When I go to Mass on Sunday, I am in the midst of my own life, and what I need on a particular morning may not sound like anything described in a document of Vatican II. No, I am not always attentive to each reading. No, I am not always conscious of the actions of the celebrant. No, I am not always aware of the offering that is being made on the altar or the meaning of the communion to which I am invited to take part. I am in the midst of my life, and what I choose to do on most Sundays is simply bring that life into a setting and a context that I know has been helpful in the past and may prove helpful again.
At this point in my life, my attendance at Sunday liturgy is fairly regular. There have been times when I have found it hard to be in a Catholic church or in any church. I have come to accept, however, that there is more for me to gain by staying with a behavior that I began long ago for good reasons than to abandon it with no replacement in sight.
And then there is the growing sense over the years that God is ready to meet me in this setting if I want to meet him here.
Why I come to church may vary from Sunday to Sunday. Why any one of us comes may be different from why the person down the pew from us is there on a particular Sunday. Or it may be the same reason.
Sometimes I go to Mass to be distracted. The idea may strike you as odd. Wouldn’t you more readily understand if I started talking about how easy it is to find myself distracted during Mass, unable to pay attention to what’s happening on the altar? But I’m talking about the reality of the choice I get to make as an adult on how I will spend my Sunday morning, a choice that may take me away from home and newspapers and a long breakfast and sometimes a spouse or family or a group of friends. I’m talking about those times when I consider whether this might be the Sunday that I do not change out of my sweats and do not get in my car and do not leave early enough to be sure to find a parking space.
So what might get me out of the house and into a church pew? I might be worried about the results of a medical test and I am looking for a way to make the time pass more quickly. I might be hurt by something that a spouse or friend has said or done, and I take advantage of Mass to get away from having to interact for part of the long Sunday in front of me. I might be angry about a situation at work that will make me look like an incompetent Monday morning, and two hours at Mass might seem capable of giving me perspective or lowering my blood pressure. At one point in my life, I might have been guilty about how little energy I felt able to muster for an upcoming visit to an elderly parent, and I was looking for a diversion to help me stop beating myself up about that. I might be upset that my plans for a weekend activity got trumped by someone else’s preferences – again, and I need a place and time to sulk without seeming to. My experience is that sometimes I bring my life to Sunday morning in church because I want to escape what that life is feeling like – or I need to figure out what it’s feeling like.
Sometimes I go to Mass to be challenged. I know that the world is bigger than my own needs, bigger than the foreign policy goals of my nation, bigger than the view of life according to which some people that I have succeeded in not knowing feel constrained to run their lives. Going to Mass, I can expect from time to time to be reminded of all the ways the world has not been a garden that people cultivate with ease and a confident awareness of opportunity. I can expect from time to time to hear young people and adults report about the weeks they have spent in an unfamiliar setting with the goal of making someone else’s life better. I can expect from time to time to watch someone during Mass negotiate a wheelchair, an unusually unruly child, an angry awareness of the structural patriarchy of our church to which so many continue blind or needlessly resigned.
Going to Mass, I can expect the invitation to respond to Gospel stories about the difficulties of widows and deaf-mutes and prostitutes and lepers and beggars and cripples and tax-collectors and those in the grip of despair and those in the prison cell of mental illness. Going to Mass in a downtown parish, I can expect that I will move and pray amid the diversity of an urban population who do not need to ever stop surprising me by the clear evidence of their exposure to neglect or their stubborn refusal to dress like me or talk like me. Sometimes going to Mass seems the one sure place to which I can expect to return week after week and be made aware of the needs I am tempted to dismiss or forget or ignore the rest of my week.
Sometimes I go to Mass to be greeted and welcomed. It is not everyone in my life who knows and understands the need I feel to go to church – and a Catholic church at that – and sometimes I go to Mass for the company of other people who have known that need.I can go to grocery stores and bus stations and movie theatres and no one there has to greet me or recognize me. In fact, I usually prefer that they don’t. I am content to be John Q. Public on certain ventures outside my home – including online ventures. Privacy counts. If I yield that privacy, I want to know that I am yielding it and to whom and, if possible, for how long. I always ask why a salesclerk needs my phone number before I buy something at certain stores. I know that I have become sensitized to the ways people can learn things about me that they can use for their own ends and at my expense if necessary.
How different to go into a church and find that I am recognized and greeted – even by people who do not know my name or where I live or how I make my livelihood! There are few places in my life where I have regularly brought more of myself than a church. I go to a church because it is safe to be sad there, safe to be serious, safe to be confused, safe to be angry and frightened. The company of people while I am that sad or serious or frightened brings an unusual kind of comfort, and there is no describing how a simple nod, a handshake by someone who may or may not know my name, a squeeze of the hand at the Kiss of Peace consoles and strengthens.
Sometimes I go to Mass to be moved by beauty. Remember my talking about the moment on a Sunday morning when I can debate within myself whether to forego newspapers and a longer breakfast and an hour or two more in sweats? I have to admit that I am no longer at the stage in my life when church architecture or concert-quality choirs automatically trump the casual pleasures of the breakfast table.
I’m going to make a distinction here, though, and tell you that the beauties to which I am most partial in a church on Sunday morning are the beauties of memory. I am going to invoke the notion of involuntary memory made famous by Marcel Proust. I am going to tell you that I do not know in advance that anything particularly memorable in the aesthetic sense is going to happen at a Mass on a particular Sunday morning, but I am no longer surprised when it does. Most often it comes in singing a hymn or psalm, and without any planning or conscious preparation I meet a younger version of myself singing these words when other challenges faced me – the fresh grieving of a lost parent or the moment when I knew I had to find another way of leading my life. Sometimes the sudden pleasure comes from looking at one of the statues or stained-glass windows and being reminded of other churches and the way light filtered through another window or the sense of devotion that a vase of flowers before an earlier image of a saint communicated to me.
I am going to be cautious, however, and leave you with your own experiences of beauty, the beauty of music, the beauty of icon and incense, the beauty of ceremony and ritual movement, the beauty of vestments and lofty church ceilings. How your heart and mind responds to that part of a religious heritage will communicate something important about what you ask church to be for you on a Sunday morning.
Lastly, I go to Mass to be fed. I may start sometimes by wanting distraction, I may stay in response to challenge, I may warm to welcome and greeting, I may thrill to the beauty of a centuries-old liturgy coming to life. There is usually a point in any Sunday Mass, though, when I admit that I have come to church to experience in my core the scriptural truth captured by Dan Schutte in the refrain of “Table of Plenty”: “God will provide for all that you need, here at the table of plenty.” The memory is fresh for me of the recent Sunday when I sang these words at the 11 o’clock Mass. It had been a painful morning for me, an awkward time for my heart. What do I do, God? What should I think of this time in my life? The refrain of the hymn sung during the Presentation of Gifts that Sunday moved suddenly out of generic Isaiah into life line. Yes – I seemed to understand immediately and unmistakably – neither alone nor forgotten, I am where I can be, I am where I need to be. It was the experience of being fed what I needed. It was the experience of being fed from a table of plenty. It was the promise kept once again – that I can live my life and trust that I will get what I need.