When I was 18 years old and a freshman in college I decided to attend church for Easter Sunday. I wasn’t really a church-goer, but Easter’s a biggie. I felt the need to attend for reasons I was not clear on at the time. I remember discussing it with other freshmen on my floor and finding out that pretty much everyone from a Christian background was attending some kind of service for Easter. I think that may have helped tip the scales in Church’s favor, but it’s hard to remember since it’s so long ago. A good friend of mine (a self proclaimed druid) was taking a religion class that required her to attend some sort of religious ceremony at some point in time in the trimester. So when I announced that I was going to church on Easter Sunday, she said she’d come with. I decided that we were looking for three things in our Easter experience.
1) An early morning service. Somehow (and I still believe this-no matter what I actually do) I really feel that Easter is best celebrated early in the morning. Perhaps it’s because it’s a spring holiday, perhaps it’s because I was dragged to a few sunrise services as a kid or maybe it’s just that the church windows are so beautiful with the sunlight streaming through them.
2) A breakfast afterwards. I took it as a given that the breakfast would be horrible, but that was part of what I expected as part of my Easter experience. Before I went away to college, we would go to Easter service at my parents’ and we’d sit with a family with which we were friends. My sister and I would joke with the two girls in the B family about how the sausages resembled cat turds. We were all punchy from having gotten up early and that was part of the good vibe that I expected to get out of attending church on Easter. So church breakfast was an important part of the package. In hindsight, my standards for what constituted Horrible Food had probably changed by that point in time as I had been eating food service at college for a term and a half. I’m guessing that even the prospect of Differently Horrible Food was appealing to both me and the friend who was accompanying me to the service.
3) Car service to and from church. We were college students in Minnesota. Neither of us had a car and we planned on dressing nicely. So we needed to be ferried to and from the church service.
I had no problem finding a Lutheran Church that satisfied all three of these conditions. My friend and I got up early and were conveyed to the church. We sat through the service. Neither of us was interested in taking communion. The breakfast was indeed horrible-just as bad as food service. But I didn’t get the good feeling I expected to out of the service. I concluded that I was only really going to find Church to be a worthwhile experience if I’m surrounded by my family and the service is familiar.
Fast-forward 16 years. In this time, among the many things that have happened and the many decisions I have made, I have changed my religious self-identification back to recovering Catholic, as opposed to luke-warm Lutheran.
Over the past week or two, I had felt the need growing in me to attend a Mass. I don't do this sort of thing regularly as my relationship with God does not fit any of the available templates (that is, organized religions). I accept this. I also accept the fact that I am not going to work out my own template, because I have other things to do. So when I feel the need to talk to God, I use the protocols that I know-even though I don't believe in the associated paradigm. Which is a fancy way of saying that I go to Mass to talk to God, even though I'm pretty much apostate.
As I mentioned above, I have recently felt the growing need to go to a church service-and even though I’m not a churchy sort, I consider this a good sign. This is not the sort of thing I'd feel if I were uncomfortable with my life. If I was miserable I wouldn’t have the brain-space to wonder about whether or not attending Mass would help. For example, last summer it never occurred to me to go to church even though there’s a church half a block from my house. I was too busy being miserable about how a friend of mine was dying and my romantic relationship was falling apart. It never occurred to me that church might be comforting.
Instead, I was feeling the need to go to Mass partly because I felt the need to say “thank you” to God about how much better my life is now that I live in Beverly and have started work on my MBA. I also felt a strong need to hear someone say “he is risen indeed” to start my spring off properly (for the record, no one actually said that. Ironically, I think its part of the Lutheran service).
So I had been contemplating going to Mass on Easter for several days. Before going to bed on Saturday night, I checked the schedule of the nearest Catholic Church and set my alarm to a time that would allow me to catch the earliest Mass (even though I was dog tired.) I also noted that there was a 10:30 Mass, for all the slackers. I woke up when my alarm went off, but elected to go to the beach instead of going to Mass.
When I was a kid, and Grandma lived in Beverly, we used to come up here for Easter. A few times (my memory is shaky but I’m pretty sure we did this more than once) we went to a sunrise service at Lynch Park. It’s true that the service was short, but getting up at sunrise to wear a spring dress outdoors on Easter in Massachusetts is Not Fun. However, I retained enough of an impression of these one or two services and evidently some part of me finds the idea of sunrise on Easter on the hill at Lynch Park appropriate (however inconvenient this actually was-given the weather.) So instead of just going to the closest beach I opted to go to Lynch Park for my morning walk.
It was a beautiful day and the tide was out. I went first to the hill where we had watched the sunrise when I was younger and then to the main beach. I took pictures. I took my shoes off and stood in the Atlantic Ocean. I called my sister to share the experience (she has three small children so I knew that she’d be awake at 8:00) and talked to my still-sleepy niece and nephew. But mostly I walked and rejoiced in the beautiful weather and the fact that I was there and awake to enjoy it (as opposed to still sleeping in Cambridge and avoiding waking up for as long as I could).
