year-old Catholic wannabe, I was a maverick, and a lazy one at that. I only said half of each Hail Mary, alternating between Hail Mary full of grace and Holy Mary mother of God, and finished in half the time. I lit ten votive candles and only added a nickel to the jar. I was definitely missing something key.

Only later would I rebel at the inconsistencies, the arbitrary rules, the church's massive wealth in the midst of poverty. I would eventually take the middle road to piety... a church with solid liturgy but not so many ways to be damned. I came to grips with what was important for me in all of the bowing and scraping before crosses and sacraments. I had to feel the reverence in my heart, or it meant nothing... to me, or to God.

Now, over-the-top pageantry will pull me out of reverence faster than a speeding bullet. And so it was the other evening... At the Eucharistic Exposition my mind wandered. I watched the solemnity with which the Holy Sacrament was transferred from the tabernacle to the monstrance, displayed in an arcing circle, then put back into its dark cabinet again. I stifled a giggle with great effort. All I could think of was
"You take the fish food out, you put the fish food in,
You parade it in a circle, then you put it back again.
You do the Hokey Pokey..."

I was a seven-year-old again, still definitely missing something key. I tried focusing on the Tantum ergo, the hymn sung during the censing... Therefore we before him bending, This great Sacrament revere; types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here... I couldn't make the connection. What newer rite? This rite is about as old-fashioned as it gets... parading around a communion wafer for everybody to adore! It's embarrassing. I later mentioned my discomfort to one of my sisters and she said simply "It's just not your style." No kidding.

I've wrestled with my knee-jerk reaction to the Exposition ritual, and finally realized that (for me) the Blessed Sacrament is only blessed if you eat it. It may be the very presence of Christ, but not until it mingles with my presence and nourishes me in a tangible, sensory way. However, I also realized that Jesus was most likely not embarrassed. (by me or for me, maybe), but certainly not from the adoration of a full congregation of people, some who find great comfort in these old ways of worship... comfort they no longer feel in their own Roman Catholic parishes.

It comes down to this: worship must be comforting, even if it is not always comfortable. And... what brings comfort to one part of the Body may tickle (or irritate) another. (I'm thinking ticklish feet or armpits as opposed to kneecaps or shoulders.) As my sister said so succinctly, it's not my style.

But deeper than that... while I could not reverence the ritual itself, I can reverence the intention. I will try to keep that in mind the next time my seven-year old starts singing the Hokey Pokey.

1 comment:

Zanne said...

Can I just say that I adore your seven-year old! (mostly because I'd be there giggling with you!)
Loved what you said about the host being blessed by eating it (might get clobbered for that when I get to seminary) because it reminds me of something one of our assoc. priests told me once about how by consuming the Body & Blood we in effect become the Body & Blood--the very presence of Christ--in the world. Really deepens the meaning and import of what we are doing and celebrating.