The other weekend my husband went out of town with the three older kids, and I stayed home with the baby. I decided to take the opportunity to tackle pretty much every household project I hadn’t gotten to in the past four years, and ended up staying up until 3:00 AM on Saturday night. When the baby woke up around 7:30 the next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My muscles ached from moving furniture and hauling trash bags full of garbage and Goodwill items up and down the stairs all night, and my mind was foggy from so little sleep.
I got her dressed in a daze, and we headed out to go to Mass. As soon as we settled into a pew I got frustrated. I always enjoy picking up the missalette and looking over the Scripture readings ahead of time, but the baby kept grabbing at the pages so I gave up and put it away. I wasn’t up for any deep thought anyway. I sighed and prepared myself to not enjoy the service very much today.
Yet as the Mass started and my physical and mental fatigue prevented me from doing the things I normally do, I began to experience it in an entirely new way.
Normally when the lectors get up to read the first and second readings I have my nose in the missalette and am energetically analyzing the Scriptures from all possible angles to wring from it as much meaning as possible. But this day I simply sat back and listened, absorbing only the most plain truths of the words. Surprisingly, I might have even got more out of it than usual since not having the words printed in front of me kept that noisy overly-analytical part of my brain from kicking into high gear.
When the cantor went up to the lectern to sing the Psalm, I instinctively leaned forward to grab the missalette again. It was actually a small revelation when I realized, “Hey, I can actually just sit back and listen.” Receiving the wisdom of the Psalm only through musical words in the air added a whole new dimension to it, and allowed me to feel it as much as I thought about it.
As the Mass moved on and I was easily able to do everything I needed to do, even while exhausted and having both hands occupied with a squirmy baby, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being taken care of. I didn’t need to be “on” to get something out of the service; I could be exhausted and frazzled and unable even to hold a missalette and still hear the Word of God proclaimed and renew my covenant with him by receiving the Eucharist.
I marveled at the perfection of the Mass, how God has given us a system for worship that will enrich you regardless of your state of mind: if you’re feeling sharp and energetic you can bring books to help you gain a deeper understanding of each line of Scripture, you can ponder the astounding connections of the Mass to the book of Revelation, and think about the infinite mysteries of the Eucharist; or, if you are tired and weary, if your gifts don’t lie in the area of analytical intelligence, or even if you don’t know how to read, you can still be a part of the Mass as much as anyone else.
Feeling so uncharacteristically tired myself, I began to think of all my sisters in Christ who feel this way all the time. I thought of all the women throughout the world at Mass this day, hearing these same readings, also with babies on their laps, also feeling fatigue down to their bones. I thought of those of them for whom this is not an uncommon feeling, their bodies reeling from working sun-up to sundown seven days a week. I thought of how many of them are illiterate, too busy just trying to survive to get much of an education, never having learned even the most basic reading comprehension skills that I typically employ at each Mass as I study the missalette. And yet, spiritually, they are taken care of too.
As I stood with the baby at the apex of the Mass, the reception of the Eucharist, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this gift that is as simple as it is profound. You eat God. He becomes part of you in a physical way. The whole concept is stunning and yet so primal, so primitive, that anyone in almost any state can grasp it.
Rarely in my life have I felt so comforted as I did that day at the Mass. I realized that no matter what happens to me, whether I become rich or poor, whether I end up strong and healthy or feeble and frail, at the Mass I will be taken care of. Because the only thing that will ever be required of me to fully participate is simply a love of God.
One of the things I most looked forward to as part of the Christ Renews His Parish retreat the other weekend was simply the opportunity for a leisurely confession. There are always so many people in line at our parish’s confessional that the priests have little time for extra spiritual direction. For weeks I’d been eager to have the opportunity to chat with a priest at the retreat and get his insights on some things I’d been struggling with.
But when the big moment finally came, I was wiped out.
It had been a grueling past few weeks, I’d been up since 5:30 in the morning, and I was tired almost to the point of physical collapse by all the activity involved in the retreat. Then, when the priests first started arriving, one of them gathered us to make an announcement: one of the men who was supposed to be there, a priest named Fr. Francis whom I had heard good things about, would not be able to come because he’d just found out that both his niece and his nephew had been killed in a horrible car accident.
The news of that level of tragedy was the final blow to my morale. It triggered one of those “the world is such a terrible place” moments where I felt overwhelmed by all the potential for suffering and loss that exists in the human life. I waited for my confession in a mournful daze.
When my time finally came I walked down a hall to see that they’d closed the women’s bathroom so that the tiny space outside could be made into a makeshift confessional. The priest was a kindly Pakistani man who said little as I settled into the chair across from him, next to a plastic table with a Bible and some Kleenex. We greeted one another in the name of Christ, and my confession began.
After I recounted my sins he began to give me advice, and all my pent-up stress started to rush out of me as if I’d taken some sort of medication. The Holy Spirit couldn’t have been more palpable if he’d pulled up a chair and sat down next to us. I could barely resist jumping to my feet and shouting my thanks to God for this amazing experience. It was partially because the priest’s words had a surgeon’s accuracy in terms of their healing effect on my soul, but, mostly, it was simply his joy. He just had some something, some essence that is impossible to put into words, a kind of mighty, unshakable joy that permeated all his actions down to his smallest mannerisms. The slow, confident way he reacted to things; the timeless wisdom of his advice; the ease of his smile; the love in his words, especially when he talked about God — it all spoke of the sort of rock-solid peace that would have given me pause if I’d encountered it when I was an atheist.
