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.