Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Masses I Have Known, Part One

I am currently reading Fr. Ian Ker's biography of G.K. Chesterton. Reading again about Chesterton's reception into the Catholic Church, which took place in a tin shed behind the Railway Hotel in Beaconsfield, and about the newly-built Catholic Church in Beaconsfield to which Chesterton and his wife contributed a statue of St. Francis, got me thinking about churches new and old, ancient and improvised.

I find the idea of being received into the Church in a tin shed very moving. In fact, I can hardly think of any setting more romantic or appealing.

I've always felt like this. As Irish readers will know but non-Irish readers may not, there was a long period of time in which Catholicism was suppressed in Ireland and Mass had to be celebrated in secret, often outdoors, with an altar used as a rock. Even as a child, I found the idea of these open-air Masses very appealing. I can remember, when I was very young, writing a poem-- I think it was the first poem I ever wrote on my own initiative-- in which I rhapsodized about this practice. I remember the last phrase was "a song from your mind", but nothing else.

Additionally, although I am a traditionalist in most way-- I like old things because they are old-- I prefer new churches to old churches, small churches to big churches, plain churches to elaborate churches. I think this is because the Catholic Church is already ancient. The Lord's Supper is ancient. The building in which it is celebrated doesn't have to be ancient, or even old. In fact, if it is a modern church, that only seems to emphasise the fact that this ancient thing is still alive and kicking.

On the bus home today, I found myself thinking about all the different churches and other places where I have attended Mass, down through the years. I am a chronic list-maker.

So this post is going to be more self-indulgent and rambling than usual. But the great thing about bloggery is that nobody has to read any of it! Hurray!

I hope that this list, however, is not irreverent. I know the Mass is a sacrament and not entertainment, an aesthetic experience, or "me time". I know our attitude to the Mass should be humble, awe-struck gratitude rather than the snootiness of a restaurant critic. But I am writing here about the accidents of the Mass, not its essence. And I have no deeper point to make than to muse upon my own reactions-- which activity, it might be rightly pointed out, is rather pointless and wasteful in itself. But what the heck. It keeps me off the streets.

I can't remember the first Mass I attended. Since I have lived in Ballymun all my life, I imagine it was in either my current parish church of the Holy Spirit, Sillogue or the nearby Virgin Mary church in Shangan. Both of these churches-- and they are almost identical-- are almost universally disliked, from an architectural and aesthetic point of view.

Except by me. I love them. I love their plain, brown-brick, barely-ornamented, low-roofed simplicity. I have written a whole post about Saturday morning Mass in the Virgin Mary, which has been my favourite part of the week for a long time now. If you want extra Lenten penances, you could try reading that.

I remember my mother used to take me to Mass on Sunday evenings, in the Holy Spirit church, when I was a boy. I hated it. Religion, to my childhood self, seemed to be a matter of gloom and guilt and grimness. Of course, there is an element of truth to that-- and one we are in danger of losing- but I had no conception of the joy that could be found in the liturgy. I once remember looking at one of the stations of the cross and feeling an intense aversion to the whole atmosphere of the Christian story-- I thought of the Holy Land as a place of dust and dryness and dessication, and this seemed to me to be the whole flavour of Christianity itself. I don't think I believed any of it, although I'm not sure about this. I was at least sceptical.

Of course, part of my aversion to Sunday evening Mass was that it signalled the death of the weekend, and the no-longer-to-be-ignored imminence of Monday morning and school.

I can't remember how large the congregation was during those long-ago Masses, or whether I received Communion-- I think not. In fact, only a few specific memories recur to me. I can remember the priest once, in order to emphasise that the Scriptures could not always be taken literally, telling a story about a man who went to the doctor with scalded feet. He had been cooking beans and the instructor said, "Stand in hot water for five minutes". I can remember, after a local man had been stabbed to death through a case of mistake identity, a poem he had written about Mass was read from the pulpit. It contained the line, "It only lasts for half an hour".

I made my confirmation in Our Lady of Victories church nearby. This is a large, modernistic church with stained glass windows taking up most of the wall-space. I remember, during the preparations for the confirmation, looking at a purple and pink stained glass window and wondering if it showed the Unholy Trinity, which I imagined would be a couterpart to the Holy Trinity. I think I thought this because the creature in the stained glass window looked like a goat to me, and I was familiar with goats as symbols of Satan from horror films. During the confirmation Mass itself, I remember my uncle and sponsor saying to me: "It's all a bit of an anti-climax, isn't it?" I can't remember believing or disbelieving in what was happening. It seemed to go on forever.