After the confession I turned around to look at the sign on the wall outside his confessional, wanting to know the name of this man whose love of God was so contagious that it had infected me despite myself. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the hand-written letters: Fr. Francis.
I grabbed one of the coordinators and asked her if there were two priests schedule to be here with that name. She said that there were not. This was the priest who had just lost his niece and nephew. He had made time to stop by our retreat and hear confessions before he went to the airport to go be with his family.
One of the reasons it’s taken me more than a week to write about this is simply because I knew there was no way I could ever convey what I felt when I realized that the priest whom I had spoken to was Fr. Francis. It will have to suffice to say that I didn’t even respond to the coordinator; I just turned around, went to the candlelit Adoration chapel, slid into a pew, and began to sob.
And I kept sobbing, even after almost everyone else had left to go back into the main room.
A few of the other women came to check on me, each putting an arm around me and saying, “It’s okay.” I wasn’t really in a position to explain it at the time, but that was actually why I was crying — because it was okay. My tears were tears of overwhelming relief and gratitude, the sort of tears you might cry if someone to whom you owed a lot of money not only forgave your debt but handed you a million dollars. I had been given a priceless reminder, in the form a priest filled with love in the midst of his own hour of suffering, that while the grief we feel at the tragedies of this world is legitimate, we should never forget that the truth of the Gospel is essentially the truth that the sad saga of this world has a happy ending — in fact, it’s the happiest ending imaginable.
I’m not suggesting that the kind priest was in a great mood or didn’t feel horrendous sorrow at the loss of his loved-ones. I doubt he was “happy” in the sense of experiencing an emotion. But what I did witness, there in that most ordinary setting under fluorescent lights in the makeshift confessional by the bathroom, was something far more powerful than happiness: the deep-rooted, undefeatable joy that can only come from an encounter with God.
NOTE: I changed the name of the priest in this post in case there are any privacy concerns.
As soon as I post this I have to start getting ready to go with my husband to the Red Mass, a Mass held by the bishop for Catholic judges, prosecutors, attorneys, law school professors, students, and government officials. For some reason, this is always one of my favorite nights of the year. Every year I try to write a post about why this night is so special to me, and every year I give up because I can’t quite put it into words. Though I’ll probably fail again this year, I thought I’d give it a shot.
Maybe I spend weeks looking forward to the Red Mass because it’s held in the beautiful old downtown cathedral (pictured above), and the tradition of the Red Mass is more than 700 years old (the first one was held at the Cathedral of Paris in 1245). There’s nothing like participating in a 2,000-year-old liturgy as part of a 700-year-old tradition in a 150-year-old church to overwhelm you with the fact that, truly, you are just a part of God’s epic story — not the other way around.
Maybe it’s the ambiance. I remember the first Red Mass we attended, in 2006 before we converted, and how I was moved to tears when the choir began belting out a flawless rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the entrance procession began. I saw the bishop walk by, then almost a dozen priests from around the diocese (a sight which would have moved me to tears in and of itself, since I was still absorbing the concept that there really are people left in the world who give their whole lives to God), followed by the smiling faces of various ministers from other Christian denominations — all walking in their elegant robes behind a gilded crucifix, hoisted high in the air, the way you might hold the flag of a conquering army.
Maybe it’s the idea of so many people throughout the legal profession coming together to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all that they do; that afterwards we always meet so many fascinating, likeminded people who are a pleasure to talk to.
Or (let’s be real) maybe it’s the fact that various local law firms put together the reception, which is usually held at an exclusive private club, and it’s an amazing spread of delicious food in an oak-paneled ballroom. And there’s an open bar. (I promise, I promise, I’d still love the event if it weren’t for that!)
But I think that the biggest factor might be that the Red Mass was the first Catholic event that my husband and I were ever invited to (probably the first non-Sunday religious event I ever attended), and it also falls within days of our anniversary each year. So as we sit on the balcony of the hotel restaurant that we like to go to to spend some time together after the Mass and reception, sitting in the perfect Texas nighttime air, talking about life, the evening always reminds me of my marriage, and of becoming Catholic — the two best things that ever happened to me.
Thanks to Abigail for letting me call her and hum into the phone so that she could tell me that that song I was thinking of was Ode to Joy. Speaking of which, here’s a cute video version I stumbled across while Googling around to make sure I had the right song:
Seek Him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.
- Ode to Joy
Remember the kids who were ringing my doorbell and running? They kept doing it.
