On Going to Mass

I went to mass yesterday for the first time since the new pope was chosen. I’ve been thinking about if off and on since then — when I wasn’t busy looking through my voter pamphlet and wondering if I should vote in favor of the City of Berkeley recommending to Congress that Bush be impeached (why not?) or making lentil soup (very tasty; happy to give you the recipe if you want).  But back to church.

As a child, I often felt I could not survive the crushing boredom of mass, that I would simply disintegrate from the weight of sitting still and listening to the same thing said over and over. But I also loved the church. It was a mysterious and quiet place — — that is to say, sacred — in a way no other institution I knew about (mostly school) could ever be, except maybe the library.  One year, shortly before Easter, sitting in the pew wearing shiny black mary janes, I felt as though the church and my body were made out of the sunlight that came in the windows above me. I suppose what I felt was a mixture of awe and a sense of being completely loved: nothing I did condemned me, nothing I was could hurt me. (And yes, this was an experience I had before I went to confession for the first time.)

But beyond that one moment of golden light, what really makes me Catholic, and so a person who returns over and over to the church despite all the ways in which it has has betrayed us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are the stories I heard as a child. The miracles — loaves and the fishes, wine at a wedding, the dead coming back to life, walking on water. And wonderful Old Testament rages, and famines and floods and the destruction of cities and oldest boy children (being the fourth child and a girl, I particularly found these sorts of stories interesting.) There’s something primal about the bible. I know that, because I often felt when I sat in church, listening to the readings, that I’d dreamed them before.

As much as the seasons, the liturgy locates you within the  cycle of birth and death and rebirth. In fact, the liturgy is more reliable than the seasons, because it is the same no matter where you live.  And so you can always tell from the readings, what will happen next in your life:  Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter. These events, particularly Christmas, always had a powerful spiritual component that took some of the sting out of the disappointments that come from their secular and material celebration.

But now, I rarely go to mass, although our parish is home to a liberal university church, one where people actually do things to help those who suffer from economic and social injustice. Even in the company of so many people who see the world in a loving and generous way, I am still well aware of how much damage the Catholic church has done to so many of us. Most Sundays I think there are more reasons not to be Catholic than there are to be Catholic. Most Sundays I don’t go. I often think I should make a complete break with Catholicism and simply stop going. Forever.

Instead, I’ve done the opposite. I’ve had my sons baptised. I took my oldest sons to catechism and made sure they were prepared for First Communion. I can’t quite explain why I’ve done this, although I’ve been thinking about it for several days. The closest I could get to an explanation is that I don’t want them to miss the experience of grace, the one I had that spring day when I was small. I think of that moment fairly often and it gives me something I would not want to do without. Perhaps it’s a false experience, partaking more of the institution that’s so often been false than of something else, something sacred that exists outside the church and can’t so easily be dismissed. Certainly, that kind of sacredness lives other places. But it’s so rare that I don’t want to lose touch with the version of it I knew first.  And I want my children to have access to it. That’s the best I can do, this Monday.


24 thoughts on “On Going to Mass

  1. I left the Catholic church as the age of 17 and never went back. Instead, I joined a very conservative Bible Presbyterian Church and for years attended that church or various and sundry Baptist churches. Then I got divorced. I stopped attending any sort of church. That lasted for about 16-17 years. 🙂

    Then on a spring day I had a visit from the local church at the top of my block. They knocked on my door and presented me with some light bulbs. No implicate invitation to come worship. Just light bulbs, something I could use. So that next day, I decided for the heck of it to actually go visit. Now keep in mind that we’d lived in the same house for about 8 years, and I never even once went to *any* church, let alone a local one.

    I’m still going. 🙂 So are my grandkids and my husband.

    Part of it is the lack of a liturgy. I just felt at home there.

    Now one place I did go to mass was at Notre Dame in 1992. How could I not?

    As far as having the boys experience grace, that I can’t help with. But I do believe they’ll experience it. Perhaps not in the Church, but or maybe they will find it there.

    The church has 2000 years of baggage associated with it, but as long as you accept the promise of Jesus, and the sacrifice he made for us all..

    Enough of my preaching. 🙂

    Love you always, Sister Sue (who used to want to be a nun!)

  2. This was a fascinating entry – such a different experience to my atheist upbringing, where churches were completely alien environments and I couldn’t understand why people actually believed in these ridiculous things. Hadn’t they heard of science? Interestingly, I now have quite an interest and urging towards religion, and finding that sense of peace and sacredness that you mention.