Eventually, I decided that I was hungry and I headed back to town to eat breakfast. I asked myself whether or not I should still go to Mass. I like following through with good intentions. But I asked myself if I hadn’t already celebrated Easter by going to the beach and rejoicing there. “Do I need to go to church?” I asked myself “Didn’t you just do that?” I answered. In the end I decided that I did, in fact need to go to Mass-not just because I owed it to myself to follow through with my earlier intentions, but because I did in fact need to say “Thank You” and that’s part of what Mass is for.
So I went. I felt like a bit of a poseur, but I decided that no one was allowed to judge my actions but God and me. So I found a hymnal and a place in the hindmost pew and started looking through the hymnal for the hymns and the readings. I could see that I was the only one that was doing this, which struck me as a bit odd.
Not too terribly far into the service something else became apparent to me. For several years I had found attending Mass uncomfortable because I felt the need to respond to the rituals that had been ingrained in me, but I had resisted. Now I knew I was there partly for the ritual. I think that part of the reason I chose to go back to being a bad Catholic (as opposed to a bad Lutheran) is due to the experience I had in college when I attended Easter Service and was disappointed. If you are a protestant and you are attending a church in your denomination of choice somewhere other than your home town, you can have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to say and sing and how you’ll be expected to conduct yourself. But if you attend a Catholic Mass in a strange place, even if you haven’t been a regular attendee of Mass since 1987, you know exactly what you’ll get-whether you’re attending a church in Cambridge, MA or Staten Island, NY. This is part of why I reverted to being a recovering Catholic.
So I discovered that I find attending Mass satisfying partly because I’m slightly OCD. It’s true that attending Mass as a kid has probably helped to bring out these OCD tendencies. Apparently the whole thing is one self-fulfilling loop. But I don’t care. I am a person who spends all day thinking about whether or not the coffee pot is plugged in. Spending an hour or so crossing myself, repeating known responses and reciting the Pater Noster is not going to change my identity. It is not going to make me a practicing Catholic. It is just satisfying the part of my brain that needs to respond to compulsions. And by satisfying this part of me that feels compulsive about things in a church, where I know no one (and where everyone else is doing the same thing) I am less likely to have this tendency of mine negatively impact my professional or social life.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t pay any attention to the rest of the service. I noted that the Psalm of the day (118) was the one about how “this is the day that the Lord has made” (I have no idea how to cite Psalms. ) Apparently, this psalm is the source of “the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone” (a personal favorite of mine, and probably all late bloomers) as well as “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes” (supposedly what Queen Elizabeth I said when she received news that her sister Mary was dead and she was queen of England.)
I listened actively to the readings and the homily. I always listen to the homily. If for no other reason than that I read literature and interpret it. It seems to me that the homily is just an essay interpreting a piece of literature, which we have all just heard. So morally and vocationally, I am always interested in what the priest or minister is saying. This particular homily was an epic failure, if its point was to Convince Catabridgienne to Be a Practicing Catholic.
The priest had two points neither of which was attractive to me. Point number one was underlying the need for a Pope which he attempted to express/justify through the story of Mary Magdalene going to Jesus’s tomb, finding him absent and running off to Peter (and John?)
If this was a paper I was grading, it would have gotten a bad grade. The linkage between what actually happened and what he claimed happened because God wanted it that way was very weak. And furthermore-this is Easter Sunday-you’ve got a large audience. Shouldn’t you be preaching about universal peace and love instead of responding to Maureen Dowd’s column?
The priest’s larger point was that we were all in this for afterlife insurance. We were all there because through the sacraments we could defeat death and live eternally in Heaven. Um, no. Ick. Really, I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect Sunday to remind me why I want nothing to do with church.
I have spent and will continue to spend a good deal of time thinking about my relationship with the Big Guy Up There and what constitutes my personal salvation. However, none of this has anything to do with afterlife insurance. I am much more interesting in being a good human now and knowing that I did the best job I could at helping my fellow humans. I may or may not have an afterlife, but knowing that I am a good human in my actual life is important to me. Since I operate (personally and professionally) in “what could possibly go wrong?” mode, I generally leave the afterlife out of my considerations. But if there is one, I take comfort in the idea that I might, at the very least, get to hang out with the Virtuous Pagans-instead of being sent to purgatory.
As I stated above, I am not a practicing Christian, but at the same time, after the Mass was over and while people were taking pictures of their kids at the alter, I knelt and gave up my small, informal, unorthodox prayer of thanks to God for allowing me to be in a place to make myself a better person and to better enjoy life. I don’t think there’s any passage in the Bible that specifically recommends this particular course of action, but from my point of view this is what constitutes salvation. I am not there yet, but I am on the right road.