BY BRIAN DOYLE
The university’s chapel again undergoing renovations having to do with bringing light to corners dim and musty since Jesus was a teenager, the midday Mass is again peripatetic, and today it was celebrated in an old classroom.
All nine of us sat under an immense wall map of Rome “in the time of the pharaohs,” as the young woman next to me informed me helpfully.
To the south there was an oil portrait of a brooding benefactor and a bulletin board festooned with class assignments and stern remonstrations; west was Rome, in all its eternal glory; east was a stack of folding chairs, in case of a miraculous surge of celebrants; and north, behind the makeshift altar and the dapper Father Celebrant, was a huge thermostat, as big as a hat, and two tremendous windows facing the university’s central quadrangle.
The students being gone for Christmas break, only surly jays and ebullient crows flitted by during Mass, that I noticed, although one time there was a sudden flurry in the grass, which may have been a hawk, or a grapple of squirrels.
The first reading is from the Song of Songs, my beloved spake, and said unto me, rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away, and miraculously my soul did leap, like a roe or a young hart.
For reasons I do not understand, and realise I will never understand, and no longer care to understand; it’s not the words, lovely as they are, read with passion as they are, but some inchoate inarticulate knowledge that there is a One who loveth me, and looketh forth, and showeth Himself through the lattices, and driveth the flowers and the turtles, the birds and the figs, the foxes and the vines
And though He standeth behind a wall, and is hidden in the clefts of the rocks, and the secret places of the stairs, I do see His countenance, and hear His voice, in every blessed bruised moment, if my eyes and ears are open; even moments like this one, when the skies are moist and gray, and it is November in my soul, and my worries do crest as though they were floods in the blood, and my fears for those I love who are ill and dark do be legion.
The second reading is from Luke, and when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the spirit, and spake out with a loud voice, and said, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy! and again my heart leapt, against all sense and reason. It’s just a story, isn’t it? It’s just a story.
It might well be fiction. It might well be a biblical editorial committee’s way to foreshadow the arrival of the One in flesh like mine, only younger and browner. It might be utterly and egregiously untrue, a dream, a lie from tip to toe.
Yet my soul did leap for joy, and I too blessed the womb that carried that Child, and I too shuffled silently and moved toward the thermostat and the tremendous windows to eat the bread that is not bread; and having eaten it I was changed, in subtle ways I do not understand.
We do not often admit that the essence of what we say and think and believe is utterly nonsensical, in every way, from the belief that there is a Lover who showeth Himself through the lattices, to the bread that is not bread.
But almost every time I am soaked in the waters of the Mass, especially when it is celebrated not in glorious cathedrals but in musty basements and dusty classrooms, on dining room tables and rickety boards propped on sawhorses, my soul doth leap, and a deep thirst is slaked in some way I do not understand, and I shuffle out cleaner, quieter, happier.
I cannot tell you how this is so, and all the words I use are weak. Yet it happens to me, and it has happened to you. I do not know how this sweet crucial thing can happen, or what it means, or how to explain it, but the very fact that it is there for us, possible, waiting, daily, all over the world, in every language, no matter how many people have tried to kill and forbid it, is an extraordinary thing that we should occasionally, with something like awe, sing aloud; and so, this afternoon, I do.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, Oregon. His books include Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.
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