The Man Who Could Not Pray, a believer and his journeys in the way of prayer
Chapter One, The Man Goes to Church
Minister Friendly . . . The man dropped into church on Ash Wednesday for his annual reminder that he is dust and unto dust he will return only to be told by a feverishly smiling woman-with-ashes that God loves him, or something in that line. She did not tell him to have a nice day, he silently thanked her for that.
He believed God loves him and did not object to being reminded of it. But what about “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”? He believed also in resurrection, but what about death? It comes first, doesn't it? Medieval monks kept a skull on the desk before them. As just such a reminder, he presumed.
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This wasn’t the man's first happy-face reminder on Ashes Day. Funeral masses had not involved black vestments for ages, giving way to white ones, which emphasize resurrection. But even more so, he thought, in at least one small ritual, we can stand being reminded of death and putrefaction, "the seriousness of life," as an old novice mate put it a few months before he died and became an expert on the subject.
A Time To Pray . . . The man had decided that the Mass had become largely a community-building endeavor. Moments for silence were dropped in here and there. The consecration received its due attention. One or other brief time was allowed, for adding one’s own petitions in silence, for instance. Not much was happening post-communion.
Otherwise, something was going on all the time. Radio performers can’t permit dead air. Neither could priests, bishops. organists, solo singers (from operatic to sentimental-me), choruses, commentators -- even ushers, who while ushering people out of the pews for joining the communion line shook hands with all and sundry, spreading the cheer.
It was gangbusters, he noted, allowing for exceptions. Shake hands with all the neighbors, kiss the colleens all if you can get away with it.
That’s worship? he asked himself decades ago. What happened? Who did this? Why did they do it? More later about all that, but something can be said here.
The all-church changeover from Latin to English after Vatican II, to take one element, was centralized planning with a vengeance, enough to make a liberal politico weep with envy. Democracy-promoters among church members, the church's liberals, complained about it, right? Wrong. The world over, Catholics got used to Mass in everyday language. It was a model of social engineering -- change by design, a triumph of bureaucracy. Not organic, developed naturally, but imposed.
It was a pattern. Vatican II celebrated the freedom of the children of God, but not in liturgy. Latin had to go, Latin went. Rebels were marginalized, kicked out if necessary.
It was change dictated from above for people's own good by people who knew what was best, led by an Italian monsignor who had made it his life's work and found in Paul VI (whom he deceived at key moments) a pliant ruler.
This was Bugnini, about which more later, whose duplicity is reported by Bouvier, a friend of Pope Paul and a member of the committee working during the council on liturgical change. Bouvier compared notes with Paul after the council and discovered that Bugnini had falsely been telling the committee that Paul was all for something, having falsely told Paul the committee was all for it. Presto, hesitation gone, the matter got through. A little Machiavelli makes liturgical-change medicine go down.
As the moment was about to arrive, of Latin giving way to vernacular — in the long-ago ‘sixties — a Jesuit friend complained that he had trouble enough believing in the mass in Latin, without putting it into English. The Latin made it clearly a ceremony, rather than a bald statement of reality in language that would be mundane, if not pedestrian, and the more so the better, so that worshipers could think about it as it happened.
His problem would sound strange to today’s 40- and 50-somethings who learned Catholicism in a parish religious-education class (or Catholic school, for that matter) where love-love-hooray-for-love was the virtual sum and substance of everything Catholic. His friend had much more to believe than those 40- and 50-somethings about the mass, too often performed as a church-sponsored, Scripture-referenced celebration of unity with each other.
His friend was expected to believe in transubstantiation -- who now even uses the word? -- by which bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus in substance, while continuing to look and taste like bread and wine. Not to mention its reenactment of Calvary and solemnity of holy sacrifice.
The priest held the host (bread) and believed he held the body of Christ. Some few could hardly do it, stuttering at the words of consecration. A whole new mass developed after Vatican II, vernacularized, as much communicating with fellow worshipers as with God. The priest would face the people, look at them, saying the words -- announcing them -- making them more pew-sitter-friendly.
