back to church

Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I attended mass in person.

If you had told me prior to the pandemic that I would ever go a year without going to church, I would not have believed it. I grew up Catholic and going to mass for Sundays and holydays was an important part of our faith practice. I was in church as a teen more than most because I became our small country church’s only organist in my second year of high school. I spent many years in music and liturgical ministries and, although I hadn’t been active in them in recent years, I still considered taking part in mass and receiving the Eucharist a vital part of my faith life.

Last March, when the severity of COVID was first becoming apparent, I decided not to go to mass for fear of exposing my father, one week before New York State went into lockdown and the churches temporarily closed. I began participating via televised mass as my mother had done when she was ill. Over time, churches here resumed services, first outdoors or broadcast to congregants in their cars in the parking lot. Later, indoor services were permitted with distancing, masking, temperature checks, pre-registration, and other measures in place, although the bishops have kept the dispensation from in-person attendance in place.

Because being part of a large group of people who are speaking and singing is inherently more risky than being at home or in a grocery store, I had made a personal decision not to attend mass in person until I was fully vaccinated. Last week, two weeks after my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I called the church to make a reservation to attend the Saturday vigil mass yesterday.

I arrived early, knowing that there would be a check-in process and that we would need to maintain spacing. I was masked, of course, and gave my name to the volunteer at a table, who found my name and contact information on her list. They keep the information on file so they can call if a positive test is reported. There was a temperature check and the distribution of a leaflet with the day’s music. I was allowed to choose my own seat among the pews, although every other row was blocked off by purple cords draped around the end. I sat near the music ministers, so that I could watch my friend play the organ and see the cantor who would be leading the singing.

If I had to choose one word for the experience, it would be stark. This is partly a function of it being Lent, which is a penitential season. There are no flowers and the sanctuary is kept as simple as possible. What was striking to me, though, was the space between all the ministers. The priest, deacon, two lectors, and single altar server were in chairs scattered around the altar and ambo, which is necessary for viral reasons. It amplified my sense of separation from them and from the rest of the congregation. Only people from the same household can sit in a group, so many of us were sitting alone.

I felt most like I was part of the assembly when we were praying aloud together. Although we were masked and there were far fewer of us than our pre-pandemic numbers, our voices carried well and we could hear one another, ironically helped by the acoustics of the space without so many bodies to absorb the sound. This was, however, a double-edged sword. During the prelude, I was annoyed by a couple behind me discussing home improvement projects, no doubt unaware how well their masked voices carried in the space.

As often happens, there were emotional moments for me during the liturgy, although not when I had expected them. As part of the prelude, my friend improvised on the Irish hymn tune St. Columba, which is often used with the text “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”. It is one of my favorite tunes. Back in the days when I could play the organ and was practicing, it was one of the hymns I would sing as a personal prayer. I was very grateful to hear it yesterday.

When we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, I was particularly drawn to the last phrase, “deliver us from evil.” I am still pondering the full implications of being drawn to that at this time. Like most Christians, I have prayed this prayer thousands of times. It is a testament to its strength that it reveals different aspects of faith as our circumstances change.

The third moment was that I choked up as we started to sing the Lamb of God. This simple text, which is placed in the liturgy shortly before communion, has long been my favorite prayer of the mass ordinary. Long ago, I set it in a choral anthem paired with a text from Isaiah. Again, a prayer that I have recited or sung thousands of times but that was somehow connecting with me in a new way.

Strangely, the thing that I expected to be very emotional was not and perhaps goes back to my feeling of starkness. In order to maintain distancing, communion was not distributed at the usual time. Instead, we prayed the concluding rite and then received communion. The priest and the deacon went to positions at the end of the far aisles and the congregants, keeping six feet of distance between them, filed up to receive the host, step away, briefly lower their mask to consume the host, then immediately process to the doors by a different route and exit, all while the communion hymn was being sung. Because I was near the front of the church, that meant exiting during the hymn without an opportunity to join in that prayer. Intellectually and from the public health viewpoint, this procedure for communion makes perfect sense. It keeps people from congregating in the building or around the exits and minimizes the chance of spreading the virus. From a liturgical perspective, though, it feels stark. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving and the word communion has the same roots as the word community; this more isolating experience feels counter to that. As someone who has study music and liturgy, it also was very difficult for me to leave while there was still sung prayer ongoing.

