An Illustration, If You Needed One

So, moved as I was yesterday by the solemn, sonorous tolling of the bells at the church just a block from me, whose bell tower I can see from my balcony, but which I’ve never set foot in, I went to an afternoon Mass, wanting to spend some time focusing on my hopes for the more inclusive, more compassionate, more contemporary Church that I still hope is forthcoming.

This was not a good choice. And I’m still a little heartbroken by how it went.

The Mass itself was fine — the church is tiny, and everything about the service is a little unpolished and awkward, but well-intentioned and friendly. But as I’m sitting there, using this service for contemplation, for once again asking whether I can find some space within which I can carve out a personal relationship to the Church that will be more comforting than painful, there were no fewer than three moments that jarred me right out of that space, that hurt so acutely that any comfort was completely undone. Twice, in the course of the Mass, in the prayers of the faithful and at another point that I can’t remember, the lector’s text — note that it wasn’t the priest who said this, but the lay reader of the scriptures — referred to “the sanctity of life, from conception to a natural death.” Twice. And in the intercessions, as the lector called upon us to pray for those who have recently died, including the pope, of course, Terry Schiavo was included on the list.

Now, yes, I think that she and her family need all the prayers that they can get, for her peace (at last) and their healing. But the unsubtlety of the series of comments were a painful announcement that my perspectives were not wanted, that I live outside the bounds of acceptability in this church, and that there would be no home for me here.

I walked home utterly demoralized. Went online and discovered that my beloved Cathedral had held a special Mass beginning an hour after the disastrous one I’d just been through. I hadn’t even thought to look. It would have been worth the hour-plus drive each way, to have gotten to spend some time there, in the one place where I’ve actually been able to believe that the Church still wants me.

It’s ironic, in some sense, that the Cathedral — where Sunday Mass is often presided over by the Cardinal, where the enormity of the structure and the height of the ritual’s pomp dwarf the individual — is an infinitely more diverse and accepting place than is my neighborhood church. In part this is due to the Cathedral’s location, at the nexus of a number of very different working-class ethnic communities, and thus with an extremely diverse congregation. But the building itself creates this sense, as well, despite its size; the tapestries depicting the Communion of Saints, first of all, represent those saints in their diversity, and include among them images of contemporary Los Angeles kids. But what always gets me is the tapestry depicting the baptism of Christ, which stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I went into the Cathedral. It took me a minute or so to figure out why: Jesus, on his knees, facing away from the viewer. Facing the same direction we are. Not above us, but with us. One of us.

There was none of that yesterday; there was only dogma. The things that make belief seem possible to me were repeatedly shattered by the too-apparent attempts to manipulate that belief in ideological directions. Probably I should have gotten up this morning and driven to the Cathedral, to wash yesterday’s Mass away, and to remember the kinds of inclusiveness that remain possible. Instead, I’m going to run, to spend some time with my thoughts, alone.

4 thoughts on “An Illustration, If You Needed One

  1. ouch.

    while taking the Grovernater on his morning walk around the church across the street sunday morning, I vaguely thought about going to mass. Just an idle thought that gained no traction.

    Just as well, as I probably would have had the same experience as you. The last few times I’ve attended mass have been with my parents in Little Rock, mostly as a gesture of goodwill towards them (and because a restaurant generally follows after). Since I end up having to attempt periodic astral projections to escape sudden ideologic subtexts way too often, I’ve pretty much abandoned the whole thing.

    And my tolerance level for the subtext isn’t at all helped by the fact that my good catholic parents–who unabashedly expressed their concerns and suspicions over france’s non to the war in iraq–have never, ever even slightly acknowledged my pointing out that the pope was openly and verbally opposed to the US invasion. Nope, that just sort of didn’t count/doesn’t exist.

    That last paragraph doesn’t sound too bitter, does it ?

  2. I’m a little bleary-eyed this morning, I think; I first read your comment as “death-defying,” and had a momentary flash of priests on the flying trapeze…

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