My family and I were spread out in the living room, surrounded by that comfortable cacophony of semi-clutter that makes a house a home, poised to embark on our nightly rosary…when the phone rang. (Of course.)
My brother answered in that classic teenaged, almost military style, in which his tone conveyed absolutely nothing to the rest of us eager eavesdroppers. A minute elapsed, brimming with such descriptive words as: “Okay…okay. Okay. All right. Yeah, you too. Yes. Right. Got it. Bye.”
At last, my brother hung up. “Father M. is going to be offering a Low Mass tomorrow morning,” he announced.
“Where? What time?” my sisters and I chorused.
He named a chapel we all knew, then pronounced, “Seven in the morning.”
Immediately we all began making mental calculations, in which the spirit was quite willing but the flesh was weak. Of course, seven in the morning isn’t horrendous – but for us, it requires getting up at 5:30 in order to rise, yawn eighty times, get dressed, and arrive at the chapel with enough time to snatch a few quick prayers before Mass begins. For us, 5:30 a.m. is…well, mildly horrendous. We’re no morning glories.
Be that as it may, this was still too tantalizing to pass up: aside from First Saturday Masses, this would be the first morning weekday Latin Mass we’d had the privilege of attending so far since we came to the old liturgy. (Here’s to milestones!)
I went to bed marking my missal, filled with grateful zeal. Interiorly, I was so eager to go and to assist at a Low Mass in such a special and intimate setting. Historical biographies of aristocrats with private chapels on their estates where the Latin Mass was offered daily (sigh…) had only stoked my desire to be blessed with at least a slightly similar experience (even if I don’t have that aristocratic air). What would it be like? So early, and with only my family, our two friends who had let us know of it, and the good priest, all in one tiny chapel?
It was this same type of zeal that dragged my mother, my siblings, and myself out of bed in the 5 o’clock hour the next morning. We left for the Mass in the golden, spilling light of dawn as my faithful father left for work. We yawned through our fervent declarations of how excited we were. I drank in the vividness of color that morning light reveals.
Once we arrived at the chapel grounds, the five of us unloaded from the car and wandered around for a bit before we located the right door. Outside, the early July morning was warm, humid, and still. I could feel my skin going prickly and my un-showered hair becoming a puffball…but that’s what mantillas are for. As this chapel door was still locked, we stood outside and conversed with our two friends. We were all, most likely, privately sniggering at how sleep-deprived some of us looked. At least I was.
The good priest arrived shortly afterward, his vestments encased and tucked under his arm, and we all filed inside the tiny, hushed chapel, where Heaven was shortly to meet Earth in the beautiful form of the Latin liturgy, with just the eight of us there to adore.
I stepped into the dimness (lit only by the sanctuary lamp), blessed myself, found a seat as quietly as I could, and knelt.
Immediately, I was impressed by how the smallness of the chapel, with only twelve seats and accompanying kneelers, made everything feel – not claustrophobic, yet incredibly close.
As I knelt, praying and blinking sleepily before the tabernacle, warm light shifted and fell through the stained glass windows, washing my missal pages with the colors of the Sacred Heart. Thank You, thank You, my heart prayed in quiet rhythm. And yet while I was smiling (in a very prayerful, pious, saintly way, of course) with excitement and gratitude to be able to attend this rare weekday Latin Mass, at the same time, I started feeling as if my smallest noises were obnoxiously loud.
But never mind. The Mass began, and as the prayers at the foot of the altar commenced, my ears and mind were flooded with Fr. M’s undulating voice, with his unique enunciation of the Latin (each priest’s enunciation is slightly, fascinatingly different!), and with the server’s steady responses; with the sounds of their vestments rustling, with the color of the priest’s stiff, blood-red Roman chasuble, in honor of St. Pantaleon.
And yet, oddly, they were also flooded with the creaking of the kneeler beneath my knees; with the rustling of my missal pages; with, essentially, me.
Most weekday mornings, my family and I stream Mass live out of Sarasota, Florida, thanks to the FSSP’s wonderful apostolate LiveMass.net. Praying along with the Mass every morning, even though it’s across a distance, is a tremendous blessing – but there is still the inevitable separation of my physical presence from the Mass’s location, where I’m not conscious of my own presence at the Mass, so to speak. In a similar way, at our nearly 100-year-old parish where Latin Mass is offered every Sunday, we have a spacious nave, beautiful side altars along the transept, and a majestically domed sanctuary; thus, a person can easily feel diminished and obscured by the sacred loftiness of the Church, and the beauty and wonder of the Mass being offered there. Self-consciousness is almost nonexistent.
