Mass Report

A strange thing happened when I attended Mass last Sunday.

My wife is in the hospital on bedrest (with pregnancy complications, but all is well) so I went to mass at the parish near the hospital. From the two or three times I’d previously attended mass at this parish, I had lumped it into a pigeon hole in my mind labeled: “Den of heresy, mediocrity and weirdly unpleasant architecture.” It’s one of those places where the pews are arranged in a circle and everyone insists on refraining from referring to God by a male personal pronoun (or by a female one for that matter, to be fair). The ceiling is an upside down funnel, with a tiny skylight at the narrow end that just barely shines in the dimness of the place.

As I left my wife’s bedside, I said, “I guess I’ll go to mass at S__________ even though I hate it.” Since I was late as usual, I hopped in my car and drove the two blocks to the church. As I pulled into the parking lot, my earlier assertion of “I hate it” was reverberating in my head. “But Christ is there, that’s the main thing,” I was thinking. I was wondering if Christ suffers being in such a place. I was questioning, a little, my limited view of the question, assuming Christ’s view transcended my own petty concerns and aesthetic sensibility. But on the other hand there really are matters of truth and goodness and beauty at stake here, so maybe he does suffer it. That was the warp and drift of my thoughts as I pulled into a spot at the back of the lot (near the upscale Catholic old folks home adjacent to the church) and hopped out of my car.

A woman had just got out of a minivan nearby and I was glad to see I wasn’t the only late attendee. But then, ahead of me by a few steps, she veered to the right, away from the inverted funnel church and towards the little brick building next door, the administrative office of the church perhaps. Something hit me at that moment — and I haven’t ruled out that it could have been the Holy Spirit. In any case, I was suddenly struck by something good in the air. Maybe it was just the first hint of spring and I was duped by it, thrown off my critical high horse, but there was a definite whiff of goodness in the air, and it surprised me. I continued on into the church in the middle of the Old Testament reading. I joined another late arriver waiting at the door to the sanctuary, and then found a place under the funnel and behind a trio of folk musicians.

That sense of goodness that had hit me in the parking lot stayed with me throughout the mass. There was a new priest there since I’d last visited, one who seemed slightly twitchy in a way that evoked humility and holiness and a touch of awkward but real grace. The homily was delivered by a deacon who talked about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, citing the examples of John Paul II visiting his would-be assassin and Mother Theresa laying down her life for the poorest of the poor. He said we should pay close attention when we prayed that part of the Our Father where we say “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We sang a hymn by the anathema Haugen, but it was a hymn I’d not heard before and it was based on the wonderful Breastplate of St. Patrick; and although, yes, you could say Haugen had bastardized St. Patrick’s prayer, watered it down like he waters down everything he touches, the song still managed to participate in the power of the original. And that’s how the entire experience struck me: that at any moment the power of what we have at our disposal, the deposit of faith, the Spirit that blows where it will, may reassert itself when we least expect it. That is my hope.


  1. This might come under the heading of rending your heart, with an open heart you were able for the Spirit to move in you and you could see that even when you least expect it the Body of Christ does exist.

    What an awesome story, thanks for sharing. I will keep your wife in my prayers.

    BTW Gerard Majella
    is a great friend in times like these.

  2. The Ironic Catholic says

    I hope your wife and child are OK.

    A very good story and reminder not to stereotype parishes.

    Flannery O’Connor found grace is much stranger places.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Angelic and Ironic (my two favorite Catholic blogwenches), thank you. I love the Saint Gerard link. Speaking of irony, there is often a wonderful strain of irony in how patron saints are chosen and this one is a classic. And the Flannery O connection is quite pertinent here, too.

  4. Rufus McCain says

    Btw, you can check in on my wife here. Thanks for your prayers and good wishes.

  5. Rufonius

    I took a look at the wife’s site. Tough going. I will pray for her and the new baby. Nice essay, well done.

  6. Rufus McCain says

    Thank you Anna. And I like that Latin thing you did with my name. I may have to demand to be called that from now on.

  7. KathleenLundquist says

    Hi there – followed your link from CAEI.

    Thanks – I was blessed by this. My husband and I are nearing the end of a long, agonizing struggle to leave a parish just like the one you described – and the grace that you found there is a great encouragement to me. I pray constantly to St. Athanasius as I cantor for Mass (yes, that mostly awful contemporary stuff), and I think he helps. I too have been visited unexpectedly by Good Things I Can Relate To when my eyes have been open(ed).

    Keep on keepin’ on. I’ll visit again.