I went to an Irish language primary school, and I remember we attended Irish language Mass in the school hall on a few Sunday mornings. Once again, I felt a certain frisson that the sacrament was taking place in an ordinary, non-purpose-built venue. But I remember more that the thing seemed to go on forever, and how relieved I was at the end, and how emphatically and ironically I responded "Thanks be to God!" (BuĂ­ochas le Dia) when the priest said the Mass was ended.

In secondary school, another Irish language school run by nuns, I remember that we were at least once taken to attend Mass in Our Lady of Dolours church in Glasnevin-- a structure whose enormous spire, dwarfing the actual church, gives it a pyramidical appearance. I remember being fascinated by the pigeons that flew around inside, and the fact that the painted cross hanging above the altar was coloured a deep, vibrant red. My strongest memory attached to that church visit was walking home behind a girl I had a crush on, and yearning for her with all my soul.

I can remember on one occasion, in school, we had a Mass in the classroom. I remember being surprised by this, since (as far as I can remember) it was a unique occurence. I remember being impressed by how reverently our French teacher-- a small woman who was usually rather dry and prosaic-- took the proceedings. And once again, the fact that a classroom had been transformed into a makeshift church stirred my imagination.

But by far my most memorable experience of church-going, in my teens, was when I was visiting my aunt and uncle who lived on a farm outside Limerick city. They brought us to church; and it was a revelation to me that everybody in the neigbhourhood went to church, and took it seriously. The Church (I have just checked) is called St. Joseph's, Clarina. I liked its airiness, its brightly-coloured walls, its stained glass windows-- most of all I liked that it was bright and cheerful, which seemed the most surprising novelty in a church. For the first time ever, my spiritual depths were stirred, and I had a brief but intense conversion to Christianity. (It must have been brief, because I don't remember attending Mass under its influence; though I do remember writing a poem about the resurrection on a glossy-notepad, the tops of whose pages advertised Knorr soup.)

With no adults to take me to Mass, I don't think I attended Mass again for a long, long time. The only time I went to Mass for many years was to attend funerals or memorial services. I remember attending a funeral Mass for my aunt in the Holy Spirit (or was it the Virgin Mary?), and being appalled at the banality of one of the hymns played-- "He's my forever friend, my leave-me-never friend". I remember feeling an icy disbelief that a whole lifetime could be dismissed with such a puerile hymn.

My mother's funeral was in the same church, and I remember next to nothing about that, except that the famous "unto everything there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes was read out-- why should such an uncompromising passage be so consoling, so comforting?-- and that my father recited a poem from the ambo, and that it was greeted by applause.

By the time I attended my aunt's funeral, in the very Limerick chuch where I had had my mini-conversion, I was already drifting slowly back to faith, by way of conservatism. I was thirty years old. I had decided that tradition was surpassingly precious, and that the rural life and folkways of Ireland were infinitely superior to how things happened in cities and suburbia. I can remember quite consciously, at that funeral Mass, understanding that Catholicism was the beating heart of the Irish rural tradition I prized so much, and feeling a sense of tragedy that I remained removed from it. I had the same feeling when, about the same time, I attended a funeral Mass in a church in Portlaoise-- Peter and Paul's Church, I assume-- when a friend's mother died. All I remember about the church was that it was enormous and almost empty.

My conservatism deepend as time went by. I craved ritual and ceremony and tradition. I remember, under the influence of a book by the agrarian writer H.J. Massingham, going to a sparsely-attended evening Mass in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, University College Dublin. It might have been my first visit to the plain, small, wood-panelled church I have come to love so well. But it was just a one-off. I remember, for one horror-struck moment, I thought the priest was going to point me out as a new attendee (he began one sentence with "I see that we have a new..." Eeek!). But I knew I didn't believe, so I couldn't really justify attending Mass.

When I did finally take the plunge, I was too self-conscious to go to my local parish church. I only had the vaguest idea of when I should kneel, when I should stand, and what responses I should make. (Those who feel protective towards the dignity of the liturgy, and who feel tempted to look daggers at somebody who joins in the priests's doxology or commits some similar faux pas, should reflect that the transgressor might be a newcomer who is more jittery than a bag of snakes.)

And as this rambling and self-indulgent post is already long enough, I will terminate it with a "to be continued". I hope the suspense is not too cruel.

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