  3. Well, I go to a Christian church, albeit a very liberal one with no crosses on the walls and no emphasis on anyone dying for our sins, which, in my opinion, we have no original ones to be guilty of. But even with this liberal form, I still find Christianity’s message to be very dense, very defensive, and overly affirmative — amounting to very transparent wishful thinking about the existence of God and an afterlife, not to mention being totally out of touch with 20th century science and culture. ( I just happen to like the people at my church and their willingness to discuss difficult religious topics.) Buddhism, on the other hand is refreshing for its emphasis on basic psychology for getting through the day (though I think reincarnation, another wishful thought, pulls it down a notch). So much for where I stand–nothing I would draw a sword over. I think it worthwhile for people to be open minded enough to listen to each other’s views and beliefs and to find more and more areas of common purpose. I think Marcus Borg and John Huston are coming to Berkeley this Friday night and Saturday morning to discuss Christianity at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. They are rather objective in their views. Blogs on religion tend to have enormous feedback. Fortunately, your readers, like you, are sensitive and compassionate and likely to come to some positive and creative viewpoints. I’m looking forward to it.

  4. I’d be happy to have your lentil soupe recipe.
    Mine comes with sour cream, a pinch of ras-el-hanout and tiny specks of bacon on the surface.
    To make it a perfect velvety treat, I strain it.

    As for passing one’s religious cultural reference onto one’s children, I believe it is like languages: you pass your language onto your children, even when you are not a very dedicated linguist. They can choose another one when they are older; but growing up without one is probably something they would miss at some point 😉

    At least they will feel at home when they have to attend an organ concert in a French basilique.

  5. I go through phases where I’ll go to mass every Sunday, sometimes even for years, then phases where I’ll drop off the radar completely and stop going, again for years. I’m in an off the radar phase at the moment, my excuse is that Kiko goes crackers inside churches (well, he does) but of course now I’m on a guilt trip because it’s very important to me that he is brought up Catholic. We will have to start going to mass again, very soon.

    Weirdly, I still manage to attend the church mothers’ group every week but I can’t get my backside to mass.

    I had an experience like the one you describe. I was about 12 and doing the washing up. It was a windy day outside and I looked out of the window and suddenly knew that God existed and had this sense of complete love and acceptance.

    I also deplore the horrendous things done by the church and by people in the name of the church, but keep reminding myself that those things were done by humans not by Jesus.

  6. I was brought up Catholic-ish, in a Catholic country, by a lapsed-Catholic mother and a Communist Atheist step-father. My Dad was Jewish, but had been forced (I mean FORCED – beating with belts was involved) to ‘be’ a Catholic by his step-father as a child, and as a result was a raving atheist of the ‘personal grudge against God’ variety. I was then sent to a Church of England boarding school. Me, I wanted very badly to be a good girl, and then I wanted to rebel, and then I mellowed, and now, while I have no faith at all, I am very interested in religion, faith, how it works, how the notion of God and ritual work in people’s lives.

    In my ‘good girl’ phase I used to attend mass practically vibrating with desire to believe. But the truth is, the great transcendental experiences of my life, have never happened in church, or even so much as flavoured with any notion of God. To me, the universe itself, in all its glorious improbable complexity and vastness, has always been wonder enough. I once had a ‘golden moment of grace’ walking across a park and thinking about how far away the sun was, I have had similar moments in the Natural History Museum looking at fossils, looking up at shooting stars in Australia, swimming in a lake under green summer trees, and (of course, being me) sat in the British Library. So I don’t think of grace and transendence as being a ‘God thing’, but as a deeply human thing.

    Nevertheless, and some people think I am hypocritcal and/or bonkers, I still celebrate all the holidays in the Christian and Jewish calendar, and I still visit churches (and synagogues and temples and mosques) with feelings of awe-struck reverence and respect. Because, whether I believe in God or not, belief is the core and bedrock and heart of the cultures I live in, and the heritage that made me. I feel that the culture surrounding belief, at least, is worth preserving.

    And I think that’s quite enough under-caffeinated rambling from me for one morning. Where’s that coffee-maker?

  7. I’m happily not going to church these days, but if I were to have children (which is not in my plans), I simply have no idea how I’d raise them outside of the church — I have no model for it, since the church was so important to me growing up. I’d worry, like you, that they’d miss good things I’d experienced.