I was grateful to be able to attend in person but I don’t think that I will try to do it every week yet. Due to the cleaning protocols involved, there are only two masses per weekend; with fewer masses and reduced capacity, I don’t want to deprive other people from being there by taking up space myself on a regular basis. I do hope to go once during Holy Week, Easter Vigil if possible or Holy Thursday if the Vigil is in high demand.

Otherwise, I will continue to participate from home until our area progresses to the point where we can gather safely in large numbers again, when we can exchange a sign of peace, when things will not be so stark.

When we do get to that point, there will be another, more complex decision to make, which is how much of the politics and abuses of power in the church itself I can continue to tolerate. The clergy of the church continue to grapple with its own history and legacy of crimes, abuse, and sin, or worse, some grapple and some continue to deny. Meanwhile, lay people are not given the opportunity to fully use their gifts in service to the people and the church.

It’s exhausting.

The pandemic has blunted the effect of having this struggle before me every week. I haven’t decided yet if I can take it on so consistently again. I used to go to mass every week, even when I cried because of the pain. I did it because I couldn’t imagine being separated from the Eucharist. Because of the pandemic, I now know that spiritual communion is a reality, that I can feel close to Christ and to creation and all people, even when I’m not able to attend mass in person.

I don’t know what I will choose to do.

Another aspect of life in which I dwell in mystery.

a new civic/religious hymn

Since the Jubilee of 2000, I have belonged to NETWORK, a lobbying and educational organization dedicated to the principles of Catholic social justice and how they can be expressed through our democracy in the United States.

Their Lenten program this year is “Becoming Faith-Filled Voters.” In the introduction, the prayer segment was this new hymn. I was very moved by it and wanted to share it. While it is written in a religious context, I find that it invokes many principles that are shared by all people of good will.

A Hymn for a Time of National Crisis

O God of All the Nations
LLANGLOFFAN 7.6.7.6 D (“Lead On, O King Eternal”; “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers”)

O God of all the nations, your ancient prophets saw
that kings and institutions are not above the law.
Integrity is precious, and truth will one day stand;
Your way is peace and justice, and love is your command.

O God, when times are troubled, when lies are seen as truth,
When power-hungry people draw praise and not reproof,
When greed is seen as greatness, when justice is abused,
We pray that those who lead us will know what they must choose.

We pray they’ll gather wisdom and lift up high ideals,
To guide our struggling nation along a path that heals.
We pray they’ll have the vision to value each good law,
To put aside ambition, to seek the best for all.

O God of all the nations, may those who lead us see
that justice is your blessing, that truth will set us free.
Give all of us the courage to seek the nobler way,
So in this land we cherish, the good will win the day.

Tune: Traditional Welsh melody, from Daniel Evans’ Hymnau a Thonau (Hymns and Tunes), 1865 (“Lead On, O King Eternal”; “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers”)

Text: Copyright © December 19, 2019 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Permission is given for free use of this hymn.

Lent in my church

Many Catholic churches use bare branches instead of flowers during Lent. In recent years, my church has used small trees instead of branches. This Lent, the church environment committee went one step further.

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It’s the first time I can recall seeing the corpus removed from the cross.

I find it very striking. It reminds me of some of the Lenten hymns that speak of Jesus being hung on or nailed to “a tree.”

Some people may find this too unusual a presentation.

Feel free to share your comments below.

organist update

I posted here about a disconcerting incident at the church in Northampton when the organist fell ill at the console during mass on the first weekend in March.

As luck would have it, I was again in Northampton three weeks later for Palm Sunday. There was a gentleman filling in at the piano and organ, so I knew that the regular organist, a woman named Jeanne, was not there.

After mass, I asked two parishioners who were handing out church bulletins for an update. They told me that Jeanne had been ill with bronchitis and on medications, but arrived at church to play anyway – without eating breakfast, as she planned to receive communion. The combination was too much, resulting in the collapse which we witnessed.

The doctors ordered rest for four weeks before returning to work, so I hope that Jeanne was back in the loft for Easter Sunday, leading the congregation from the organ, and feeling well again.

