I can’t think of a time in recent memory that I have had less fun than I did on Easter Sunday. It was the day I found out that feeding four young children a breakfast of donuts and Easter basket candy results in the same behavior you’d expect to see if you gave crack to monkeys. It was the day that I learned that my husband and I are evidently descended entirely from warlike peoples, our genes leaving our offspring without a shred of proclivity towards civilized behavior or docility. It was a day that I was blessed with bountiful opportunities to work on the sins of pride, wrath and despair, all within the span of an hour.
It started out nicely enough. My mom had bought a new suit for my five-year-old son, and identical teal floral dresses for my three daughters, all ages three and under. After going through the process of wrestling the sugar-manic kids into their fancy clothes and finding matching socks and dress shoes for each one of them, we actually managed to get out the door in time to arrive at church a little early.
We got a seat in a pew towards the front, and my two toddler girls immediately started getting fussy. It was an ominous sign, considering that Mass wouldn’t start for ten minutes.
On top of their breakfast devoid of a single nourishing molecule, they hadn’t slept well the night before. I looked over and saw my three-year-old daughter enact the universal sign for “YOUR ENTIRE DAY IS ABOUT TO BE AN EPIC FAIL” by lashing out in frustration and then rubbing her eyes. She was cranky. It was because she was losing control from being overtired. This was going to be bad.
The choir started belting out a joyous hymn, and the entrance procession began, a deacon holding up a large gold-plated Bible as he walked down the center aisle. Everyone stood, the traditional Christian posture indicating readiness to hear and respond to the Word of God. Everyone except for my two toddler daughters, that is, who threw themselves on the floor when I asked them to stand.
Their behavior got worse and worse, and after a few minutes I left my husband with my son and the baby so that I could take the two girls to the “cry room,” a glass-walled soundproof room within the sanctuary. I nodded hello to some parents I recognized from Mother’s Day Out, whose children were coloring quietly in their seats. I settled us into some chairs at the front. “Should be fine from here,” I thought fatefully. At least their whining, harrumphing, and occasional shouts of “no!” whenever I so much as looked at them wouldn’t disturb the congregation. We made it through the first two Scripture readings, and I even managed to get the girls to sing along with the Psalm.
Then it was time for the Gospel – and not just any Gospel reading, but the account of the glorious Resurrection that we were there to celebrate! We all stood, and I traced the sign of the Cross over my forehead, lips and heart, in the traditional sign of desire that Christ’s words might be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart. I was ready to enter into the mysteries of the Word.
I closed my eyes. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
I opened my eyes just in time to see a flash of teal as my two-year-old daughter football-tackled her sister, the two of them rolling across the floor like a pastel-colored, screaming boulder. Hair was pulled, shoes were kicked off, and the shrieking was enough to shatter an eardrum. If the other people in the cry room could have heard me, I would have shouted over the noise to explain that I found these two feral children living in the woods behind the church — in, umm, matching designer dresses — and took pity on them and brought them in. Instead I just dragged the girls outside, attracting the full attention of the thousand or so people in attendance when the girls’ screams filled the sanctuary in the time it took me to get from the cry room to the exit.
It took about fifteen minutes to get them calmed down. By the time I returned to the cry room I’d missed the Gospel and most of the priest’s homily. The rest of the Mass was better, in the sense that it was the kind of day where only having to hiss “don’t lick the chair!” three times was a step up. We made it through the consecration, Communion and the final blessing; I even managed to keep my composure when one of my daughters asked me during the closing hymn what her “special church tweet” was going to be, referring to the goodies we sometimes give the kids after Mass when they behave well.
When we got outside, the three of us looked like we’d been through some sort of battle. My skirt was hanging lopsided from having it yanked on so many times. The girls were each missing a shoe, which I carried under my arm, and their bows dangled limply from their hair.
“Wow, that was a catastrophe,” my husband commented when he saw us.
I realized as we walked back to the car that, oddly enough, I didn’t feel like it was a complete failure. I was puzzled by my own reaction that I felt like it was actually a fulfilling experience.
I thought back through the Kafkaesque memory reel of the preceding hour, and I think it was then that I understood the wisdom and beauty of the Eucharist more than I ever had before.
When I was first researching Christianity I read some of the writings of the early Christians, and felt like I had stumbled across a very odd religion here. They all seemed to see their church services as revolving around Communion, and they seemed to think that this Eucharist, the bread they ate at Mass, was, literally, the body of God incarnate.
