Masses: I’ve taken ‘em high, I’ve taken ‘em low. I’ve parked my mortal coil in pews at every stop on the long road from Trent to Broadway and back again. I’ve listened to homilies delivered by mumbling mummies called forth from retirement and young fogies fresh from the seminary and still unsure whether to be John Chrysostom or Jon Stewart. In the process, my ear has had to attune itself to species of English ranging from the Queen’s to the Last King of Scotland’s.
Amid all this variety, I have observed one constant unrelated to the Pascal Sacrifice itself: my mood. It’s almost always pissy.
Must I define “pissy”? Oh, gosh. Here goes. A pissy mood is basically an emotional migraine, a hypersensitivity to stimuli of all sorts along with a strong predisposition to interpret them in the worst possible light. It never quite rises to the level of anger, which is unfortunate because anger has a way of burning itself out. Resembling more closely a state of medium-strength dissatisfaction and suspicion, a pissy mood can always go the distance.
Whereas anger can be a sensible response to real threats – a fellow driver’s failure to signal before changing lanes, for instance – pissiness feeds itself on the tiniest breaches of taste and etiquette. Good gravy, there she goes again with the vocal fry. Must the teenager vending popcorn at the movie theater call me “bro”? Can’t that skateboarder figure out a way to go over those sidewalk cracks more quietly? In a church context, fuming on the Communion line at the cheek of some guy who crossed three pews to offer you the Sign of Peace, might well be a symptom of pissiness.
It can be tempting to sniff out pissiness behind all harsh critiques of liturgy, sacred music, and the behavior of the faithful during the service. But on the whole, that would, I believe, be unjust. Expressed in words, a cold and exacting disposition can sound pissy, but pissiness itself is too capricious to sustain an argument. Hopping from irritant to irritant, the pissy eye almost always misses the big picture.
During my last Latin Mass, conducted in a cozy little chapel with a precision worthy of the Marine Corps’ Silent Drill Platoon, I found myself snarling over the mantillas covering the heads of the women. What is this place, I wondered darkly, a Turkish metro station? If so, where can I buy some Biskrem cookies? (Biskrem cookies are one of few reliable palliatives for pissy moods. Unfortunately, they’re baked in Romania.)
So what accounts for this pissiness? Well, offhand, I’d say that the sacred and the profane differ so radically that crossing from one to the other can’t be anything but a disconcerting experience. This sense of dislocation is only compounded by the knowledge that I must re-cross the same border within the hour. Once I’ve gotten it into my head that whatever takes place here will have to sustain me spiritually for the next week, my mind, or maybe my soul, panics. Properly understood, the manifestation of this panic, pissiness, is a spiritual gag reflex.
But my chronic pissiness has another side, I think. It’s also a kind of stage fright. The presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the hush of a church interior work on my sinful everyday thoughts like a black light on grease stains. Even a harmless observation along the lines of, “Wow, she’s cute” starts to seem, well, unseemly. Hearing the lector call on the congregation to “take a moment to silence our hearts” is always good for a bitter laugh, since the awareness that my heart needed silencing will already have gotten my bowels in an uproar.
Ah, memories. My Manhattan childhood was full of these sharp corner-turnings: from Mom’s house to Dad’s house, from school to after-school class to summer camp, from old stepmother to new stepmother. By the age of seven or so, I already had the sense of being harried and unable to catch my breath. In fairness, all of my classmates had similar schedules; all of them played up admirably, learning adaptability and self-reliance, which is why every one of them grew up to become president of the World Bank. I alone burned out and made hejira to Arizona, where I could live out my days as a pissy train wreck.
One final solution to the pissiness question might be to start attending daily Mass, by way of making the sacred routine. I suspect that, whatever graces it might confer, daily Mass would go down like ten extra abrupt transition, thereby quintupling the pissiness factor in my life. A good long-range plan might involve sacrazlizing work, Opus Dei-style, but in the short run, it’s almost guaranteed to make God seem more like a boss. There’s one cure that could turn out to be worse than the disease
Now that I think about it, one strategy that’s shown some promise in the past has involved the building-in of decompression periods. Arriving, say, half an hour early, staking out a spot in the pew and slipping out for occasional cigarettes, has helped me accustom myself to the sacred space and its demands. Lingering 20 minutes or so in the church’s shadow, puffing away, has also helped me ease myself back into the world. Donuts be damned — as pissiness-blockers go, Krispy Kreme makes a poor substitute for Biskrem.
So simple! If only I’d started smoking when I was eight, I could have spared my parents so much heartache.