(I am continuing in to be in catch-up mode on posts. With luck, there will be a post about why I was in Northampton again coming soon. Also, the navigation and layout problems with my blog are persisting, with a month’s worth of posts not loading on the main Posts page. The posts are accessible by using the prior or next post links at the bottom of each individual post.)

broken

We are a few days into the season of Lent, traditionally a time of increased prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for Christians. I like to also do some additional spiritual reading and I am loving the reflections on stories about women in the Bible that my friend Rev. Pat Raube is sharing this year through her blog, A Swimmer in the Fount.

I admit that I am feeling discouraged this year, though. Trying to live a life of charity and advocating for social justice has become even more difficult here in the United States, with many threats to human dignity and to our environment. No matter how hard I try, I can’t protect people from difficulties or make things better for them.

At church this morning, I was looking toward the altar when something caught my eye. Instead of decorating with fresh flowers and plants, during Lent many churches feature bare branches, and our church has two fairly large trees on either side of the altar. I noticed that, high in the tree on the right side, the tip of a branch had broken and was hanging down, held by some bark or wood fibers.

I feel like that bit of broken branch, hanging down, bare, and useless. Still, it is in a place where it is protected from wind, so it won’t be disconnected entirely from the tree. Maybe enough connection remains that, when the sap rises, there can be some healing or some new growth from the brokenness.

Today, though, it does not feel that way.

 

Light, Mercy, and Jubilee

Yesterday for SoCS I wrote about whether my chorus would “gird” or “put” on the armour of light. This morning at church the theme was light overcoming darkness, progressing to the concept of Jubilee and the upcoming Jubilee of mercy which Pope Francis announced on Friday.

The deacon who preached spoke about how this Jubilee calls us to welcome everyone without exception – and to not wait for the official start of the Jubilee on December 8, 2015 to do so.

My mind turned to how Jesus welcomed in the most profound way those who were marginalized in his society and faith – those who were ill or disabled, those without financial resources, foreigners, women, all those who were looked down on by the powers that be of his day.

As a woman who is a feminist and has chosen to stay within the church, knowing that it fails so often to fully reflect the radical gospel call of Jesus, this jubilee call is both an opportunity and a potential source of disappointment. While Francis has spoken often of a poor church for the poor and has championed causes of peace and social justice, he does not understand the profound ways in which the Catholic church has marginalized women and failed to challenge temporal powers that oppress them. Many other clergy in the church are openly dismissive of women’s gifts to the church and the world, unless those gifts are motherhood, domestic pursuits, or vowed religious life, preferably contained by convent walls.

Will this be the year when the church finally realizes that the call of jubilee to set the captive free applies to women both in its midst and in the world? Will the men of the church finally recognize that women are made in the divine image as much as they are?

An ancient call for peace

In my church, today is the Second Sunday of Lent, and, in the current cycle of readings, the Hebrew Scripture passage is from Genesis 22 about Abraham planning to but then not sacrificing his son Isaac.

The deacon who preached this morning pointed out that the Canaanites among whom Abraham lived practiced human sacrifice, specifically of children, so that, by telling Abraham not to kill Isaac, God was highlighting a difference between God and other gods that were of the contemporary culture.

He continued explaining that the prospect of the call to sacrifice Isaac is so disturbing that modern scholars decided to see how the ancient Jewish scholars interpreted the passage.  The ancient understanding of this passage was that God did not want any killing in the name of God. Not just sacrificial killing, or killing of children, or killing of those of one’s own religious tradition, but any killing at all.

It is humbling and horrifying that the Abrahamic faiths did not heed this call over the millennia and into the present day. So many millions of lives lost “in the name of God” with more being added each day.

My prayer today is for the mercy of God and the universal recognition that we are called to peace, love, and respect for one another, not killing.

Mardi Gras

It’s Mardi Gras! So, theoretically, I should be gorging on all the fattening foods in my house, consuming as much as possible before Lent begins tomorrow.

But that’s not my way.

While I will observe the traditions of my church in regards to fasting and and abstaining from meat on certain days, I don’t find it spiritually useful to give up chocolate or dessert or some other food or drink.

Instead, I strive to live moderately and thoughtfully in general, so that, when a special season such as Lent occurs, I can concentrate on spending additional time in prayer/spiritual reading and service, as well as making special monetary donations to charities.

I am certainly not discounting those who truly find fasting and giving up luxuries a spiritually beneficial practice. I am only sharing what works for me.

So Happy Mardi Gras! You can have an extra doughnut or pancake for me.

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