From birth to fifteen, I attended church with my parents—first a Congregational parish that I remember mostly as Sunday school; then an Episcopal one, where I was confirmed and served three years as a conscientious acolyte. Then I went to boarding school and fell away from Christian worship.
From fifteen to fifty-six, two years ago, I was adrift with some dear friends in a life raft. At boarding school and college, I was enticed by the variety of Eastern spiritual goodies on offer in the late 1960s. Eventually, I was introduced to an approach that was congenial to me. No details here. It is enough to say, without selling this approach short (I repeat, it was my life raft), that in the particular milieu in which I encountered it (and with the particular dear friends), my practice boiled down to efforts of mindfulness, directed inward toward myself and outward toward others. This practice gave me an internal stability and a limited self-awareness for which I am grateful, and it helped smooth my path to the Catholic Church. Still, it was what I would characterize as Christianity without Christ—one of many cousins, maybe even a great uncle, in the broad twentieth-century family of humanistic self-improvement disciplines that promise, You can do it yourself. The psychologist Abraham Maslow used the term self-actualization. Think of the promise here: You can actualize yourself. You can make yourself real! It is a wonderful term—if you live in a world without a Creator, where the only means to grace is tugging on your own bootstraps. After forty years of huffing and puffing, I have realized that I am not that strong. I never achieved lift-off.
Then the horn sounded for the third period and I became a Catholic. (The thrilling mix of metaphors in this post would put a diabolical smile on the face of my eleventh-grade English teacher, Henry Ploegstra. Let’s see, you’re wearing boots, and your life raft is adrift in the middle of an ice hockey rink, which must have melted during the second period . . . heh, heh, heh . . . C-minus!)
I became a Catholic the day I began attending mass every morning at seven. While I was not formally received into the Church until six months later—and while I know that many devout Catholics do not or cannot attend daily mass—it is daily mass that explains as well as anything why I am and remain a Catholic. It is in the daily repetitive experience of the liturgy—reinforced by readings in The Liturgy of the Hours and daily visits to our Adoration Chapel—that Catholicism has become the pervasive influence in my life. Not that I never forget. I always forget. Aren’t I a man? But the liturgy calls me back again. And again. And again.
This week, I am on vacation in Maine. The nearest Catholic Church is thirty minutes away, and while I would be happy to schlep into Ellsworth every morning, I’m just as happy spending the time with “Queen Kathleen,” my bride of twenty-five years. This week we are effectively celebrating our silver anniversary.
But I still miss mass. I miss my parish and my pastor. What exactly do I miss?
I miss the quiet that comes over the church as sixty, seventy, eighty of us gather each morning and wait for the Introit. (I have been in parishes where a constant chatter before mass clutters the atmosphere, but thankfully, St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts, is not one of these. Father Barnes wouldn’t stand for it.) I miss seeing how still everyone else is: kneel, sit, read, contemplate—hardly a head moves after we’re all seated. I miss the calm that comes over me, and I miss waiting for Flo Marchegiani to stand as the mass begins. (Flo is seated across the church from me and has a clear view into the sacristy. She is the first to see the lector and Eucharistic minister enter ahead of the celebrant, and she obviously relishes being first to stand. Keeping a bead on her with my peripheral vision, I relish being second.)
I miss observing feasts and memorials. Being away this week, I am missing only one memorial in the Proper of Saints—Gregory the Great, pope and doctor. I was home at the end of last week for memorials to St. Monica, St. Augustine, and the beheading of John the Baptist, and by Tuesday, September 8, I’ll be home again, for the Birth of Mary. I miss the daily scriptural readings as they unfold within the liturgical year, and I particularly miss the homilies of Father Barnes, who is always teaching.
I miss the reenactment of the Last Supper. I miss the Lord’s Prayer. I miss the sign of peace, with all the little rituals we morning regulars have developed for greeting each other. (Flo and I save each other for last, with shy little waves across the aisle.) I dearly miss the Eucharist.
I miss the final blessing, and I miss waiting respectfully on my feet until Father Barnes has disappeared again into the sacristy. As much as anything, I miss the deep sense of peace and joy that has infused me by the moment I kneel one last time toward the tabernacle and walk back down the aisle. Usually there are friends gathered outside the church, greeting each other—the Pietrini brothers, John, Frank, and Tony; Tom Finn and one or more of the lonely unfortunates he seems to keep an eye out for; Ellen and, when she can make it, Carol; Frank Gaudenzi, with his trademark fist pump and motto, “Go easy!”; Carrie and Frank Kwiatkowski; and of course my big brother, Ferde Rombola, than whom I have no greater friend in the church. I miss you all very much.
There will be no fourth period in my spiritual life. I’m home now, or will be on Monday. Still, there could be an overtime, and if so, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard it’s glorious, and lasts forever.