  8. Where do moments of grace from? It’s a mystery – the last time I genuinely experienced it in a religious context was in fact in a church on the occasion of my parents’ 50 wedding anniversary. I won’t woffle about the details but our relationship was a sticky and (whilst I lay no blame now at anyone’s door), as I sat there listening to the completely (to me) dead language of the liturgy, I had this strange sensation of letting go of a lot of the anger I’d felt clung onto for 20 years or more. Grace is probably the best way to describe it. The only other times in recent memory have been related to our little son. But the healing capacities of small children and their capacity to be little ‘grace’ batteries are well-documented.
    I was brought up a very strict catholic and if dudelet asks me (when he’s a little older) he’ll get an honest answer about my thoughts, beliefs and feelings relating to the Church. But culturally, one is always a Catholic at some peculiar level and it’s a part of my identity I value, despite everything.

  9. Hmmm…seems yesterday was a day of religious reflection (see my post). I always have to remind myself that churches are human institutions. When the Presbyterians (my denomination) voted against the ordination of gays, my husband and I considered leaving the church and becoming Congregationalists. A gay friend of ours who had done just that said, “No. You CAN’T. You’re the ones who have to stay and fight for change.” Now I find myself thinking that the only way to keep churches from doing horrible things is to be a part of one and to fight to keep it from doing them.

  10. I love the comfort and feeling of rightness I take from my religious practice – that sense of grace is a rare and wonderful occurance which I treasure everytime it occurs. I have not found it limited to my religious practice though, for which I am thankful – my religious practice fades in and out of regularity, but somehow grace just tumbles out of the blue from time to time, drawing me back to my faith.

    It always intrigues me to here people from other religious traditions describe their experiences of grace – how what I interpret through the lens of my faith as the boundless embrace of the Goddess is experienced so similiarly across many other religions.

    Mandarine – I think that your analogy of faith and language is a very apt one. I use it a lot myself to try and explain why I am not conflicted about practicing a magickal religion while also deeply valuing skepticism and logic. I consider my faith and religion to be one language of my life, and my love of skepticism and freethinking another – I can speak more then one language. It is trying to speak them at the same time that fails.

    And I second your request for the lentil soup recipe.

  11. What lovely thoughtful comments. Susan — Do you remember that Elvis Presley movie where he fell in love with a really beautiful nun? That’s the nun I wanted to be. Sacred and profane, all at once!
    Cee — You raise such an interesting point, which has to do with how a religion can co-exist with science and reason. I seldom go in that direction in my thinking, possibly because religion is, like art, something that seems to exist in a different place than reason.
    Hello Smokey — I’m with you. The people I like can talk about their faith without anyone ever once feeling around for where they’ve put their rapier. Our experiences with religion are so individual that it seems silly for thoughtful people musing about the role religion plays in their lives to ever feel the need to squabble.
    Mandarine, Church and food are linked in a wonderful way. I love Sunday lunch and will post something about lentil soup in a few days.
    And what a smart point you make about religion and language. If it’s part of who you are, and you are okay with it, then of course it goes down to your children who, naturally, are free at some point to make of it what they will. That’s what Madonna did, right?
    Hello Helen — I don’t have any idea how my mother managed to quell our natural tendency toward wiggling and poking long enough for us to sit through that entire hour. My youngest is only now able to do it and he’s seven. It helps that we sit way up high in the balcony where it’s okay to wiggle and you can see everything so well and — best of all — there’s a back door entrance to the large room where donuts are served every Sunday. So they get there first and feel quite good about that.
    Reed, That’s just a beautiful description of those “great transcendental experiences.” As for that step-father, what a sorry person he is to have forced a religion on a child in that way.
    Hello Dorothy — I think we do raise children with the tools that worked with us and if religion was one of them, then we don’t usually abandon it.
    Dear Dad–I’m very taken with the idea of the dudelet and others of his ilk being little grace-machines. So they are and should be. It’s some compensation for the moments of anti-grace they can also usher in!
    Emily, That’s a very interesting alignment! I loved your post. And thanks for the one about voting too. It’s a crucial election.
    Hello Anna –Another wonderful description of the spiritual dimension in our lives. Lentil soup coming up.

  12. Dear Bloglily – so nice to see you back! I was brought up in a very secular environment (although my father quietly read the bible to himself every morning while eating his breakfast) but I have often been described as a ‘Catholic manque’ (you really need the acute accent on that last ‘e’ to really make that work… never mind). I think spirituality is as much bound up with an experience of place as it is with an internal faith. In a good church one begets the other. But I don’t think that once that spirituality is inside you, you need to return to the church, necessarily, to ensure it’s survival. It’s lovely that you are giving your sons the opportunity to have the experience, and thus eventually make their own choices.

