A few weeks ago, in the frosty haze of a brisk Southeast Iowa Sunday morning, I awoke from one of the most solid slumbers that I'd enjoyed in a long time. I donned my best blue jeans and, with my wife and my grandmother in tow, cruised down the sleepy, two-lane highway bound for Sunday mass.
The simple spire of St. Marys Catholic Church stood above the rooftops and grain silos alike, offering a navigational beacon for weekly worshippers. We parked a block away from the brick sanctuary and nodded silent salutations to the parishioners as we shuffled inside.
As mass started, the congregation intoned incantations of anticipated Christmastide. What the choir lacked in rhythm and harmony, it made up for with passion and volume. After a gruelingly long opening song, the mass commenced. The prayers recited came not from my mind or my tired voice box, but from a place much deeper. Strings of words that I'd learned while coloring images of sheep and guiding stars welled out of my being, coming to life as they formed into phrases and caught gales of breath exhaled from my lungs. As the words formed, my mind was put at ease by the familiarity of their shapes and the community they embodied.
"The Lord be with you," the priest greeted with a gregarious smile.
"And also with you - Shit!" I cringed as I realized that this was a portion of the mass that had recently been modified by the Vatican in an attempt to remain in line with the original translation of the Latin worship service. I groped for the laminated card nestled between dusty hymnals in the pew. Refreshing my memory for the next change, I settled back into listening to the lector speak from the old testament, something from the book of Isaiah, I think. A few readings later, another change in the mass caught me completely off guard as I again recounted the older version at an embarrassingly loud volume. Luckily I avoided the expletive this time, but did draw the attention of some of the older folks around me. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. A leathery old man with a comb-over furrowed his brow in disdain.
After the third blunder, this time with another whispered admonition, I realized that it would take more than pasteboard and a friendly reminder at the beginning of the service to change the engrained prayers that I had practiced for over two decades. These prayers, gestures, and genuflections had been a part of my religious experience since I was born, and while my brain understood the reason for the changes, my muscles were not ready to adjust to a knew routine.
As the mass moved on, I realized that ritual is an important part of my religious experience. The symbolism behind the words we say and the actions we take in mass is significant, and each piece draws to mind a value or idea from my life that I hold dear. When, before the Gospel, I draw a cross on my forehead, then my lips, then my chest, I am reminded to take the values of the Gospel reading and academically explore them, openly discuss the ideas with others, and ultimately live the principles of love, respect, and compassion that are offered. That simple hand motion triggers my brain to actively seek a relevant message in the reading. It does not mean I always understand what is being said in the Bible passage, but that again engages the academic part of my religious self. Many times, something said in church has prodded me toward historical research and further understanding.
Some might think that by reciting prayers that had been forced down my throat since I was old enough to read, I might be inclined to check out during mass - I have been known to dose off during a particularly monotone homily. But because my body evokes these prayers that I've been praying for years, it allows my mind to focus on the meaning behind those words rather than try to remember what I'm supposed to say next. When, in the Our Father I speak the words,
"Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven." I think about how I can do my part to create a just and compassionate existence on this earth, safe from pain and mistreatment. It is more than just words. It is a reminder of how to live my life day-to-day.
It's Gonna Take Time to Get it Right
Adjusting the things I say and do at mass is going to be difficult. I cannot imagine how hard it is for my grandparents to make this change. They have been saying the same mass for over fifty years. But they also adjusted after the Second Vatican Council changed the mass in the 1960's. So I'm sure that they too will manage.
In the end, I realize that ritual is a man made contrivance, an imperfect way of symbolizing our devotion to something we have no way of truly understanding. The fact that our rituals are manufactured makes personalizing them all the more important. If you don't understand what you are saying, why you are kneeling, or how you are worshipping, then it becomes empty gestures and meaningless mutterings, and ritual without meaning is hollow.