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.
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 “yes,” 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.