I left Mark and his dad with my daughter in her hospital room yesterday afternoon so I could go to Mass at a parish on this side of town. The rest of the family will go this morning, the usual place, the usual time. Now that the 9- and 13-yo boys are both serving Mass, we have a little less flexibility than we used to.
I'm not naming names, but when I opened that door I walked into the bleakest-looking sanctuary I have ever seen.
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It isn't ugly, per se; there was a symmetry and a proportion to it that satisfied the mathematical eye. And it isn't haphazard or cluttered; clearly someone had inflicted this design with a sense of purpose. So I wouldn't call it painful to look at.
But it isn't a place of spareness and simplicity, either, which has its place, if only among monks. It is more like a basketball court repurposed as a tasteful dungeon.
The sanctuary there has no foyer; one walks through the double doors and finds oneself immediately at the entrance of the center aisle, face to face with a smiling usher handing out photocopied 11x14 sheets with a couple of hymns and the Nicene creed printed on them. The pews are arranged in forward-facing ranks. The space is a large box, with recessed can lights in the ceiling far above, pointed straight down. There are square windows crisscrossed with bars that break them into triangles, of frosted glass that filters the light to thin gray, around the very top of the walls. The total effect is very dim despite the large number of can lights. The quantity of light is enough to see by, but its quality is that of a late afternoon, with thunderclouds gathering but never releasing their rain.
The walls themselves are beige brick all the way up to the ceiling. A couple of wide rectangular pillars, the same beige brick, rise on either side of the altar area. Low on the broad face of one is bolted a dull metal Madonna-and-child, symmetrical, hooded, expressionlessly gazing straight forward from mask-like, slot-eyed faces. This piece is surrounded by tea lights each also bolted to the wall.
There is a crucifix, too small for the vast space, hanging on a surface that serves as a signifier of a reredos. This reredos rises in a peak -- so it also serves as a signifier of a sanctuary-shaped space -- and is made of vertical bands of dark wood. The bands are so high-contrast that if you gaze at them or at the crucifix for more than a few seconds and then look away, their ghosts stay imprinted on your retinas, casting stripes everywhere that then disappear.
The tabernacle is a cube with a square pattern of black squares, tucked behind the Madonna's pillar. The altar cloth is plain. Behind the altar are hung three plain narrow banners, off-center, for Ordinary Time. There is a single pot of orange mums next to the priest's chair.
I took a seat in a pew near the front. I was ten minutes early, and there were maybe five other people in the pews. I put down a kneeler and tried to kneel on it, but the kneeler was set so close to the pew in front that my pregnant belly could not fit, so I had to sit back down.
An older man carrying an iPad and wearing a tie was dashing about asking questions; his voice echoed in the space, muffling his words, but it was clear enough that he was tasked with filling vacant slots, perhaps trying find a parishioner who would agree to serve as lector. He leaned over and asked a question of the woman behind me; she said she didn't have her reading glasses. Meanwhile, parishioners were starting to come in through the double doors from the parking lot. They spoke to each other and the reverberating rumbles of their voices in the bare brick box grew louder and louder, their words still indistinct.
"Father." The one clear word came from behind me and startled me so that I half turned. The speaker was a youngish man seated in a pew back and to my left, leaning forward over a metal rubber-tipped cane. I supposed he had been greeting the priest, whom I could not see but who might have been the man dressed in a black short-sleeved shirt and black pants disappearing just now behind the reredos. When I turned the young man with the cane stared back at me and I turned back, a little embarrassed.
Even though the space objectively offended my sight and hearing, something about the sanctuary atmosphere felt weirdly appropriate. I have had a bleak sort of week, starting out by missing Mass in favor of signing in to the emergency room downstairs. I have been plunged into knowing what it is to be sinful and sorrowful; I think a piece of the Memorare has fallen into place for me this week. I have been tired and afraid and lonely, and anguished, and watched my daughter be tired and afraid and lonely and hurting. I have not done any of the things I meant to do this week, and I find I don't care.
So I sat there and thought: Maybe this is perfect, the cherry on top. I get to go to Mass here in this place. God is here too, and I know that, and maybe this is just the reminder I need, that God is in the bleak places.
I sat back, thinking to myself in an Eeyore sort of way, that it was a rather satisfying end to the week.
Then the dashing-about man walked up from the side and put the book of the gospels on a stand at the edge. Next the priest, vested, came out in front and announced that the pianist had not shown up and so the Mass would be "somewhat abbreviated." "Please rise," he said cheerfully. And he climbed right up the steps and launched into "The Lord be with you."
And Mass started, processionless, music-free, chant-free. Readers, there was no Gloria, not even a spoken one. There was no Alleluia, not even a spoken one. I found myself somewhere sparer even than Lent.
Well. I wasn't even sure if this was allowed, but I guess (in an Eeyore sort of way, or perhaps by now we were crossing into Marvin the Paranoid Android territory) it was even more satisfying than I had originally thought.
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The readings being the story of Aaron and Hur holding up Moses's arms until Joshua defeats the Amalekites, and the parable of the widow pestering the corrupt judge until in exasperation he rules in her favor, the homily turned out to be an exhortation on spiritual persistence.
Afterwards, after kneeling for a brief prayer of thanksgiving (well, sort of, with my butt on the pew to make room for my belly), I determined to leave quickly and quietly, getting back to my daughter. I remembered what St. Francis de Sales wrote in the Introduction to the Devout Life:
When you have finished your meditation, take care to keep your heart undisturbed lest you spill the balm it has received: in other words, keep silence as long as possible and transfer your attention to other things quietly, trying to retain the fruits of your prayer as long as you can.
A man who carries a vessel full of some precious liquid walks very carefully, looking neither right nor left but straight ahead to avoid stumbling over a stone or making a false step, making sure that the vessel is well balanced.
This is how you must act after prayer, trying not to be too quickly distracted; for example, should you meet someone you must speak to, accept this as unavoidable, but keep a guard on your heart, so that you spill as little of the balm of prayer as possible.
As I passed by, the young man with the cane looked straight at me and said: "God bless you."
I looked back at him and replied automatically, "You too." I didn't stop but went on out to the car, pondering, hefting my balm.