The Alternative Universe of Faith – UPDATED

Let me tell you what today has been like, and we’re only a few hours into it. Those of you who don’t understand what a low-down, bitchy sinner I am may be surprised. Those of you who do know (or suspect) that I am a bitchy sinner will be gratified.

I started the morning crabbing to my husband about my Elder Son, who has a job interview today (please, my friends, I beg you, pray for this kid’s intentions; he’s been out of work for a while, now!) – my crabbing had to do with Elder Son’s hair and beard, “he cannot go into a job interview looking like Animal from the Muppets! They’ll expect him to burst through the door screaming, “give job! Give job!”

My husband, an annoyingly calm sort, reminded me that for all we knew whoever interviewed Elder Son would be just as scruffy; “people don’t look buttoned-down anymore, in business.”

I harrumphed that in a deep recession, perhaps they did.

Thankfully, Elder Son trimmed the beard and with the hair pulled into a tail, he looks very handsome.

But this was the mindset I brought to morning mass. Concern about the roof that appears to throw shingles with the slightest cough or breeze (and seemed to have thrown half of them during last night’s thunder storm). Concern for Elder Son, and for my husband’s job. Concern for Buster who is unhappy with his school this semester for a variety of reasons. I went into morning mass grumbling about pretty much everything.

Then I looked up and there was Fr. R in a pew, praying before serving mass.

Now, this is a very nice thing. You who are Catholic know how rare it is to see a priest at prayer before mass (or after), so that should have made me happy, right? Fr. R is a very holy man, a scholar, a terrific confessor and a faithful priest. But his masses are sooooo looooong…he prays sooooo deliberately.

Mindfully, actually.

Ordinarily I’d say, “this is great,” but I’d just gone through three Fr. R masses in a row and I was ready for the casual piety of the pastor or the rather crabbed but genuine prayers of Fr. M.

But no. Bad Lizzie saw Fr. R at prayer and muttered to herself, “Oh, jeez, it’s Fr. R again!”

Good Lizzie felt immediately bad about that, of course. The interior chat went something like this:

“Gawd, you’re such a bitch, what is wrong with you – you come to mass and here you are, getting into the pew before the Blessed Sacrament, and you’re pissing and moaning because you’re going to have mass said by a good priest who might take five minutes longer than someone else. You are hopeless. You should be grateful you even have a priest. God should have lost his patience with you a long time ago.

I decided I would pray my chaplet of Divine Mercy and offer it for the intentions of both my husband and Fr. R – in atonement for Bad Lizzie.

That was going well, until a woman I see every day at mass – I call her Babushka Lady, as she arrives with a tote bag full of prayer books, wearing a babushka and never speaking a word to anyone – plopped herself down in the pew directly before me.

In the middle of my prayer, Bad Lizzie (who tends to be very much to the fore) growled, “oh, for crying out loud, are you kidding me? The church is empty, she’s got 1200 seats to choose from, and she plops down directly in front of me, makes me pull back my beads and blocks my view? Woman! The babushka is very distracting!”

Good Lizzie, getting more than a little fed up with Bad, moved to the left, mentally gave Bad Lizzie an Irish smack upside the head (it’s a backhand with the left hand, so the wedding ring leaves a mark), and got back to prayer.

And what prayer – there is nothing like the Mass. The lector announced the feastday of St. Frances of Rome. Good Lizzie gets happy. “Oh. I love her! She was a wife and mother, like me! And a Benedictine Oblate! She managed to balance normal, daily life with a life of prayer and service. I should talk to her more than I do. St. Frances of Rome, please pray for my Elder Son, today. He has a job interview. You know what it’s like to have Elder Sons who need jobs!”

