Receiving God in the Mass

On the morning of Saturday 25 March, my husband and I opened the door to the Saint Columbkille Cathedral to attend the Latin Solemn High Mass, the voices of the practicing choir flooding our senses as we walked in. We exchanged knowing smiles and I took a deep breath to fully take in the haunting beauty of the ancient choral music. We’re only in our thirties, but we are old fashioned in our tastes for many things; chief among them is the so-called “Latin Mass” because it feels, as my husband describes it, “so reverent”.

My husband espouses the belief that just about everything was better two hundred years ago. While I lack the age reference to think I could really produce a relevant opinion on the subject, it makes me smile that he says this and means it, because indeed there are certain things that I believe were done with more thought and honour bestowed on them than we seem to have the appetite for in our contemporary culture.

One of these things is music. In contrast to the lack of complexity of the music we are generally surrounded by in today’s pop culture, the music created for use during Masses hundreds of years ago had beautiful, breathtaking layers. The choir from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Barry’s Bay did a tremendous job at helping to prepare our senses for the beautiful Mass we so thank Fr. Scott and the Dioceses for arranging. This style of music seems to lend itself to providing an environment for people to close their eyes and be touched by it, to lean into the mystery of all that we believe. The role of this beautiful sacred music is to cause a celebration of the senses that provides the impetus to remind us that each Mass we attend is both sacrifice and celebration, a reason to dress up and join others to share in recognition of a meaningful event.

In his warm, welcoming, and clearly articulated homily, Fr. Peter spoke to the fact that tickling the oratory senses with the beautiful music produced by this accomplished choir, stimulating the olfactory senses with the lovely incense that wafted throughout the cathedral with every  “clink, clink” of the censer being swung, and cuing the visual senses with handsomely choreographed ritual movement was key in engaging us all in sharing this celebration and recognizing it as such.

As a rather recent convert to Catholicism, I am fascinated by the fact that there is an Ordinary and an Extraordinary Form of the Mass for priests and Mass-goers to “choose” from. It’s extraordinary to me (please excuse the pun) that in the 1960s it was decided that Latin just wouldn’t do anymore, the priest would need to switch sides of the altar, and receiving the Eucharist went from the altar rail to procession lines. Since I was exposed to both forms early on in my conversion, I never had the chance to “get used to” either one or the other, but I can imagine that for the majority of Catholics, who have grown up with the Ordinary Form or the Novus Ordo, as it is named in Latin, it could come as quite a shock to the system to experience an hour-long Mass in a foreign language, particularly one often referred to as “dead”. There is a lot of time built in for calm and personal prayer during the Extraordinary Form Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass, because much of what the priest says is inaudible, and so it tends to feel somehow more quiet and peaceful, and perhaps this is a contributor to the “reverence” my husband appreciates.

Just as disconcerting as the language could be for those new to the Latin Mass, seeing the back of the priest during most of the Mass could also be hard to get used to. A priest I met in Spain, who had a pronounced preference for the Novus Ordo, once explained to me that this practice, in his opinion, is “rude”. “You’re not supposed to speak to people with your back to them!”, he explained to me. And then one asks oneself the question – to whom is the Mass being addressed? The way I see it, the role of the priest is to unite the congregation in joint prayer to God, so I’m fine with the priest having his back to me since I am “following” him, as it were, in a disciplined and ritualized form of prayer to God.

Perhaps the most distinct difference experienced by those for whom the Extraordinary Form is a departure from what they are used to is the way in which Holy Communion is distributed to the congregation. Communicants kneel in a side-by-side fashion to receive the Eucharist from the priest directly on the tongue. As many of the rituals of the Mass (both Ordinary and Extraordinary) can be traced back to symbolically represent moments from the Old Testament, this ritual in particular has caused me to think. I’ll leave you with a last idea brought on by some recent contemplation on why we Catholics do the things that we do – food for thought, if you will (last pun, I promise!). God’s instruction in Eden to take from any tree in the garden, which included the tree of life, but not to take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, could essentially be interpreted as: take as much life as you need to fulfill your material needs, but spiritual life is not something that can be taken, and it is not yours for the taking; it is given to you by God. By the same manner in which we (by way of Adam and Eve) have sinned we will also be redeemed; through an act of eating. To see parishioners kneel for Communion, humbled by the promise of spiritual redemption, is a striking bodily reminder that we cannot take but only receive the Bread of Eternal Life.

Since I am new to Catholicism as well as to Canada, I’m rather used to being a little different by now. So don’t mind me if I kneel and take Communion on the tongue next Sunday. I apologize in advance if I slow down the lineup a bit with the clunkiness of my nearly seven-months of pregnancy, unlike my husband, who drops and pops back up in line without missing a beat in an enviably sprightly manner. God bless.