I had the best of intentions, despite where that tends to lead…I was going to get there early, and say a rosary or walk the Stations. As it was, and so often is, my best laid plans were upset on the afternoon of the Chrism Mass. My Korean bonus baby, a Catholic for not quite a year, took one look at the sea of priests, deacons and seminarians streaming toward the Cathedral and exclaimed, “I am so excited! This is so wonderful!”
I realize that I am supposed to maintain a certain sense of ecclesial dignity at my age, and so I was stunned realize that butterflies were holding a tango contest in my innards—and I hadn’t even entered the building yet. I managed a measured “It really is,” when every fiber of my being wanted to jump up and down and cheer. “So wonderful” didn’t begin to cover it.
Once inside, all my plans for of preparation disappeared—at least in the calm, conventional, well-ordered way I usually get ready for mass. I was overwhelmed by sights and sounds and sense. I was literally awestruck, dumbstruck, rapt. I could do nothing more than sit and experience it all, let it cover me and get lost in its intricacies. All my Lenten thought, all those carefully prepared devotions, the customary conversations in my head with my God simply vanished and I was just there, with Him and with His. An unusual situation for a woman whose life centers on thinking and doing, just to sit and be, timeless and completely engaged, body, mind and soul, in worship.
Later in the week, I would remind myself, in thought, in liturgy, in word and in image of the night Christ gave us both Himself in the Blessed Sacrament and the priests to perpetuate it. But this day, I lived it, really lived it, in all of my being, not just in the dusty fields of my intellect.
Anyone who doubts our faith is truly Catholic had but to be there. It’s no mere intellectual experience, a mass like this. There was an oncoming tide of white chasubles set off in blue, the cloth that marks these men as part of Christ Himself. Covered with His identity, they still radiate clearly their own gifts and self. I know some of them now, and something about their own individuality: The one who plays the pennywhistle and the piano, making music as naturally as I speak. The one who was walking his grey-haired terrier mutt before the service. The one who is self-conscious about a missing nail. The one who smokes a pipe. Tall men and short. Fair men and dark. Old men and young. Cradle and convert. Americans and immigrants. One whose wry sense of humor is known to anyone who has ever met him caught my eye and smiled—smiled! All in one place, one flock, one shepherd, gathered to be part of the blessing of oils and a rededication to the priesthood, entering to the sounds of a gifted choir, situated above our heads, fine music spilling over us all. Now I understand the concept of a celestial choir: haunting, beautiful music heard and physically experienced while the music-makers remain hidden from view.
I would marvel at the number of these men when they gathered around the altar to concelebrate with the Bishop—too many, almost, to fit, a physical reminder that I am but a small part of something and Someone much greater than I. Surrounded by grandeur—profound music, fine cloth, the gold on and above the altar and glittering in the background of the stations, the great vault of the Cathedral itself, it was impossible to even attempt to reduce the God I was there to worship to my own terms. I am so small and He is so great, and yet, here He was, inviting me in intimacy.
And it was not just the sights that overwhelmed, nor the sounds, but the smells. The oils were brought forward in immense silver containers, a priest on either side, preceded by the pitchers of balsam that left the faintest aroma of sweetness to linger in the air as they passed. Incense from the altar drifted back. Smells surrounding me like God Himself, insistent, present and perceptible but invisible and impossible to escape even had I wanted to. And I did not.
Thinking back, I can’t tell you very much about the content of what I heard, for I was too busy worshiping. Giving thanks for this Church and these men and ultimately for the gift of Christ and my redemption. For once in my busy, data driven lifetime, my mental note-taker shut down, and I abandoned myself in the arms of my Father and my family. I was worshipping with all that is me, in all the richness of the liturgy—the work, after all, of the people; people like me. Simply taking in the joy of it all.
And joy there was. I feared the faces of the two priests who were distributing the Sacrament in my area would split in two from their smiles, and the faithful went forward with eagerness and connection, not with casual indifference. In the midst of a Holy Week that has seen the priesthood and the Pope assaulted at every turn, I was reminded in every possible way that I have found my way home to His church, and He has provided His own shepherds to care for me. Ordinary, complicated, diverse, remarkable men who wear His garment and carry His cross. And who, all too often, are called on to carry mine as well.
And for one brief mass, I was able to say in every way possible to a mere mortal: Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God.