(… But maybe not in the way you think.)
I am interested to perhaps the point of obsession with liturgy because it played the leading role in why I am Catholic today. Herein I will tell the story of my falling away from, and then return to, the One True Church.
When I was growing up, I went to a parish and a Catholic grade school attached to the cathedral which were basically stuck in the 1970’s. I saw the felt banners, listened to the clown homilies, gathered around the altar during the consecration, raised my hand in blessing, watched the liturgical dancers, clapped for everything, sang along to the guitar music, and (after I quit receiving on the tongue due to a couple spirit-crushing episodes) shambled up to Communion to punch my Catholicism ticket. I did it because it was what I was supposed to do. I was fairly amenable to it – I like singing, I find Scripture interesting because of the Blue Bible Books*, and I very much like ritualized actions. However, I had no problem with letting my mind wander during most of it.
When I was in first grade, seven years old, my oldest brother (14 or so at the time) started having late-night arguments with my parents about Catholicism. I went to bed before he did, but I could still hear their voices. My brother’s was accusatory, frustrated, and stony; my dad’s replies got heated sometimes. Then my mom’s low murmur would smooth over them both like oil on water, and the waves would calm to white noise again. It often kept me awake. It made me nervous, unsettled, and I remember thinking sometimes that maybe I should go out there and give everybody a hug so they wouldn’t be upset anymore, maybe I could find some pithy seven-year-old observation to tell my brother so he would understand, because that’s the way things got solved in books.
By the time I was in fourth grade, all three of my brothers had completely fallen away from the faith. I remember in class, my teacher was talking about how God will always answer our prayers. I raised my hand and said I’d been praying for my brothers for two years already and nothing had happened. I don’t remember what her answer was. That cemented a cynicism in me that had been laid the year before when, for some small-child reason, I decided that I would not fold my hands in prayer again until my brothers came back to the Church. I prayed with my arms crossed instead.
Since my brothers abandoned the faith (which my little brother later told me that he had never had in the first place) and my sister was a functional Protestant, the environment was conducive for some crises of faith of my own. The primary way I experienced my faith outside of my family was at Mass either on Sunday at our parish church or during the week at school. Unfortunately, Mass at both locations was congregation-centered instead of God-centered. Nothing at regular Masses said to me that what was going on was important, or necessary, or true. The songs were all about us. The homilies were all about the priest or deacon giving it. The decorations were all about members of the congregation – those felt banners I mentioned were the most prominent pieces of “art” at the parish church, and they were invariably massive lists of names I didn’t recognize; people who were receiving sacraments, or who were sick or dead. They would have some thematically-appropriate illustrations: appliqued felt grapes and wheat, drops of water, tongues of flame, that sort of thing. (We had some lovely statues of our church’s patron saint, and the Holy Family, but they were in the back of the church and very easily missed.) I didn’t know we were supposed to listen to the other prayers, especially the propers because they seemed like bits of prayer stuck in here and there, directed at nobody in particular because the priest just read them straight out of the book and then went on to something else.
The children’s Masses at school were all about us, and the teen Masses at the parish were all about us. Inclusiveness, participation, and relevance were the watchwords. God got rather lost in the shuffle. I knew what the Real Presence was (lucky me; most did not), but being exposed to so many people – kids and adults, regular people and those in charge of things – who behaved as though there was nothing special about the tabernacle, nothing special about the hosts or the chalices, nothing special about the sanctuary, made me think that there really was nothing special there. There was no indication of substance, of importance, of something to make me straighten up and pay attention. The things that stayed the same were a humdrum afterthought; whatever was special at Mass was what someone had done to make it new and exciting. I didn’t know why I bothered with it.
The words of the prayers at Mass are not important if a priest or anybody can make up whatever they want to say instead. There is no reason why we should say those words and not any words we feel like saying. So why should I listen to any words, if they are all interchangeable, and the ones today hold no meaning for me? If no one else cares that God is in the tabernacle, that it is God Whom they receive in the Eucharist, that it is God Whom they pour from glass flagon to glass chalices and occasionally splatter, then why should I? On a basement level in my mind, which could tell you the answers which I have had memorized from my youth, and in my heart which then could have found no words at all, I knew that I should still go to Mass because God was there and somehow, somehow He was important. But gradually the basement light was turned off, the door was shut, then locked, and I didn’t think about it.