After Ignatius of Antioch found out he was to face execution for being a Christian, sentenced to die in front of jeering crowds by being attacked by lions in The Coliseum around 100 A.D., he exclaimed, “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or in the delights of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for drink I want his Blood which is incorruptible love.” In another letter he referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying.”
“We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink,” Justin Martyr wrote around 150 A.D. “The food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.”
My initial reaction to this stuff was to get all John 6:60 about it. It was a hard teaching.
After enough reading, I eventually came to an intellectual acceptance of the idea of God’s own flesh being made present at the Mass, though I still felt somewhat puzzled by why God would do something so outlandish and why it was necessary in the first place.
Over the past few years, though, something changed. As I’ve said before, the more I received the Eucharist, the more I understood in both my mind and my heart that this is indeed life-giving food for the soul. I’ve come to see the genius of God giving himself to us in such a primal way, and what an unfathomable gift it is that he strengthens us with his own physical being.
And it has never been more clear than on Easter Sunday.
Church that day was more about survival than enjoyment, with 100% of my brain power and emotional energy going to wishing that straight jackets came in sizes 2 and 3T. I wasn’t able to even hear the Word, let alone think about it, and any deep contemplation of the Resurrection was out of the question. And yet when the priest placed the Eucharist on my tongue, I received Jesus Christ himself — who is the Word and who is the Resurrection.
As I walked away from the church building, disheveled and frazzled, I smiled when I thought back on my very un-fun morning at Mass. I was overwhelmed with relief to realize that I didn’t need to be able to feel happy emotions at church (or even be able to think much at all), and still I’d receive everything I could ever want or need.
The ride home from the airport after we picked up our Kidsave child Rita was a little tense. We quickly found out that when they said in her bio that she speaks some English, by “some” they meant “not a single word.” A Colombian social worker named Maria was with us as well, and she didn’t speak much English either.
“Is hot too where you live?” I asked in broken Spanish.
They barely managed to nod and smile. They had arrived a day late after getting stuck in Atlanta overnight, and were too exhausted to strain for conversation topics. Rita was so tense and stressed by her strange new surroundings that she’d developed a bad headache. In the forty-minute drive back to our house we made some other efforts at chitchat, but it was hard work. Our group consisted of a suburban American family from Texas, a young career woman from the bustling city of Bogota, an orphaned child from rural Colombia, and we were all tired. It was pretty quiet for most of the ride home, the main sound being the air conditioner straining to beat the sweltering heat.
Then Maria started to say something, hesitating to make sure she chose the right words. “I hate to trouble you,” she said apologetically, “but it’s very important that Rita and I go to Mass on Sunday.”
When I told her that we are Catholic too, everything changed.
In one moment we went from having nothing in common to having everything in common. We’d all read the same Bible passages at Mass the weekend before, so we talked about that for a while. Then the subject of the rosary came up, and we shared tips about how to make praying the rosary a daily habit (something we all wanted to do but hadn’t managed to accomplish yet). That led into a long discussion in which we gushed about Pope Benedict, which then got us talking about Pope John Paul II. While we were talking about our parish priests someone brought up the subject of Confession, and Rita mentioned that she was sure to go to Confession before she came on this trip. When the subject of Mary came up we were talking over one another, Maria and I both getting choked up while recounting stories of how God has used his mother to draw us closer to himself. Maria shared touching stories about how it helps her work with orphaned children to let them know that they not only have a heavenly Father, but that God gave them Mary to be their spiritual mother as well.
Over the next couple of days things were predictably awkward as we all got settled into the new routine, but our Catholic faith served as the anchor that held us all together. They immediately gushed over our painted tile of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Maria noted that a friend of hers had the same Christ the Teacher icon that hangs on our wall (mine written by my long-lost cousin the monk). A little segment about St. John Vianney came on the EWTN-Spanish channel, and Rita was uncharacteristically talkative as she told us all about how his life has inspired her, impressing me by knowing off the top of her head that his feast day is August 4. I had given Rita a disposable camera, and later we’d see that the first picture she took was of our framed print of this beautiful photo of Pope John Paul II which hangs in the hall outside her bedroom door.
When we went to Mass, the unity we felt was palpable.
As we walked into the sanctuary (pictured above), we all dipped our hands in the holy water and crossed ourselves without even thinking about it. We slid into the pews and Rita smiled as she pointed out a nun sitting in front of us. Maria pulled Rita close and pointed to the red candle over the tabernacle at the front of the sanctuary, whispering that Christ is here too.