Good Lizzie and Bad Lizzie managed to settle down for mass. The readings were all – as so often happens at mass – perfectly suited to the day and the circumstances:

This morning, I’d heard the news that the president had signed an executive order mandating public funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Never mind that experimentation with Embryonic Stem Cells has been nightmarish. Nevermind that we have no money, we’re broke; we can still afford to destroy innocent life still so nearly attached to the mystery of Creation itself. We’re going to pay for this callous and arrogant irreverence – all of us, as a nation – and this was the reading from the Prophet Daniel:

“…We have sinned, been wicked and done evil; we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and your laws. We have not obeyed your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land. Justice, O Lord, is on your side…”

The psalm begged mercy – mercy for nations, mercy for the individual, even for the bitchy: “Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins…”

And the Gospel – it spoke to me in every way; it spoke to the generosity of my spirit and the stingy wickedness of my heart:

Jesus said to his disciples: “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful…Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
– Luke 6:36-38

The Great Secret and Promise. Summed up in a few lines, applicable to us all. Why do we forget?

In every assent we utter, every stitch we knit, every empty bowl we fill, every lonely life we consent to touch, every hateful remark we respond to with love, we create something where there was nothing. With our every β€œyes,” we assist in creation, with the continuation of the world. We work with the Creator, for whom no need is too small, for whom love knows no limits. It is the great secret.

The Mass and Holy Communion managed to overcome and suppress Bad Lizzie, and fill Good Lizzie with something like awe. “The blessing of the liturgy,” wrote Rumer Godden, “is that it wipes out self.”

After mass, the Babushka Lady retreated to a back row with her bag of prayer books and, I knew, she would be there for a while in silent prayer. I stayed to pray a rosary for my son’s intention, and off in one of the corners I could hear a group praying the rosary aloud, in turn. The prayer group seemed to be made up of marginalized sorts of people; they all looked like life had handed them some rough days, but I was in my own prayer and paid them no heed until I heard the clear treble voice of the lone woman among them. I don’t know if she was a patient recovering from a brain accident or if she had a different issue, but when it came her turn to lead a decade, she was permitted to do her imperfect best:

Hail Mary, (intelligible) Woman! Bless! You give us JESUS!

She would say it, the group would pray the response and they moved on. No one minded that her prayer was – on the surface – less than “perfect,” and outside the textbook. They fit the prayer around what she could contribute, and went blithely forward. They fit the woman – who had within her a “deficiency” – into the prayer group, and she became part of the whole, absorbed, subsumed and indistinguishable from the larger prayer.

I was blessed and humbled to hear the woman, and that group, as I prayed my isolated prayer in my corner. Her struggles, and her boldness to dare speak an “imperfect” prayer, gave huge witness to the whole point of church and even of liturgy. We are all imperfect. We bring our visible and invisible imperfections into church and – gathered together – our varied selves contribute to the greater whole, just as raindrops, snow, dew and hail all make the river run.

Thus a gracious and brave lady of halting speech, an oblivious Babushka-wearer with many books and Bad, Bad Lizzie could all come together like dew and rain and be joined and disappear.

Dew and rain, bless the Lord.
Frost and chill, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord.
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness, bless the Lord.
Lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord.
– Daniel 3: 68-73

It is the whole world in prayer. It is the whole world in each of us. Our dew, our rain, our light and dark, our frost and clouds.

It is an alternative universe. No wonder it scares off so many. In our age, the self is everything to be celebrated and never to be diminished. Church subsumes; you become not the lone worker bee, but the very buzz of the hive.

And what sweetness is found, therein.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • ShanaSFO

    “Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

    Long ago I heard a homily on this part of the verse, what it meant: Good measure, packed together shaken down and overflowing.

    It has to do with olive oil. The olives are measured out to fill the assigned jar. They are “pressed down” (a better translation of the phrase) in a press, then the press is lifted and the olives are shaken so as to reposition them that they can be pressed again from a different angle. The oil comes, flowing into the jar. So much oil, that the jar overflows onto the one who holds it.

    The problem is that the Gift, the oil, requires a measure of crushing. The oil doesn’t come out of the olive without a great deal of pressure, being squeezed with other olives. Repositioned and then crushed again, and again. For Christians the oil flows in two directions. We are thrown together in life, shaken down and pressed together. In the crushing we are emptied of our self if we allow it, and only then filled with the oil of grace to overflowing.