  8. IronicCatholic says

    See, here’s the thing–next to the transcendent beauty of God, we *all* sound like babbling idiots. Even Palestrina.


    So getting *too* uptight about liturgy seems self-defeating at best and God-blocking at worst.

  9. Rufus McCain says

    Thanks for dropping by Kathleen. I really enjoyed your Flannery O’Connor pilgrimage piece in Godspy. In fact we linked to it here awhile back.

    And I find it interesting that this entry has now resulted in two saint recommendations, first Gerard Majella and now Athanasius. (Well, and St. Flannery makes three, if I may.)

    Ironic: I agree in principle, but … and it is an enormous “but” — it’s not that I want something extraordinary or fancy. Maybe I don’t even want Palestrina (although I probably do). I want John the Baptist pointing to Christ and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God!” And I want St. Paul knowing nothing but Christ and Him crucified. And the liturgy and the tradition give me that in spades, but — I hate to lay it all at the feet of the clergy and the seminaries, but didn’t something go awfully wrong back in the 70s, which culminated in the scandals and bankruptcies of late, and from which we’re just beginning to recover? The sex abuse scandal is one face of it, the overarching lameness of so much of parish life is another.

    See, now I’ve gone and spoiled my happy little blog entry.

  10. The Ironic Catholic says

    I know what you mean. I don’t have as big a beef with contemporary liturgy per se; I was actively involved in it for years and think it is done quite well at my current parish. Perhaps the bigger issue is that, in most parishes, there is the pervading sense that “we just don’t care.” Apathy. Ennui. Forgetting that we’re participating in a divine liturgy that saved the cosmos; treating it like tea time with a groovy musical backdrop.

    I have been thinking about death, in particular, who will be there when I die, who will help me, if anyone. (So help me, I read Kierkegaard my entire undergraduate life.) My husband has recently been a catechist at our church, teaching a mini-course called “What Happens When We Die?” to teens and adults. The course mostly reflected on doctrines and interpretations of heaven, hell, and purgatory, but he did ask a local Christian hospital chaplain in to speak. Apparently she spoke of needing to know your values and spirituality, and if you knew those things, that bode well for a good death.

    That reminded me of a young friend going through Clinical Pastoral Education en route to ordination, and her revelation about hospital chaplaincy was that you just listened and repeated back what the patient said. Carl Rogers at the death-bed. Mind you, I think Rogers was brilliant, but pure patient-directed counseling as said patient lies ill and in pain seems almost sadistic. “I’m in pain and really scared,” he says. “Really? In pain and scared, you say?” says the 22 yr old CPE student. Please. If I were the patient, I’d be tempted to take that last bit of energy and throw my bedpan at said counselor. Then die, choking out the words “Get … a … spine!”

    Not that I have any control over this…but when I die, I want someone to remind me about the love of Jesus Christ. I want someone to ask me about repentance and offer reconciliation. I want someone to challenge me that the best is yet to come, that this suffering joins me with Christ, and like his suffering, it is not the last word. God is here and God will be there and has already broken my path for that journey. I want to receive the anointing of the sick, and be told that God will raise me up. I don’t want someone asking if I’m “in touch with my values.” And especially if I am weak and in pain, I hope the person helping me have a holy, joyful death will not expect me to “take the lead.”

    But if that does not happen, God will be there anyway. The Holy Spirit will not leave us unattended. Those thousands of pleas to Mary to pray for us at the hour of our death will not go unheeded.

    But this is a little like the lackluster liturgy issue. You expect more, want more, out of this community dedicated to Christ. And it should be more. The liturgy may not be exquisitely rendered, but it should be participated in such a way that one senses joy, or awe. We want the liturgy and all death-bed relationships (are they not similar? are we not all in this death-struggle to give birth, through the Holy Spirit, to a transformed self?) to tell us the truth in love, to hold our hand, to give us some opportunity to thank and praise God for his goodness.

    Yet the Holy Spirit works through much less. Maybe especially so, to take Miss Flannery seriously.

    I’m not sure what the point of this is, other than perhaps…thank you, God. Have mercy on us, God.

    See, I went and got all long-winded and professor-y. Ah well.

  11. Rufus McCain says

    Wow. Yeah, I’m taking notes, IC. Putting it in terms of how you’d like to be treated when you lie dying really puts it in perspective. The bullshit really stands out starkly then as bullshit, doesn’t it. I’m going to print out your comment and save it to hand it out when I’m on my deathbed.

  12. Anonymous says

    I hope nobody's on their deathbed; at time, the blog seems quite energetic.

    Nicely written, thanks.

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