  13. BL – I remember the movie with Elvis. But the one that I preferred was the Nun’s Story. I read the book and saw the movie.

    As far as Mom keeping us in line — it had to do with the various movements during mass. There were times to sit, stand and kneel. So we could move around a bit. Plus with Mom we just didn’t.. but the boys ran around outside before and after mass.

    Our church has a coffee/breakfast bar for before, during and after church. I provide the food for that twice month on average. We provide slightly healthy foods for the kids and adults. Or at least I try to. Lots of fruits and cheese, with the occasional donut thrown in there. I just didn’t want to deal with Alyssa in church all sugared up. 🙂 We also have a section during the service that is just for the children. Remember that from when you were little? Father Lerner would take some time to talk to us about all kinds of things.

    I doubt my grandkids would eat lentil soup. But they love home made chicken noodle soup with I make with rotisserie chicken.

    I like the idea of the kids being little grace machines. Our Gracie can now say church, and knows when it is Sunday. Her new phrase is pumpkin pie! Who knows where she got that one from.

  14. I haven’t been to church since childhood, but I’ve found my new religious icon to worship on Sundays, the horse. I’ve been riding on Sundays for about two years now, and I find it a glorious and spiritual experience that is unparalleled to anything else, including sitting in a uncomfortable pew trying to will my eyes to stay open. When I ride, I find strength within myself that I never knew existed. Isn’t that what a religion should be about?
    It has also inspired my charitable side, as any good religion should, and I now volunteer with a therapeutic riding association, helping physically and mentally challenged children through riding. A true religious experience.
    My point in all this nonsense is that it’s really about finding something that brings out the best in you. Children sometimes need a little structure, and that’s why I believe parents turn to the church for help. But once they are old enough to make decisions for themselves, let them search out the one thing that fills them up and brings them joy.

  15. Ah BL– this post elicits such long, thoughtful responses. I started going to mass a few years ago after decades of scorning it. There were many things I had to put on some other shelf when I was there– all the old objections to the church, all the new objections I had to the language of the liturgy, all the bigger questions about God and science and existence and so on. I finally decided that it was right for me to go because I wanted to go– that in that wanting was something bigger and more meaningful than I could understand. So I’ve been going and it’s gotten sort of ordinary again and I think now and then, what if I just stopped? So much more convenient. Then I went again last Sunday and once more felt that stirring to tears, that feeling of being moved, that I felt when I first walked back in a few years ago.

    I went last night to an RCIA class at a very interesting Catholic church– a sort of brainy, self-conscious congregation with a diocesan priest who seems to make all his own rules about designing the mass. At least it seems that way, except that another priest told me what he does is based on his studies of early church practices. Anyway, this class was so amazing– it was focusing on the development of cult (not a bad word in this sense) among the Hebrews, who themselves had developed the concept of worship (which referred to rituals in the home, in which many people acted together to reach toward God). Not to go on and on, but it was amazing–all to explain how Christianity developed the way it did. I turned to one of the other people in the class and said, “Do other Catholic priests know this stuff and just not tell us?”

  16. This has been a fascinating conversation for various reasons for me. I came to this blog through Patry, I think, or Diana of Diaphanous, and was delighted by the post and the conversations. Growing up in Ireland, with an atheist father and an agnostic/Zen Buddhist mother was an interesting experience, and now I’ve been taking RCIA classes and have been drawn to Catholicism in a way that surprises me. A lovely conversation occured with one of the RCIA team leaders last week, when he said that he had loved a comment I had made drawing parallels between multiple religions, and then said that he’d been helped to make his decision for Catholicism by two Buddhist monks.

    I love Anna’s comment about seeing how moments of grace are interpreted differently depending on the perspective from which they’re viewed, for her from the perspective of the Goddess’s embrace. I think we’re all called to spirituality in different ways, even my physicist atheist father. When he talks about Nutrinos (don’t know how to spell them), he looks as filled with awe and wonder as anyone who might talk about a religious experience.

    For me, I want a community where it’s OK to talk about religion and spirituality, and I want to be able to make a difference towards attitudes I don’t share (disapproval of gay marriage or ordination for a gay priest, for example) by being able to be Catholic, say, and yet not prejudiced or homophobic. Like so many of you, I’ve felt moments of grace so clear and present that I can’t imagine anymore not being a part of a spiritual community.