The service started, and I saw Rita’s body relax as she fell into the familiar rhythm of the Mass. Though she wasn’t able to understand a word of our pastor’s homily, she could read God’s Word along with us in the Spanish-language Bible translations provided in the missalette; and the central reason we were there, the Eucharist, surpassed any language or cultural barriers. We moved as one — Rita, Maria, our family, and everyone else in the building — as we crossed ourselves at the beginning of Mass, traced the sign of the cross across our foreheads, lips and hearts before hearing the Gospel, knelt as God was made present, stood to say the Our Father, then knelt again before receiving Communion, our external conformity of movement symbolic of the inner conformity of belief. Though I’d known all along that technically Rita and Maria are our sisters in Christ, watching how seamlessly they fit into the congregation at the Mass made me see what a true filial bond we really have.
After the Mass Rita and Maria took a stroll around the sanctuary, familiarizing themselves with the church. I sat in a pew for a moment and watched them move from place to place, chatting about the Stations of the Cross and our statues of beloved saints Faustina and Martin de Porres, stopping for a moment to pray in front of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rita began to move around the church as if it were her own living room, smiling freely, all the tension gone from her body.
I’ve read stacks and stacks of books with high-minded treatises on Catholicism and the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, but it wasn’t until that moment that I really got just what a gift Jesus gave us when he established a Church. I got it because, seeing Rita at Mass that day, I saw what a gift it was for her.
She’d arrived here an orphan without a home, tired and weary from a tumultuous journey and a more tumultuous life, blown to and fro by every kind of human inconsistency, finding herself living in a foreign land in a new house, surrounded by strangers. And yet through the Church we were united immediately as a family, not only in the core beliefs about God and life but even in our surface-level expressions of faith like blessing ourselves with holy water or praying the rosary or lighting candles to symbolize prayers. As I sat there in the pew that day and watched Rita walk through our sanctuary, seeing her rest in the soothing familiarity of her surroundings, my heart swelled as I realized that through his Church God had given her not just a family, but a home.
After all the austerity of Lent, I was really looking forward to experiencing the beauty of the Easter Mass this morning. I couldn’t wait to behold the visual feast of our breathtaking sanctuary filled with freshly cut white flowers, rich white and gold fabrics, and other decorations that symbolize a season of life and hope. I looked forward to settling into the comfort of our usual pew and listen to the choir proclaim joyful hymns that they’d undoubtedly perfected over weeks of practice.
But as we neared the church and policemen in orange vests waved us past the entrance, I realized that things weren’t going to go as planned. The huge parking lot was already at capacity, and we had to park a few blocks away. When we arrived at the church building, which has a capacity of almost 2,000, we saw signs that said that it was already full. We were directed to go to the overflow seating in the parish meeting hall.
We walked into the parish hall to see that it too was almost at capacity; we headed for some of the few remaining seats at the very front. As we walked down the aisle between rows of yellow plastic chairs I moaned to myself that this was not where I wanted to celebrate Easter. It’s a nice enough room as church meeting halls go, but it has all the ambiance of a high school gymnasium.
After we settled into our seats, however, I looked up at the front of the room and my mood immediately changed: under the large screen that showed a live broadcast of the Mass from the main sanctuary was a solid oak box with a gold key sticking out of the lock, a red glass candle on each side. It was a tabernacle. He was here.
I was caught off guard by how comforted I was that the Blessed Sacrament was here in the room with us. My memory flashed to a time when I was a toddler when I felt lost and scared at a new pre-school and my dad unexpectedly showed up to come get me. In an instant, I went from feeling vulnerable and disoriented to basking in the reassuring presence of my father, knowing that I was safe and everything would be okay. It was the same feeling today.
The Mass began, and it was immediately clear that the sound system left something to be desired. Over the speakers, the choir sounded like they were singing into empty coffee cans, and they were often drowned out by the sounds of fussing children or chairs screeching across the floor. Visually it wasn’t much better. The screen showing the Mass was washed out by the bright lights, and there were no decorations other than some rich silk sheets under the tabernacle. My own children were restless and I had to spend a lot of energy keeping them quiet since there was no cry room available.
And yet, tears filled my eyes at the beauty of it all.
It was a powerful sight to see so many people there at this one service. In my more cynical days I might have dryly noted that many of these people obviously don’t come every Sunday; I might have assumed it was just a meaningless cultural tradition for most of them. But today I recalled the hundreds (maybe thousands) of people I saw in our church last week to receive the Sacrament of Penance so that they would be properly prepared to receive the Lord in the Eucharist today. Many people had to wait for hours, some not getting home until near midnight. It says a lot that while the church was overflowing with people at the celebration of Easter, it was also overflowing with people confessing their sins the week before.
