A Mass Elegy
The way when we are about to say the Our Father everyone hesitantly reaches for the hands of the people on either side, people whom they do not know and would never hold hands with so boldly and nakedly in the world outside, and the way the people at the ends of the aisles step out into the aisle, with their hands extended, reaching for the hands of the people from the other side, and the way we all stand there, almost swaying a little but not quite, and the way we all elevate our hand-holding for the latter part of the prayer, and then detach our hands, grinning a little at the fact that we were all just holding hands; and even the few men who are uncomfortable holding hands with people they do not know and would never hold hands with, hold hands with them; and so we are one in grace like the dew that blesses the grass, like rain on the parched and withered fields.
The way the daughter, age twelve or so, shyly reaches her arm out and slips it around the waist of her dad, who inches closer, as he booms out the hymn, in a voice like a tractor starting for the first time after a paralyzing winter, and they stand like that, with her arm around him like a vine around a tree, all the way to the end of the hymn, and for a moment I think I have ascended into heaven, and heaven is here, as Saint Catherine of Siena said, and who would argue with a woman who dug graves for the dead, and who nursed those ill with plague, and who walked with condemned prisoners all the way to the brooding gibbet? Not me, brothers and sisters; not me.
And the way we shuffle up to receive Eucharist, and make faces at the moppet hanging over the shoulder of the mother in front of us, so that the moppet giggles, and this is a sound of pure ringing holiness, for where there is innocent laughter there is the Chief Musician, as He is called in the Psalms; and when we have arrived at the celebrant, and he offers the host to the mother and grins at the moppet and reaches out his hand big as a gentle shovel to bless the child, and she is not sore afraid but silent and smiling and aware that something sweet and cool is happening, then I feel the grace like dewfall upon us, and upon the toy bear clutched in the child’s arms, and the pianist who looks exactly like Agatha Christie, and the moth who is always circling the second light in the ceiling whether it is summer or fall or spring, but not winter; does he or she sleep away the winter, huddled in the sacristy, or cupped in the hand of the statue of the Mother outside?
Every single time I drink the Mass I am given a new gift, if I have eyes with which to see: the sweet old shoes propped under pews when the kneelers clank down; the shaking hand finding a dollar bill for the basket, an enormous gift from one who has nearly naught; the man in the wheelchair in the corner who sings quietly with the most beautiful velvety baritone I have ever heard; the woman bent so far forward by illness that the priest crouches and bends to look her in the eye as he offers her the host, attentive and kindly soul that he is; the young woman who always comes alone, but in recent weeks wears an engagement ring; the father and son chosen to carry the gifts to the altar, as alike in visage as twins, but one twice as tall as the other; the sheer spilling motley bumbled silly holy humanity of it all, ancient and ever new, theater and ritual, meal and story, some of the Words of the Lord written long before Jesus was born of the teenage girl Miryam, in Judea, in the time of Gaius Octavius, later Augustus Caesar.
Ancient and ever new, the same and different all over the world, spoken and sung every moment somewhere on this earth, in every language imaginable, with every music imaginable, and every sort and stripe of human being, and other beings too, like moths, gathered together to be washed by the Mass. Do we take it a little for granted? I do, we do, for it is as sturdy and available as a table, as regular as nightfall, as free as air; and every one of us has endured poor Masses, triumphant arrogant Masses, Masses that were mostly show and not so much humility and gratitude and food for the road, Masses that were merely tinny ritual, rushed through and rushed from; but this morning I do not take it for granted, for it is every day extraordinary, did we see it with the eyes in our innermost hearts; for it is of us and for us, a grace like rain on the parched and withered grass.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine. He is the author of books of essays and fiction including, most recent, the novel Martin Marten. In our Fall 2015 edition, you might have seen his essay on basketball great Steve Nash ’96, “A Wild Generosity.”