    And Jessica, I love horses, grew up with them. I know exactly what you mean!

  17. I have hesitated to comment here as I feel out of place. I am a devout athiest. I was brought up in a Baptist tradition but fell away as I tried to make sense of science, evolution and history. I do have my spiritual moments but they are to do with nature in its wonder.
    I sent my children to a Catholic School because the eduction there was better than elsewhere. My older son has turned to an Anglican faith while second son and only daughter have chosen the athiest beliefs I did not consciously pass on.
    There are times when I (only half-) jokingly say that I am Wiccan. That Gaia is my Goddess. This does not require me to believe in an afterlife, yet it causes me to have a care for this Earth we live on and which I want to leave in as good an order as possible for my children and grandchildren.
    It seems to me that religion, or a belief in something larger is instinctive within the human race. What annoys me is the certitude with which believers in “A” condemn, and attempt to destroy, believers in “B”.
    Oh, about horses. I have my own opinion of them as well!
    Move along now, nothing to see here, the rant is over. I shall go and hide in my corner again.

  18. What a great post, which has inspired a lot of very thoughtful responses. I rejected church early in my life – I found it dull, loathed being lectured to, and didn’t find it relevant to me at all. However, I was brought up by women who were intensely “God-aware” and so have been taught to put God in my life, in my own way. I have experienced grace as you describe it in nature and in meditation and it was beautiful.

    However, my children have attended a Catholic kindergarten and I’ve noticed how much they love the structure that creates in their lives, which is of course the liturgy you mention. I think children respond very well to that, and so I will not be restricting them: if they want to go to church, I will attend church with them. When they are ready to ask me questions about my own beliefs, I will answer them honestly.

  19. Dearest BL– Grace and a sense of the sacred– what beautiful gifts to give to your children. I also strive to do this. My family rarely attended church. I was a spiritual seeker. I tried Christianity, Catholicism, meiditation,and ultimately converted to Judaism as my spiritual path. Synangogue service is much longer than mass– so they usually play in the childcare until the service is almost over. So it doesn’t happen there. I try to set the stage for it Friday nights– we have shabbat supper, candle-lighting and prayers. But the candle-lighting somehow tends to feel more pyro-manic than holy, with my little ones and the primal fascination with fire. So that doesn’t always work, but sometimes, I think a sense of peace sets in. Lately, I have been burning incense in the house and playing this wonderful kabbalistic chant music– think Jewish/ Hare Krsna fusion. And that seems to promote that sense of peace, tranquility and spirit which sets the stage for those moments of grace. Of course, my own most intense childhood experience of a sense of grace and holiness came when I was about ten, on a day when my Mom had given in to my insistence that I be allowed to wear a short sleeve wool sweater to school–by noon, it was 112 degrees out and they dismissed school early. I think there was also a third stage smog alert. I was walking home, and sat down on a tree stump to rest for a few minutes, and realized how alive the world was. I had a sense of the creation all around me, so alive in the terrible heat. I think my mom assumed I had heat stroke, but I remember it as a holy moment. But not one I want to re-create. Which is why I don’t live in the desert.

  20. You know, Bloglily, I keep starting to read this post and then I freak out. As you know, I was raised (and raised and raised) in a Catholic environment…I have deep, mixed and profound feelings about that and about religion, that I can’t really talk about it too much. At least, right now. I appreciate your thoughts here.

    You might want to check out that series that I started by Antonia White. Frost in May is the first of a quartet, and covers a girl’s years in a convent school (based on Roehampton in England) at the turn of the century. It’s very interesting.

  21. I think you’ve got it right Nancy Ruth! There’s a hugely rich amount of thinking going on here. I love hearing about the kinds of spiritual observances many people have fashioned for themselves, or found out there, or have grown up with. The one thing we all seem to have in common is some deep desire for someting beyond ourselves — what amazes me is how eloquent so many people are about this! Thanks for all these wonderful meditations on grace.

  22. The Catholic liturgy is a beautiful thing – reverent, thoughtful, deliberate. The challenge is in the repetition. It is very hard to keep one’s wits in that situation. That is, to stay focused.

    I am happy you have experienced Grace.

  23. I loved those church stories, and in fact a lot about being raised Catholic. Those things weren’t enough to keep me Catholic, but I don’t regret starting out that way.

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