Sunday, March 1, 2009

What's in a Name?

One liturgical year ago, I started attending daily mass. I began by going with a contingent from my office on Ash Wednesday, and continued as a Lenten discipline, finding that services at the downtown parish were convenient to my working schedule.

Once Lent was over, and I was free from Lenten discipline, I found myself asking why I should stop going. I’d proved to myself that I could arrange my schedule to permit attendance, and I’d begun to discover the grace that comes from placing one’s self frequently in the presence of the Lord. Besides, I had come to enjoy the quiet, intimate nature of daily mass.

The downtown parish is not my own and I knew no one at the services. Because I had to hurry off to work when mass was over (and because I cherish the notion that if I work hard at it, I can scuttle through life unobserved, unmolested, and never once having to talk to a stranger), mass had a solitary, individual quality to it. It was very much a time when I was alone with God, with time out of an otherwise busy day to stop, be still, and reflect.

The time stolen from the day was for glorious privacy, burnishing my prayer life and soaking up the daily readings. I should have been reflecting on the fact that Christian faith is not, and probably never can be, a completely solitary pursuit. Without my realizing it, I was becoming a part of a new faith community.

I never introduced myself to anyone, but one day left a request for mass intention in an envelope with a return address label on it for the priest who regularly celebrates the mass. The very next day, as he passed through the congregation, exchanging the peace, he spoke to me by name.

Until then, I never really appreciated how truly powerful it is to be called unexpectedly by name. Merely by being observant enough to remember me, and caring enough to use my name, the priest drew me into membership. I wasn’t an observer any longer, and I couldn’t remain aloof from those around me.

I noticed, for instance, that there really were two congregations for daily mass—those who came at 7 on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, and another group that came for the noon masses on Tuesday and Thursday, people either managing to get there before work or during lunch. I began to recognize faces and voices when I encountered them somewhere else. Once I heard my own name spoken, I started to listen to the names of the others, hearing bits and pieces of their lives as they came in and exchanged pleasantries with each other, or the priest. I began to pay attention not just to the mass but to the congregation. I got to know my family.

It is the custom in this particular parish for the congregation to add their own petitions aloud once the formal prayers of intercession are completed. When I really began to listen to those prayers, I realized how intimately our lives had become entwined without my ever having exchanged a single, direct word with any of them. I had come to know them, and care for them, because of the prayers we shared.

One of the older men misses his deceased wife and son terribly, and often says so not only in petition, but as he meditates not so quietly before or after the Eucharist. When he voices his grief, my own heart aches, too, because I cannot imagine losing the love of my own life. One woman prayed regularly for months for her son, without ever mentioning what distress prompted her petitions. I would add my own silent voice to hers, knowing first-hand the agony of a mother who can only pray for the recovery of a beloved child. When one day she no longer prayed for him, I overheard her tell the priest that he was better. My heart gave a little leap of thanks.

There are several who pray regularly for an end to abortion and divorce. Another has a heart for the troops, our military, our nation. Someone else reminds us regularly to give thanks for the good things that happen to us, anticipating that it will help see us through “when times get rough.” Still another recalls events in that particular parish: weddings, baptisms, confirmations, deaths, with a call for us to grow in holiness. There is always a voice praying for fallen away Catholics to return to the Church, another for vocations. Yet another prays for those we have injured and those who have injured us. Each of us puts forth what is in his own life and heart and together, we manage to pray, in one way or another, for all of God’s people.

It has taught me how corporate Catholic life and faith and worship are. It illustrated with great clarity that, with God’s grace, we can come together in one beautiful whole and we can do so without needing to know—in the conventional, social sense—very much about each other. It reminded me that we can create great strength out of our needs. And it all happens because Someone call us each by name and invites us in.

1 comment:

  1. beautifully said :-)
    I wish these parishes here had a set time for their daily masses - since they don't I attend vicariously daily through EWTN ;-)