Nov 4, 2008

"First" Mass

I have been to Catholic Mass in the past, but never on my own, and not since deciding to join the Church.

This weekend I was a bit uneasy - I felt I needed to go to Mass, but I wasn't sure where; I still haven't decided on a parish home, nor do I fully know the strictness of the Church's instructions on the subject of choosing a parish. At 3pm, I resolved to go to 5pm Mass at St. Bernard of Clairvaux - one of two parishes equidistant from my house.

It was great - ancient and yet novel, structured and mystical, wonderful and practical. A combination of many such natural and supernatural forces pulling in complimentary directions towards God.

One very compelling thing about the Catholic Church for me, and for non-Catholics, is the way even the physical and material architecture convey otherwise indescribable aspects of God. Now, I'm not an art critic, nor do I know anything about aesthetics or design or anything; but it's obvious to me that there are those in the Church, past and present, who do, and that they combine their gifts with their faith to express Truth of God beyond what words can ever capture.

(In fact, I think my very first Catholic experience, though I did not know it at the time, came at Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris. If you step inside for just a minute, you feel both the expansiveness and definitiveness of God surrounding you. Look at the South Rose Window and you will simultaneously perceive the combination of both the simplicity and the intricacy and mystery of the Faith. That the memory of it is as fresh to me now as so many years ago speaks of the timeless nature of God's imprint - on our world and ourselves.)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was not an exception. Although it was obviously an Americanized expression, I felt those unspeakable qualities come back into me.

As I sat there inside absorbing it all, I was particularly struck when I heard the reading from Psalm 23, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." I felt very much like that was exactly what I was doing ... for the first time in a long time. The next hymn was equally striking, considering that I am still coming to full grips with how God was showing me Who I Am - You Are Mine. Whoa.

Sunday was All Souls' Day and so Msgr. Gaalaas's homily was to that effect. The day prior had been All Saints' Day; in my explorations, I've found this Catholic truth of the Communion of Saints one of the most wondrous mysteries to discover about our own faith. There are libraries' worth of material on it, so I won't even try to do it justice in a sentence or two.

But, I'm beginning to understand three facets of the Mystical Church, the Body of Christ, following from the Catholic doctrine of Justification - the Church Militant on Earth, the Church Triumphant in Heaven, and the Church Suffering in Purgatory. All Saints' Day commemorates and remembers those members of the Church Triumphant, and All Souls' Day commemorates and remembers those members of the Church Suffering.

Purgatory and the idea of the Church Suffering was one of those doctrines that seemed terribly unfair to me as a Protestant. Like I said, it flows from a specific understanding of Justification - which is far too great a topic for this post. Suffice to say, my perception of the doctrine is, I believe, a little more refined now. Though the fullness of its mystery will always allude my human brain, I can offer a couple of analogies ...

On Sunday, Msgr. Gaalaas spoke in terms of our eyesight. Think of your own vision, when you have been asleep all night, and then someone throws open a window to let in the sunlight. At first while your eyes are closed, you can only barely perceive of the change, but enough that it wakes you up. When you are ready to get up, you open your eyes, and you're forced to take in the fullness of the light. Your eyes will tinge with that slight pain, but eventually they adjust and you get up to enter into the day.

C.S. Lewis also describes this other understanding or perception of suffering and pain. He describes the kind of satisfying pain you experience after you've had a day of exercise - an enjoyable pain that carries the promise of strength and growth with it. More theologically, he directs the point specifically:

  When I was a child I often had a toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother - at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew should would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch, they took an ell.
  Now, if I may put it this way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of or which is obviously spoiling daily life. Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.
  That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake,' He says, 'if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is hat you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect - until My Father can say without reservation that He is well please with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.

Personally, I'm experiencing something like this myself. I regularly go to the gym - typically 3 or 4 times a week. But, a couple weeks ago I got sick and did not go. And then I only went once last week, and have not gone at all this week. I know what I'm in for when I finally go back - I will be more tired and exhausted at the gym and I will be much more sore that night. Because of that, I'm somewhat dreading going to the gym because I know it will be painful. But at the same time, I know what it will mean for me immediately after my workout and for the following day - I will feel better than I have in a long time and I will grow a little stronger and fuller because of it.

And this is what I've come to understand as the Church "Suffering" - they are already on their way to Heaven. They are not bearing a desperate pain, but rather a joyous and hope-fueled refining of themselves in preparation and anticipation of a full perception of God. That's something I can seek after, rather than fear.

After reflecting on it all for a couple days, I am hopeful that Mass will continue to instill provocative thoughts and emotions that fuel my efforts to seek more and more of God.


Matt C said...

You might like this line:

"The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you"
David Foster Wallace

Phyllis Renée said...

Hi Luke. I stumbled across your new blog today and am so glad I did. This is some really interesting stuff. And while I was reading I was thinking how I know nothing about the Catholic church, so all I can do is sit back and listen to your story and follow your journey. But I am going to direct a blogger friend or two your way (whom I respect very much) who may be able to help you on your way. I'm thinking you would have some very interesting conversations with them.

Also, I take it you and Tiffany are no longer at Agora? It's been a while since I've been on Saturday nights.

luke said...


We are still at Agora - I think we'll still try to do both Saturday nights and Sunday mornings as much as possible, though some of that may depend on which parish I join.

Thanks for he comments, and I'll look forward to hearing from more people from the blogosphere.

Therese in Heaven said...

Hi, Luke,
I'm a friend of Phyllis. What a blessing for you to be on this walk with God!

I'm a cradle Catholic and was brought up in the Tridentine and Byzantine Rites of the Catholic church, though my husband and I now belong to a much more "standard" Roman Catholic parish.

Thank you for deciding to write down your journey as you go. If you have any questions or would just like to talk with a fellow Catholic, please feel free to email me.

Monk-in-Training said...

We Anglicans agree about the growth that we Christians experience after death. Interesting that you chose an Anglican theologian to express what most consider only a Roman viewpoint. ;)

BTW, You might hear some Anglicans refer to Roman Catholics as "Romans". It helps us to distinguish between the Church with the Pope, and our Anglo-Catholic fellows.

I am so impressed by your journey and hope to encourage you as you grow.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem
"Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth"

Saint said...

Monk-in-training, you have no idea to what end we Catholics never quit hearing about CS Lewis. But really, it was mainly his nationalism that kept him from joining the Mother Church - at least, that's how Tolkien like to think of it. Ironically, Lutherans often discuss Thomas Merton, the Catholic scholar! I guess it just shows how we all really are brothers.

Luke, as far as I know, it doesn't matter which parish you choose to become a member of. Mostly, it's a matter of convenience for the parishioner. Liturgy remains the same no matter what parish you're at, from Tulsa to Tokyo to Rome (which is part of why I love the Church, since you have no excuse to miss out). There might be slight differences in the Order of Mass, but in any Roman Catholic parish in Tulsa there probably won't be.

Monk-in-Training said...

Saint - ;)

I have always understood it that you attend the closest Anglican parish to your home, not the one you 'liked' most.