I don't go to Catholic mass often anymore, but I went today. Aaron's Aunt works at the Phoenix diocese downtown, just a few blocks from my office, and Bishop Nevarez was saying mass today at noon. It's the beginning of the Catholic Church's Fortnight for Freedom, and I will add my prayer to that.
I hesitate to talk about how I feel when I walk into a Catholic church because the last thing I mean to do is demean the Church into a frilly little nostalgia. It is a serious, and a holy place, just as God's presence anywhere is; and I do not mean to say that the feeling of home and mystery that pushes on my lungs when I walk inside is just some lovely sentiment of a 'bygone' time in my life and nothing more.
So please do not assign any condescension to this, but walking into the basilica today was, as always, a change in the air for me. It is a different time and place in there. The smoke curling from the spicy incense; the organ which always, for me, has a certain 'outdatedness' about it, but instead of that making it less serious, it makes it even more so. The stained glass windows were beautiful. Nuns. Nuns! Holy water, whipsers, stillness.
It's frightening in an electric way - like staying up past your bedtime - but it's so reassuringly commonplace. That juxtaposition of emotions is, alone, a spark of electricity. Awe and wonder and a little bit of fear and the knowledge that you're safe; that just as there are no answers, there are, too, no surprises; this is religion.
It makes me remember being the altar girl; finding the shortest robe in the sacristy and praying the entire time I wouldn't drop the wine. It makes me think of singing at all those parish weddings - in my dark maroon dress with the sparkles and my mary jane shoes, wondering what I'd do with my $50 wedding fee and wrinkling my nose at the song in between readings that talks about "filling your house with children" - I was much more of a 'feminist' back in 6th grade. It makes me think of staring at the stained glass windows at St. Louis, wondering what Mom would make me for lunch that day and whether the sunflowers in the backyard had bloomed yet; and whether Mary was real and if she cared about me.
The incense especially makes my head swim with the Notre Dame basilica in South Bend - 8 years old, terrified, quiet whispering, wondering if Someone would appear to me. St. Catherine of Siena's bones - she wrecked me and then I saw her dust. She's just lying there! And what was I doing?
I went through the mass today, conscious of my ever-shifting focus, which I fought for so much of my childhood. I never understood how the Catholic mass seemed 'long' to some people - most protestant services are actually much longer - but I think the mass always seems short because I know exactly what's coming, and when. It's the same way that running 40 minutes feels like 5 when I know when I'm starting and when I'm stopping; but if I take off through the neighborhood without a watch on I can barely make it 3 minutes without getting irretrievably winded.
It was a lovely mass, and I still get the urge to call my mother and say "Mom! I saw the bishop today!" which is perhaps a consequence of growing up in a tiny town where the bishop was a celebrity who made rarely an annual appearance. But he was short and sweet with his homily, reminding us that we're a country of freedom but are in danger of losing it, and that we are killing our babies and can't be quiet about it, sign of the cross, close the book, back to the chair. Imagine what that would sound like to unaccustomed ears? We're killing our babies? What?! And he's just sitting back down?!
Mass reminds me of taking things seriously. Knowing God is bigger than me and my pithy little revelations in my sprial bound journal; I will never fully know Him and there aren't enough seconds in a lifetime to fill it all in. The fearful mystery of Catholicism and the reverence with which its people celebrate mass is a beautiful thing, for that reminder and for the way it has survived so many self-involved centuries and will surely survive several more, including this one.
I am delirous at the thought that our trip to Israel in a few months could be this feeling, magnified to an unimaginable maximum. I'm terrified of it.