I shut myself off from the Mass because the schism between what I objectively, intellectually knew about it, and how people treated it, was too catastrophic for me to process. Everything became rote. I still prayed at school and with my parents, but they were words that had been stripped of substance. I continued the actions because I judged them benign and I didn’t wish to trouble my parents. Secular life was hellish as well, but that’s another story.
I seemed doomed to be a Catholic in name only, until one summer when I was visiting relatives out of state.
I was riding in a car with one of my aunts, returning from a crafting group. She asked me if I wanted to go to daily Mass with her, but seeing as I didn’t see the point of going to Mass at the time, much less on a day when it wasn’t even required, I said no. We rode on, listening to a cassette she had of Christian, perhaps Catholic, music. I was lost in headspace until I started listening to one of the songs, and some of the lines struck me. I do not remember what they were, or what the song was, but I thought about them very hard and then suddenly I went from stoic teenager staring out the window to completely losing it crying in one second. I can only imagine my aunt’s mental process as she tried to perform triage on my emotions, asking if I were ok and whether she should pull over. She asked what was wrong and I replied by blubbering harder. I managed to croak out that if it was all right, could I please go to Mass with her and she said OF COURSE and we roared off. I was a useless mess the whole way there.
We got to the tiny church very early and had a long time to ourselves. My aunt offered to fetch the priest for confession – she was good friends with him – but I just blubbered more. I tried to convey what was going on in my head through a very convoluted extended metaphor of doors, gates, locks, losing and finding things, running away or towards, and whether I was wanted. Hearing myself, it didn’t make any sense but somehow my brain accepted the answers she gave to my cryptic coded questions as the right ones, ones which I needed to hear. Mostly I blubbed. My thoughts were disjointed. The Mass was said quietly and correctly. My sniffles echoed. I do not remember if I received Communion.
Christ is the Great Physician. He had to break my mind in order re-set it, so that it would heal properly.
When I returned home, I knew without a doubt that God was real. Not that I had doubted that He was real in an objective way; if anyone asked me I would say “Yes God is real”, but rather in a living color palpable right-there here-He-is kind of way; the difference between saying “Heaven is real” and “my mother is real”. Also, I knew that God is in the Church. So, I had God and I had the Church. I needed to learn more about this Church thing which was necessary to belong to. So, I did. I started with the liturgy. What was all this stuff involved in worship?
The paradigm shift I learned at the outset was that everything that left me cold, everything I didn’t like, everything I felt was wrong, was in fact not supposed to be happening. What was supposed to be happening were the actions that shouted, God is most important! What was supposed to be said were the words that meant, He is our God and we are His people! I had been watching lies and listening to unrealities. The more I learned about the liturgy, the more I learned about God and His Church. This was substance. This was the Church saying these actions and words point to certain truths, and these truths require certain words and actions. The Church takes these truths seriously. People have died for them. They’re not just interchangeable inanities begging to be dressed up in fripperies and flash-bang antics.
The people who messed with the liturgy stole from me. They lied to me and they cheated me. It nearly cost me my faith. It would have cost me my faith if God had not decided that direct action was necessary to prevent that from happening. It costs other people, other kids, their faith every day. God cannot be cheated, stolen from, or lied to. When I talk about the liturgy and have harsh words to say about those who tinker with it, that anger stems from deep-seated pain. I am hurt that adults who should know better are doing these things. If you’re dabbling in liturgy, you should have read some things the Church has written about the liturgy. If you don’t agree with the Church about the liturgy, then be honest and keep your nose out of it. I am hurt that adults who should know better were trying to steal my faith away from me by telling me that none of it was valuable. They hid things from me. They offend me by being disrespectful and irreverent to the God I try my best to treat with respect and reverence, and Who deserves nothing less.
It took many years to find a parish where I could experience the Mass in the way it is supposed to be done. Instead of telling me that nothing is important, it reassures me that God is crucial. And that’s the basics of the story of how false liturgy drove me away, and true liturgy drew me back.