Our man’s Jesuit friend saw the mystery dissolving away, and with it an erosion of belief. This has happened, our man decided decades later. For many the mass had become that celebration of unity with each other. As for the mystical and mysterious, that had become a happy memory, fast fading from Catholic consciousness.
From the less formal, more relaxed atmosphere came a problem, noted sardonically by the man who couldn’t pray, that there ought to be a special room in church for people who want to chat during Mass. There were crying rooms for people with babies (when babies abounded more than later), he reasoned. Was it time now for chat rooms? It would be a way of recognizing that some people worship differently from others, staying in touch with each other. The idea went into his own little chat book, undisturbed till now.
Meanwhile the man walked into church one morning, and everyone was talking. Mass hadn't started, not too big a crowd in the pews was waiting for it to start; but it was as if he were walking into a school board meeting before it was called to order. And as in some board meetings, the calling to order did not entirely silence some, who took mass as chat time.
Some interruptions came to the man while worshiping -- recalling his days as an altar boy, various catastrophes. Leakages and excretions, for instance -- throwing up during an early week day mass or sneezing messily without access to the handkerchief.
The catastrophic sneezing was spotted across the sanctuary by one of many priests on hand for the solemn high mass, when choir poured forth its premeditated strains from the loft and incense burned and bells rang and at any given moment all heaven broke loose.
In his case it was more than that, as nasal passages poured forth unpremeditated material. A hand went up and came back requiring immediate attention. There was the cassock sleeve, to be sure, but that was hardly a good option. Besides, there was more on hand (in it, actually) than your average cassock sleeve could be expected to accommodate.
All that remains of that mostly suppressed memory of what had come forth is the priest across the sanctuary, sitting with two others, awaiting the end of the Credo bursting forth from the loft. He knew and felt his pain but could not help finding the whole damn thing funny, as expressed in a thin smile.
Returning to the recent past, feeling good with Jesus. "What Mass is all about," the pastor wrote in the bulletin, is our coming "with full hearts to thank God." The mass is "truly alive," he wrote, when we bring to it "the everyday things of our lives." Some of his own best Mass experience has been when he was "truly bringing what was in [his] heart to God."
That's good devotional advice. Why not lay it all out to God at mass? Or any other time? But then the good priest, and I mean that, popped a miscue of gargantuan proportions. "Sacrifice of the mass refers to our self-offering to God."
No it doesn't. It refers to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and its redeeming value, its being re-enacted in the mass, whatever we bring or whether we bring anything at all.
This self-offering "feels good," he says, because it reminds him that "God is taking care of" his various problems.
It does far more than that.
Nothing in what he said was about Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, it was all about what we bring. Apart from his belief in God as protector, it's as if there were no Christian tradition. Pagans did this much, and probably still do, with a view to “whatever powers that be.”
If you are wondering what there is about liturgy that reminds you of Rotary Club meetings, picnics, and other gatherings that make you feel good, consider this foray into theology by this pastor, a good man who does a good job and is probably as theologically literate as most.
So muttered the man who could not pray.
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This is a most affecting account, and one that evokes memories in a person who was introduced to the Catholic Mass - "an initiation into refinement" (Joseph Joubert) - pre-Vatican II. The difference between "in this world but not of it" and in this world and no other, perhaps....I recently attended an Orthodox liturgy for the first time and doing so was as if I had gone back sixty years and experienced a Catholic service. The priests faced the tabernacle except when directly addressing the congregation; the prayers were chanted in another language (Greek in this instance rather than Latin), the petitions (cited more than once) were for the well-being of the sick, destitute and lonely, the safety of travelers on land, water and in the air, peace on the earth, the love of (all) humanity, etc. rather than with the politically-coded references to victims of racism, injustice, oppression, domestic violence and climate change and (dubious) refugees and (more dubious) asylum seekers heard in Catholic masses with a discouraging predictability. The reading of the Creed in the Greek church ended with the words "one holy, Catholic and Apostolic church." Amen.
Our parish mass is the opposite -- prolonged periods of uncomfortable silence. The mass is a prayer in itself, so what is the point of the add-on silence?