Green Eggs and Ambo

In the film adaptation of Herman Wouk’s World War Two novel, The Caine Mutiny, there’s a scene where three officers of a high-functioning but very messy minesweeper report aboard Admiral Halsey’s flagship. Their mission is to denounce their Captain Queeg as an incompetent paranoiac. But as soon as they reach the admiral’s hatch, the theme music swells up, diverting their attention to the flight deck, where a couple of hundred bluejackets form perfect ranks and snap to attention.

“This isn’t the Caine,” gasps one of the officers, played by Fred MacMurray. “This is the REAL Navy!”

When I first declared my intention to attend a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, I got the sense that this reaction — or something analogous — was the one many readers wanted me to have. More than I cared to admit, I was open to having it. For years now, traditionalists have been in my head, digging their little saps, laying their little mines, until, half-consciously, I began wondering whether my Mass was somehow less genuine than theirs. This morning, when I set out for Central Phoenix’s Mater Misericordiae Mission Church, run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, I was, at some level, wide open to a mind-blowing.

I didn’t get it. Instead, I shared the modest epiphany of the furry, top-hatted guy from Green Eggs and Ham: Hey, I like it. Really, I do. It’s a nice change, certainly something to put in rotation. Rather than bore readers with a play-by-play description of something they already know by heart, I think I could do the venerable rite more justice by sketching out a few impressions:

Now I get the “bells” part of “bells and smells.” It has nothing to do with the bells in the bellfry and everything to do with the bells rung by hand during the service itself. Apart from the two marking the consecration, I couldn’t quite figure out what each ring signifies, but there are lots of them. And they’re loud — not like those itsy-bitsy bells they ring at Novus Ordo Masses. If my ear is a reliable judge, EF bells are a little bigger than the ones used by Salvation Army canvassers at Christmastime and a little smaller than those worn by cows.

Four of five singers in a choir loft can fill a chapel with sound. Speaking as a perfectly rotten singer with a voice trapped midway between tenor and baritone, I was overjoyed to let these good people carry my share of the burden.

A Mass in the Extraordinary Form does not have to be cold, bombastic, or decked in glitz like Liberace’s bathroom. It’s always seemed to me that trads like to plug all these qualities as a package deal under the label “reverence,” “majesty,” or “transcendence.” Eavesdrop on the wrong Internet debates, and you’ll come away thinking they want every church to look like the cathedral at Rheims and every service to resemble the coronation of the Dauphin Charles. The chapel at MMM church is very small, in fact. I doubt more than 200 people were on hand for the 11:00 High Mass, but the pews looked nearly full. Though not severe, the decor is simple — no gazillion-dollar baldecchino, just a corpus, a tabernacle, a couple of statues, and some very nice tilework. I found the overall effect warm and homey.

In fact, a Mass in the Extraordinary Form can be downright easy to miss. When the celebrant priest entered the nave, followed by the altar servers, I knew something was up. When he about-faced and marched them back down the aisle, blessing everyone with holy water, I was sure of it. But then he went back to the altar and stood in front of it for what seemed like a very long time. Just when I was about to ask the lady sitting next to me what was keeping Father, I overheard him praying. Oh, wait. I thought. This is the Mass. He sure doesn’t beat anyone over the head with it.

Time can fly duing an EF Mass. Exactly 6.7 miles separate my house and MMM. To atone for allowing my car to be towed, I hoofed it the whole way, in cordovan oxfords. I arrived expecting to wince at every liturgically-mandated change in posture, but I didn’t. I credit the Gregorian chants, which are so hypnotic that standing and sitting and kneeling flowed into one another without causing a single spasm of discomfort, though the transitions came at a rate that would impress Billy Blanks.

Trad priests hold confessions right before, and even during, Mass. I’d heard this before, but had forgotten about it until this morning. This means that a fully-functioning traditionalist can end up spending less time in church than a fully-functioning regular Catholic. Well played.

Trad altar servers have the best knees of any human beings on earth. At this Mass, I counted six, all boys. By my lights, they seemed to kneel at least twice as often as us parishioners, and they had to do it fast — no dying-camel act would have passed muster. It’s just as well none of them looked old enough to play high-level organized football. Having them line up in size order, with the tallest on the left, is a good policy, a gentle brand of regimentation far more in the spirit of Martha Stewart Living than Mein Kampf.

Trads can be very nice. I arrived just as the 9:00 Low Mass was ending, which is to say an hour early. After grabbing a donut (which tasted exactly like a Novus Ordo donut), I milled around, trying to look so lost that someone would talk to me. Three people did. When I explained I was a first-timer, they wasted no time in stuffing my hands with missals and programs. A bit later, when I announced I was ducking out for a cigarette, none of them looked at me disapprovingly. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised at the last part — in 1962, when the Vatican published the final version of the Tridentine Missal, smoking was still cool.

One woman was wearing jeans. One. More than half the men — including me — wore neckties, though few wore full suits. On the whole, people seemed less dressed up than dressed, period. Compared to the average Arizonan, they wore more layers, in darker colors and heavier fabrics. In effect, this meant they looked like East Coasters, which only served to make me feel more at home.

But I wasn’t at home — not really. Pivoting off the Gospel reading, which covered the story of the miracle at Cana, the homilist lit right into prolonged singlehood as a threat to the sanctity of marriage. I took that as a word to the wise that the cultural gulf separating me from the good Father and the people in attendance might just be a little too wide to bridge. More basically, I doubt I appreciated the EF on anything like their terms. I’ve put in plenty of time at parishes where the altar servers looked shabby or clumsy, and where hundreds of untrained voices droned Wesleyan hymns off-key. Somehow, I never sensed God had a strong preference for one milieu over another.

Of course, my radar on that score may be jammed. Like Captain Queeg’s sane predecessor, who, as he relinquished command, set his watch back 30 minutes in memory of the Caine’s laid-back style, I may have a natural or acquired preference for the mediocre. If that’s true, then I’m doubly glad places like MMM will receive me as a guest and let me taste the alternative from time to time. To give a more generous emphasis to the cliche, Tradistan’s not a place I could live in, but it’s certainly a nice one to visit.

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