When we saw our priest approach the altar on the screen to begin the consecration, almost everyone got down on their knees on the hard stone floor. It was a gripping scene to see everyone from children to elderly adults on their knees, in their finest clothes, on a painfully unforgiving floor.
After the consecration, one of the Eucharistic ministers approached the tabernacle with deliberate grace. He bent down on one knee, his nice suit pants pressed onto the bare floor, and turned the key to unlock the tabernacle. The other Eucharistic ministers got down on their knees and bowed their heads as he carefully took out the ciborium.
The choir began singing I am the Bread of Life and I noticed that its melody was no longer a new sound for me; its comforting familiarity made me realize that I’m slowly leaving the “new convert” phase and entering a new season of faith. I walked up to the Eucharistic Minister, and when she placed the Body of Christ on my tongue I was moved to tears. I was in a gymnasium-like building with all sorts of abrasive noises echoing off the unadorned walls, yet Christ was there, and that was all that mattered to me. It was the first time I fully understood what J.R.R. Tolkien once said about the Mass in a letter to his son: the Eucharist is really all that matters; the externals are nice, but it is Christ who makes the Mass beautiful.
At the end of the service I dried my eyes as the choir began enthusiastically belting out Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As we walked back down the aisle under the fluorescent lights, past the rows of cheap plastic chairs, the music sounding tinny over the speakers and overtired kids throughout the building yelling and crying over the din of metal chair legs scooting across the floor, I thought that it was one of the most beautiful Masses I’ve ever seen.
Five years ago last Saturday, my husband and I got married.
In many ways, that night was the apex of our worldly life: our wedding took place in a rented theater, I wore a dark purple dress, we wrote our own vows, our officiant came in second in a stripping contest at a gay club the night before, and the afterparty lasted until eleven o’clock the next morning. Shoot, we weren’t even technically married at our wedding. The piece of paper from the state meant little to us, so we just got that out of the way the day before.
Here’s a picture from the reception. We had the most fantastic DJ in the world who had a talent for keeping everyone energized and on the dancefloor:
That night felt like the beginning of something big.
Earlier in life I was never even sure I would get married, thinking that my career was the only thing that really mattered, so it was a stunning coup to marry such a good catch. My husband had grown up poor in a single-parent home, and through some combination of brilliance, hard work, and a mother who is a force of nature, he ended up graduating with honors from Yale, then going on to Columbia Law School and Stanford Business School. He was one of those people who could do anything he set his mind to. Everyone told us we had the world at our feet, that that October night was the beginning of a blazing bright future.
If you would have asked me that night what we’d be doing on our five year anniversary, I would have guessed that we’d be living in some gorgeous house, perhaps a renovated bungalow is the choicest part of town; maybe we’d have one kid; and for the evening of our anniversary perhaps we’d travel to Paris, or maybe to Mendoza, Argentina, one of our favorite destinations.
Instead, on Saturday we found ourselves driving our messy, beat-up minivan full of kids to vigil Mass (where our children dedicated themselves to acting as much like untamed monkeys as possible), then going home to eat rice and beans for dinner. Five years ago, it would have been outside the realm of reasonable thought to even consider that over the next few years we would both convert to orthodox Catholicism; make the decision for my husband to switch to a more modest (and far less glamorous or lucrative) career path that allowed him to have a stable job with pleasant workdays; move way outside of town to an anonymous suburb; and have three kids with one on the way. What we wanted was a life of adventure and excitement and learning, not some suburban existence of diapers and budgets and church.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the high life: when we threw ourselves into seeking true adventure and excitement, energetically searching for the best that life had to offer, we discovered that the travel and the parties and the downtown lofts weren’t cutting it anymore. We found that there just might be something more to life out there, something more thrilling than anything you can find on the other end of a first-class flight.
On Saturday, as I bounced my squirming baby on my lap, a little tired from the new pregnancy, watching my husband chase our precious (if annoying at the moment) children back to their seats in the sanctuary’s cry room, I thought about that night five years before. On October 4, 2003 my husband and I promised each other that our wedding was just the beginning of a great adventure, that together we would seek to find the height of the human experience, to figure out what it meant to live the very best life possible — and whatever that was, we’d dive in head first. And as the mellifluous tones of a hymn floated through the air and he and I stepped forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, a tear stung my eye when I realized that that’s exactly what we did.