This chapel was different.
Although I couldn’t clearly articulate it to myself then, I was struck and humbled by the reality of my own ordinary humanity – of the priest’s humanity, the server’s humanity, the humanity of the eight of us. We were there, at the sublime sacrifice of the Mass, in the midst of a host of invisible angels and saints, in the glory of God preparing to come down upon the altar. I was there, with my frizzy hair, my feet itching from mosquito bites after a barefoot volleyball game the week before, with my hungry stomach, my suddenly loud swallows. How to describe it other than this? I was there. Or, perhaps better put, I was allowed to be there. Even though my heart was so grateful for that moment, and I united myself as best I could to the Mass, I nevertheless felt clumsy, thick-minded, and unable to comprehend what was happening.
My fantasized dreams of being able to attend a morning Low Mass in a setting such as this had seemingly forgotten the reality of me. I had forgotten how the Mass does not simply erase the sometimes awkward quirkiness of my possessing the nature of a human being.
And yet…the Mass was happening, all the same. In fact, it was happening because the consecrated priest, in all his humanity – the same humanity as mine – was there, offering it.
The Latin Mass first captured my heart with its ancient beauty, with its clear and vibrant witness to the Truth through the form of its sacred liturgy. I truly was awed, and I was humbled, because it proclaimed to me how great God is and how much reverential adoration He is due. It taught me to forget myself during the liturgy and simply to adore God and to surrender my heart to Him.
But there, in that small chapel, I began to also realize the unspeakably condescending love of God toward me – toward all of us – in the Mass. I began to see how God explicitly deigned to take His Holy Mass, the highest prayer and greatest miracle, and to attach it and to wrap it up in the physical actions of simple, faulty human beings.
Somehow, I don’t think I’d ever really contemplated that before.
The Mass is sublime, because it comes from God; it gives us God and gives us to God. And yet it will always involve our humanity, require our humanity, for the simple reason that He fashioned it that way.
The Mass’s existence ultimately relies on the divinely ordained priest, who swallows, breathes, shifts, rustles, sniffs, coughs, and is susceptible to making mistakes, as we all are. And while the Sacrifice of the Mass certainly does not rely on the laity in the same way, it is nevertheless ordered, in its very nature, to receive us and require us to give all that we are, body and soul, to God.
The Mass embraces our physical presences, our wandering minds, our growling stomachs. The very fact that God – surrounded by His angels of fathomless beauty, radiance, and grace, and by the glorified souls of His saints – desires to be surrounded by His often awkward, clumsy human creatures (including me) in this Most Holy Sacrifice, to the point where the Mass cannot be offered and the Eucharist cannot be confected but for the ministration of a human being, of the priest in persona Christi…this is dumbfounding.
This is love.
So in that tiny chapel, the Mass progressed; I received Our Lord in Holy Communion along with my family and our friends; I stood for the reverent proclamation of the Last Gospel; and soon enough, I was kneeling in quiet again. The peace “which passeth all understanding,” the peace that comes only from the Eucharist, seeped into my soul, even as I contemplated and wondered at all these new realizations and questions that I would work to articulate later in this over-written, over-edited article.
Faintly, birds chirped out beyond the stained glass windows; small animals shuffled through the outdoor mulch. Eventually, we all filed out of the chapel; the good priest hurried on his way to his next destination, and our friends left for work. My family and I headed back home to the rousing tunes of Switchfoot (we still had a little waking up to do, after all) and with a quick stop for breakfast.
The Mass had happened, just like that, with me and for me. For all of us. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it had been different from my romantic daydreams of an early morning Mass – and yet, of course, it had been better. It had shown me a tiny, clearer glimpse of the beautiful, infinite condescension of Our Lord’s divine love toward me – body and soul – in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I pray I will never again forget it.
Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum.
Mary Donellan is a freelance writer from the Deep South, and is deeply passionate for traditional Catholic living and for sanctifying the domestic Church. She blogs at marydonellan.wordpress.com