    You, the Babushka Lady, the marginalized Rosary people, Father R, all of you, measured out & pressed together in the pews, shaken down by the Gospel and given grace in the Sacrament of the Altar to overflowing.

  • Hantchu

    Be cool, Bad/Good Lizzie. You remind me of the Child in Flannery O’Connor’s “Temple of the Holy Ghost”. (“Lord, hep me not to be so mean. Hep me not to give her so much sass…”)

    After years of laboring in the same vineyard, I have come to the conclusion that imperfect prayer, like imperfect people, does not enrage G-d nearly as much as it infuriates me. Another good reason not to compete with G-d.

    I have a sick headache after finishing the Fast of Esther today, and the last thing I really feel like doing is going to hear the Megilla read. All I really have to do is get my head going in the same direction as my feet. And there was light and joy.

  • joeh

    As one who has hired at least a thousand people in my career, nothing irks me more than someone that comes in for an interview looking shabby. I also had a very strong dress and appearance code in the company. That company is doing quite well and I hear no complaints any more about the dress code issue because everyone sees it as reasonable and fair and they each have a part in the profit sharing of the company. The thing is you can’t just isolate one area of employee relations, but have to encompass the entire person. To do that means you have to have respect for each of the other people. What dressing and caring for yourself like hell does is says to the other person I really do not care about you, only me, me, me. that is what it says when you arrive for an interview. It says take me as I am or not at all. I say fine. no take..
    I had this similar conversation with my son who did the bible thing pointing out people like John the Baptist well thought of by our Lord. I told him there are many old jokes about the use of the bible in this way such as Jesus wore sandals one day and asking for the car the next when obviously you can do as Jesus did and walk everywhere. I told him if he were applying for the job done by John he could then dress for the job in that manner. Not to many of those positions available.

  • driver

    An inspiring post. Prayers for your boys, who sound as if they’re the same age as my own

    I think you need to upload a pic of Bad Lizzie to your “About” page, kind of like Samantha and her evil cousin/twin Serena.

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  • Gayle Miller

    Bad Gayle is laughing her arse off, good Gayle is trying not to chuckle!

    To both good and bad Lizzie – welcome to the family! You sure you aren’t at least a little bit Hungarian? We tend to the bitchy most of the time!

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  • s1c

    good luck and am sorry but everytime you said bad lizzie my brain just went “took an axe”.

    btw – did you see this in the CT legislature?

  • Peregrine John

    imperfect prayer…

    At first I shook my head, thinking of my own imperfect prayers. Then I laughed: if I was capable of perfect prayer, I would hardly need it.

  • Ruth H

    I have a cousin who is 55 with an IQ of about 13, and the emotions of a younger than that person. You should hear her break out in glorius songs of praise. We do get aggravated with her being so self centered and then she comes out with some word of wisdom or a prayer or a joyful song and a great, big beautiful smile. God truly is great.

  • Genevieve B

    So humorous (I love the description of how schizo you felt before Mass). I should have gone to Mass today, too. Prayers to St. Joseph for Elder Son. I have two boys also and am worried about their futures. I am having nightmares about what is happening in our country, and you are absolutely right and reassuring about prayer being an alternative universe, another country. Our congregation has begun to pray for our President by name. If he knew, or rather if he cared about such things, he would be awed and humbled, I would think, although I am afraid these things don’t matter to such a person. Recently, I have begun to wonder if God of the Old Testament will be heard from in these days. But even worse, is that we won’t hear from Him and that He is expecting us to become sacrifices.

  • Hantchu

    Hey, Genevieve B–The so-called “G-d of the Old Testament” is, according to the words of Moses “Merciful and gracious, long-suffering, great in lovingkindness and truth, willing to forgive transgression and sin and missing the mark, Who will purify you”. (my translation from the Hebrew, off-the-cuff and take it or leave it)

    We should be so blessed.