A seminary friend of mine, unfamiliar with monastic practice until last fall, questioned the usefulness of people who spend much of their largely sequestered lives in prayer. Utility is sometimes, in Protestant venues, defined in a rather limited way. As my readers know, I consider it a great gift of God in my life that both Catholic and Protestant worlds are accessible to me. My participation in one or the other is frequently marked by some discomfort -- I am always aware of what is "missing" or different -- but I suppose that that is a small price to pay for the grace of versatility, and for doors that are opened more often than they are closed.
The Carmelite chapel, its spare contemporary architecture almost devoid of decoration, is about half full when I arrive at the last minute, almost blown in the door by a bitter fall wind at the end of the day. I slip into my usual place on the far side, where I have been hiding out these past weeks. I had not realized until this terrible event in our lives occurred that there is no place in our usual church services for those whose days and nights are enveloped in grief. Our worship, albeit usually traditional and even stately, bespeaks energy, joy, life -- and crowds out those whose endurance does not extend that far. The Carmelites are filled with a gentle sense of peace, and offer a spiritual space that encompasses people in all states of being.
I note that in the opening hymn the congregation, mostly Carmelite nuns and people my age or older, sings the word "God" whenever the word "He" is printed in the hymnal. And then I am startled by the immediate appearance of the priest, wearing bright red vestments. Why red in October, I wonder? The color really stands out on this dreary day. "The Lord be with you," he says. "And also with you," we respond. He is young, and earnest, and hopeful, and sweet. He reminds us that it is the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude. That doesn't mean much to me, but I reflect on how I have wished, more often lately than usual, that we Protestants had not abandoned attentiveness to saints. I am much in need of role models these days, and grateful for my knowledge of the medieval women mystics, women whose encounter with the presence of God was not diminshed by hardship and loss.
The mass proceeds. One of the Carmelites reads the epistle lesson, and she and another of her sisters sing the responsive refrain to the psalm so that the congregation can follow along. One of the most striking things to me, as I have attended these and other masses, has been the lack of Bibles in the pews and the lack of information on the readings in the bulletins. It seems odd to me that Scripture is read and sung without citations or texts being provided. And also difficult -- I am much more visual than auditory, and so I am considerably hampered in my attentiveness with nothing in front of me with which to connect. When I mentioned this to a friend last week-end, she told me that her priest believes that the Word should be proclaimed and the congregation should listen. All well and good for those of us who are natural listeners, I suppose. Those of us who are not are somewhat deprived.
When the priest reads the gospel passage I am in better shape, having already spent considerable time with it earlier in the day. And he does a nice job of delivering a carefully considered homily. The text is the Lucan call of the disciples, an episode of some relevance to me personally, as I try to discern in the wake of disaster whether my call to ministry has been completely eradicated. The priest's thesis is that the twelve whom Jesus calls could not possibly meet any contemporary management guru's idea of a stellar corporate team. They are, instead, "extravagantly flawed" individuals. As extravagantly as I am? I wonder. I also catch in passing that this priest always uses the pronoun "He" when he refers to God. I still like him. His love for God is all over his face.
We move on to the eucharistic portion of the service. I drift in and out of awareness at this point; I can never keep track of the order, I have to remember not to say the Protestant ending of the Lord's Prayer out loud, and I can't participate anyway. Sometimes I spend these minutes in an internal consideration of the various Protestant attitudes and beliefs with respect to Communion, but today I don't feel particularly analytical. I just wait for the actual distribution, when I can sit quietly and open my heart to God. I am extremely grateful for this interlude of five or so minutes of peace in the presence of others who are praying at a time when my own capacity to listen for God is considerably diminished.
When the mass is over, I step to the back of the chapel to look out the huge windows at the walled garden courtyard behind the monastery. I had not noticed it before; it's beautiful, even in what has now become something like sleet. As I walk back through the chapel toward the doors, a couple of the sisters stop to hug me and thank me for coming. They have probably forgotten my name, but they know what has happened and why I am there, and they always thank me for joining them. I am, as always, so touched by their gentle and unobtrusive acceptance that I cannot manage my own words of gratitude.
"Useful" seems such a crass word in these circumstances. I would argue that gracious, and loving, and generous, apply. Words that one might apply to Jesus.