Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Evening Mass in Holy Week

“Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly,” says Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Yesterday I told a friend that the only posts that make sense to me anymore are those I am moved to write, those prompted by a sudden awareness of a difference in my experience, a sense of—“God”—“so quickly.” Then as I walked into Mass last evening it happened again.

So then, it’s time to write again today, by first light, on a morning after the rain, when the birds are singing merrily and the worms are teeming, oblivious to their fate, close to the surface of the ground.

The “quick” moment, which was 45 minutes long, and in fact extended its graceful light through the rest of the evening, began as I was climbing the steps to church and heard a vague sound behind me. I ignored the sound, passed through the doors, and walked up the inner set of steps before my dear and first friend Ferde finally caught my attention with a second, less vague sound: “Webstah! You ignoring me?!” When Ferde wants to get your attention, you are more likely to dodge an onrushing bull.

Ferde and I are regulars at morning Mass, each with his regular post: I six pews from the front under the lee of the ambo, Ferde three rows back and ten feet to the right. He usually attends morning Mass with his wife, Heidi, but tonight Ferde was alone, and because it was raining he was dressed in a white raincoat and a floppy white rain hat that always makes me smile. With the hat on, Ferde looks like a white-bearded Panama Jack, instead of the Prophet Isaiah, his usual alias.

Ferde gave me a big hug and a smile, and growled, “After you.”

We open the doors together.

We are about 15 minutes early, and the church is dark and still, with only a few souls gathered. I walk up the left aisle to my spot and am surprised to find Ferde following me into my row with a gesture of “may I?” Catholics are so wedded to their pews that for another, who knows better, to venture onto one’s territory logically requires asking and receiving permission. I grant permission with a smile and slide over—out of my comfort zone, as my dear Katie would say. More like my habit zone.

We pray, and more souls gather. The mere presence of my friend by my side is enough to transform the moment, but then a remarkable thing happens. By three minutes before the hour, with the lights full on now, I am an island surrounded closely by other islands. Within three pews front to back and ten feet from side to side, I realize there are at least 25 people, and I know every one of them. It is as though friends have plotted to give me a surprise birthday party, and at the start of Mass, but I know that cannot be the case. They are not here for me. Instead, this is objective proof of the Communion of Saints.

Two rows in front of me is C., in one of her twenty church hats. Missing is F., her husband, but I know that he moves slowly and reluctantly now at age 85, and is probably home in his easy chair saying the rosary and watching EWTN. F. is exactly my father’s age, which makes him dear to me, and I visit him and C. once a week as time permits, in the home they share with their daughter and her family. She is in her usual morning-Mass position.

But directly behind me, to either side, are two couples who aren’t morning regulars. They are seated at their 10:30 Sunday posts. One, an older couple, A. and B; the other in their 40s, X. and Y. I know them all and feel a degree of affection toward each of the four. This affection would not surprise them—I imagine they feel it back—but it is completely ungrounded in shared experience outside church and is not based on biographical detail. I know next to nothing about them outside church, but inside, I know they are always here Sundays at 10:30, always. That alone makes them dear to me. What else do I need but their names, which I have.

The cluster around me grows—there’s M! there’s N! two friends from CL—until the little bell tinkles from the sacristy and we all rise, twenty soldiers in packed platoon and common cause. In this scenario, I am particularly aware of Ferde as my foxhole buddy to my left, who has my back under any circumstances. But I would go to war with this bunch, all of them, even sweet, elderly C., who would never raise so much as a chopstick against an enemy, because she has no enemies.

Heidi is the lector this evening, which explains Ferde’s sitting with me. The reading, of course, is from Isaiah. (Ferde has removed his hat.)

Islands, listen to me, 
pay attention remotest peoples.
The Lord called me before I was born,
from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name. 

. . . I will make you the light of the nations
so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

The Gospel from John concerns Judas and Peter.

. . . As soon as Judas had taken the piece of bread he went out. Night had fallen. . . .

Our pastor dwells on this detail. “I love that line,” he says with a slight smile. “Night had fallen.

As he explains—and I forget his explanation this morning—my eyes rise to the five stained-glass windows above the high altar of this old church. Night is falling.

During the sign of peace I glance back for my new friend Bill, in his usual morning spot. After Mass, I am happy to see Bill by Ferde’s side and we exchange three-way greetings, as new and old friends. Ferde heads toward the sacristy to rendezvous with Heidi. I ask Bill what he is doing for dinner. Nothing, he says. Then come with me, I say.

The glow from that evening Mass—non-habitual, surprising, sudden in its force—spreads toward midnight, as Bill and Katie and I share a happy evening of fellowship over a table laid on the spur of the moment.

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