Recently, I was sitting in the small chapel inside the community where I live. It used to be a TV room. Now, it has all the accutrement: small pews, a wooden table that serves as an altar, a large crucifix on one wall, a picture of Mary on another. There’s even a sacristy created by a large room divider. It’s intimate and small and perfect for prayer.
And there we were. Three of us total. The elderly Jesuit celebrating Mass had a large print Order of Mass and a travel lamp to see the prayers better. He’s 92. He’s doing his best with aged eyes and thick glasses.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
“And with your spirit.”
Then, my mind began to rehearse a conversation I needed to have with a student. I watched as Mass things happened. Thoughts about my day accosted my mind and I felt my heartbeat in an all too familiar worrisome rhythm. I popped back into Mass and heard words being read. My to-do list ran across my brain; I’m really behind. At some point I successfully reoriented myself long enough to receive the body and blood of Christ. But by that point I was so out of sorts and guilt-laden for not being fully present at Mass that I wrote off my prayers as null and void.
“May almighty God Bless you, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”
“Thanks be to God.” I say this response more as relief than in rejoicing.
On Christmas Eve, 2008, my family and I were at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Grandview, Missouri, a working class suburb outside of Kansas City. My family had been attending Christmas Eve mass at St. Matthew’s for several years. Our custom was to arrive early and save a pew or two for everyone in the family. Spreading winter coats across the pew, with aunts sitting at the ends: “Sorry, these pews are taken.” The rolling eyes of annoyed parishioners made me nervous.
This Christmas felt different. My grandma passed away in September that year, and I felt the void she left. And I was 30 years old, so I might have had a little too much to drink before Mass. Most of my family did that year, which made the bad singing from the choir funnier than usual.
I took a moment to calm myself from the distractions and glance at my watch. 30 minutes before Mass began. Then I saw my grandpa. He was kneeling, elbows bent and resting on the pew in front of him, his head leaning on his clasped hands. I noticed his eyes. They were closed tight, as if he was concentrating. My grandfather was always unassuming about his prayer life, but there he was, visibly praying. With nothing but time, I joined him in prayer. I knelt, and mirrored exactly what he was doing. I wanted to pray with my grandpa.
I made it to Mass, 5:17pm. I was only two minutes late. I have to admit, I can’t recall the first reading. I can’t remember the responsorial psalm. My mind was once again preoccupied.
Sometimes, when hungry or angry, lonely or tired, I turn into a grumpy mess. And that day I sat, wounded by exhaustion, internally insulting the ancient Jesuit saying Mass.
He’s so old school. Why is he so somber? Isn’t this supposed to be a celebration? I’m never inspired when he says Mass, and he says Mass ALL THE TIME!
It’s much easier to place blame on someone else rather than take responsibility for my own self. Instead of taking a moment to give my day to God, I was silently hurling all my feelings towards the innocent man in front of me.
But then I saw something familiar, post-communion. Everything was put away. The aging priest closed his eyes and sat in silence. His face looked so calm, the wrinkles on his face relaxed. He looked like he was asleep, he was peaceful. His eyes closed tightly, fixated on prayer. And I saw my grandpa, kneeling before Christmas Eve mass, praying something so intensely I wanted to join him. I wanted to join this Jesuit in prayer. Like my grandfather, he was pointing me towards God.
I can’t sit here and say this moment cured me of all my spiritual ailments. I guarantee I will be at Mass again, filled with lethargy and indifference. It might happen tomorrow. But I go to Mass anyways. I return to the place where God wants me to be because somehow, in all my occasional disinterest or all-the-time distractions, God initiates a desire for me to be there. Daily. I respond by simply going. And sifting through all the muck and weeds of my head and heart, God finds a way to shine a light on simple faces of humbled men, inviting me to see what followers of Christ do: to be still and know that I Am.