I talked to them about it again, as kindly and calmly as possible, and yet they kept at it, usually waking up my children and shattering my free time in the process. I’d been trying not to bring it up with their parents/guardians since I know that some of them have complicated situations at home, and I didn’t want to add any stress there. But a few weeks ago I’d exhausted all ability to be charitable, and I was just mad. In an example of how even a little bit of sin can open the floodgates for a lot more sin, I allowed myself to indulge in some self-pitying thoughts one afternoon; a few days later, I had a grand conspiracy theory all worked out in my head, had firmly labeled myself “VICTIM,” and was delighted by thoughts of revenge. I no longer wanted to talk to their parents to simply put an end to the pranks, but to get back at them.
One Wednesday afternoon I found myself staring out the window, watching them run away after yet another incident. As I heard a couple of my children beginning to fuss upstairs, I was consumed with rage. In a last-ditch effort to control my temper before I did a reverse-address lookup to get their home phone numbers and start leaving nasty messages on their parents’ answering machines, I prayed. Through clenched teeth, my feeble attempt at prayer went something like this:
Lord, I am about to be on seriously bad terms with some of my neighbors. I don’t want it to be that way, but I am beyond my ability to be charitable here. I need help. NOW.
In a highly unusual moment, I actually sensed an immediate, very clear answer to my prayer: I suddenly knew that it would all work out somehow, and my angry urge to go yell on their parents’ voicemail dissipated. But I also got a clear feeling that God was putting these children in my path for a reason, and would continue to send them to my doorstep, so to speak, until I welcomed them.
So I disconnected the doorbell.
I know, that sounds ridiculous: I prayed, received an answer, and then went ahead and did my own thing anyway since the answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I all but thought, “That’ll teach the Holy Spirit to boss me around!” as I unwrapped the last wire from the doorbell box.
I was smugly proud of myself for my great idea to get rid of the annoyance these kids had caused. And yet, that feeling wouldn’t go away. The strong sense that I was meant to have some kind of contact with them continued. And then, two days after I said the prayer, I found an injured bird on my driveway. I was so frustrated because it was hard to tend to this bird with a three-year-old, a 21-month-old and a nine-month-old in tow. I was overwhelmed. I was upset. I needed help. I looked up in desperation to flag down the first person I saw…and the four doorbell-ringers were standing just a few feet away, shuffling around in the neighbor’s driveway.
I had planned for my next interaction with them to be one filled with threats and lectures. Instead, I found myself asking, “Can you help me?”
To make a long story short, the girls eagerly helped me tend to the little bird, and in the process we struck up a conversation. We ended up chatting in my driveway for more than an hour. After getting to know them a bit, I felt terrible for my previous feelings of anger towards them: for one thing, they’re a lot younger than I thought they were, their ages ranging from eight to ten. I also got the sense that they were just bored; typical kids looking for ways to fill the free time after school.
We said our goodbyes at the end of the evening. The next day, just as I was settling in to enjoy some precious down time, they knocked on my door again. Only this time, they didn’t run. They’d ostensibly come to see about the bird’s progress, yet after I gave them an update, they didn’t leave. I hinted a few times to wrap up our conversation, but they didn’t take the bait.
Finally, one of them said softly, “You seem like a nice person, and I could really use someone to talk to. Do you think we could come in?”
“Sorry,” I replied. “You kids need to get out of here so that I can go write a blog post about being selfless.”
Wondering how on earth I would avoid mental collapse without any time to myself, I silently said a little prayer for strength, and replied, “Sure. I’d love for you to join me.” Inspired by Meredith’s example of hospitality, I got out my wedding china in honor of my special guests, brewed some sweet orange tea, dumped a big bag of pretzels into a bowl, and found some extra chairs to make room for us all around my kitchen table.
In that moment, a friendship was born.
For some people, this would be a pretty normal scene, sitting around your table with a group of elementary school children from the neighborhood. There are people out there who are naturally good with kids, perhaps who have experience babysitting or volunteering with youth groups, who have a knack for rapping with young people on their level. I am not one of those people.
I was perfectly content to be the mysterious crank nextdoor, a shadowy figure whose existence was suspected only from an occasional chink in the blinds, behind which you could a voice holler, “You kids!” To have a kitchen full of eight- and ten-year-olds is about as unlikely a situation as it gets for me. I would only be slightly more surprised if a UFO crashed in my back yard and I ended up sipping tea with green aliens with antennae coming out of their heads. I could not be more out of my element.
And yet, the fingerprints of God are all over this situation. The peace of the Holy Spirit is palpable.
This is what I mean by the Christian life being an exciting life. Had it not been for that feeling I got through prayer and the belief that God gives us the strength we need to do his will, I would have never put myself in this situation. I’m spread so thin as it is, I would have never thought I could survive if I gave one more minute of my time to anyone else. But when I see the girls excitedly waving their hands, so eager to share that they actually jump out of their chairs and exclaim, “Miss Jennifer, pick me! Pick me!” as they try not to talk over one another, I know that God is guiding this situation, and that he will give me the help I need.
Yesterday, as the girls passed out gooey fresh-from-the-oven cookies they’d baked in my kitchen, I was marveling once again at the incredible unlikeliness of this scene. I have no idea where God is going with this, why he sent them my way, or where it’s going from here. But when one of the girls looked around with wide eyes and exclaimed, “Miss Jennifer, I just love it that we’re all best friends!” I knew one thing for sure: this is exactly where I need to be.