What does someone who’s never been to a church, and who doesn’t believe in God, make of it all? A friend of Shiny New Catholic Leah Libresco attended his first Mass, which also happened to be Leah’s baptism, and shares his impressions:
Today I had the great pleasure of getting to meet Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked and support her at her baptism. And by “support”, I mean that I was waiting for the priest to say “If anyone knows why this ceremony should not proceed, speak now or forever hold your peace”, and then I could shout “God is an antiquated idea with insufficient evidence to even rise to the level of consideration let alone become a working hypothesis and Leah is far too good for you people and you can’t have her!” But it turns out priests only ask that question at weddings, which under the circumstances is probably wise.
But it was actually a lovely service. In the course of growing up Jewish and then losing my religion I’d managed to never attend a church service before, so I was excited to see what all the fuss has been about for the past two thousand years. It was very…well, yesterday I got to talking to another doctor I met at the job interview. He spent his entire life in Nepal and India before moving to America a month ago. I asked him if it was scary, if there was a big culture shock. To my surprise, he said no. There’s so much of America in books and TV and movies that everything just felt perfectly natural, albeit slightly disconcerting as if you had stepped into a TV screen. That was how I felt going to Mass.
I’ve always had an interest in myth and ritual, and people have always told me that the Catholic mass is the ritual par excellence, honed over two thousand years to instill a deep feeling of awe. I was looking forward to it and didn’t get it. The church itself was spotlessly beautiful, but when you’re sitting next to a lot of screaming kids and everyone was sort of fumbling through their hymnals and muttering the songs – then if there was supposed to be a spell, it was pretty thoroughly broken. Also, thanks to my synagogue experience I find it hard to take a service seriously if it’s conducted in a language I understand.
If there were any moments of genuine emotion at all in the ceremony, it was the unplanned departures from script. The priest bending over to give the Eucharist to an old woman who was having trouble getting out of her seat. The sermon starting with the guy saying that he didn’t care what Thomas Aquinas thought, when he went to Heaven he was going to find his dog waiting there for him. The little kid who screamed “Yay!” after each baptism.
And of course there was Leah. The fact that it obviously meant so much to Leah made it meaningful to the rest of us too. Even though her friends (and family!) there seemed pretty split for and against her decision, it was hard to miss how radiantly happy she was there and obvious that whatever the merits of the faith in general she was making the right decision for her at this moment. In the exact reverse of what was supposed to happen, I felt like Leah sanctified the ceremony, the same way watching a terrible movie with a friend who loves it can make it enjoyable.