Taken from By What Authority?, by Robert Hugh Benson. The scene is a Catholic household during the Elizabethan persecution. James Maxwell has just been released from the Tower of London after having been racked following his arrest for the crime of being a Catholic priest. He had been betrayed by an agent who tricked a protestant friend and neighbor of his youth into unknowingly leading him into a pursuivant’s trap. That friend’s sister, Isabel, is present in the house; as of yet, neither she nor anyone connected with either family realizes that Isabel’s brother is innocent of the treachery. As it happens, Isabel, quite coincidentally, has been lately considering converting to Catholicism.
In other words, your average family scene:
Isabel took her place beside Mistress Margaret at the front bench; and as she knelt forward she noticed a space left beyond her for Lady Maxwell. A moment later there came slow and painful steps through the sitting-room, and Lady Maxwell came in very slowly with her son leaning on her arm and on a stick. There was a silence so profound that it seemed to Isabel as if all had stopped breathing. She could only hear the slow plunging pulse of her own heart.
James took his mother across the altar to her place, and left her there, bowing to her; and then went up to the altar to vest. As he reached it and paused, a servant slipped out and received the stick from him. The priest made the sign of the cross, and took up the amice from the vestments that lay folded on the altar. He was already in his cassock.
Isabel watched each movement with a deep agonising interest; he was so frail and broken, so bent in his figure, so slow and feeble in his movements. He made an attempt to raise the amice but could not, and turned slightly; and the man from behind stepped up again and lifted it for him. Then he helped him with each of the vestments, lifted the alb over his head and tenderly drew the bandaged hands through the sleeves; knit the girdle round him; gave him the stole to kiss and then placed it over his neck and crossed the ends beneath the girdle and adjusted the amice; then he placed the maniple on his left arm, but so tenderly! and lastly, lifted the great red chasuble and dropped it over his head and straightened it– and there stood the priest as he had stood last Sunday, in crimson vestments again; but bowed and thin-faced now.
Then he began the preparation with the servant who knelt beside him in his ordinary livery, as server; and Isabel heard the murmur of the Latin words for the first time. Then he stepped up to the altar, bent slowly and kissed it and the mass began.
Isabel had a missal, lent to her by Mistress Margaret; but she hardly looked at it; so intent was she on that crimson figure and his strange movements and his low broken voice. It was unlike anything that she had ever imagined worship to be. Public worship to her had meant hitherto one of two things– either sitting under a minister and having the word applied to her soul in the sacrament of the pulpit; or else the saying of prayers by the minister aloud and distinctly and with expression, so that the intellect could follow the words, and assent with a hearty Amen. The minister was a minister to man of the Word of God, an interpreter of His gospel to man.
But here was worship unlike all this in almost every detail. The priest was addressing God, not man; therefore he did so in a low voice, and in a tongue as Campion had said on the scaffold “that they both understood.” It was comparatively unimportant whether man followed it word for word, for (and here the second radical difference lay) the point of the worship for the people lay, not in an intellectual apprehension of the words, but in a voluntary assent to and participation in the supreme act to which the words were indeed necessary but subordinate. It was the thing that was done; not the words that were said, that was mighty with God. Here, as these Catholics round Isabel at any rate understood it, and as she too began to perceive it too, though dimly and obscurely, was the sublime mystery of the Cross presented to God. As He looked down well pleased into the silence and darkness of Calvary, and saw there the act accomplished by which the world was redeemed, so here (this handful of disciples believed), He looked down into the silence and twilight of this little lobby, and saw that same mystery accomplished at the hands of one who in virtue of his participation in the priesthood of the Son of God was empowered to pronounce these heart-shaking words by which the Body that hung on Calvary, and the Blood that dripped from it there, were again spread before His eyes, under the forms of bread and wine.
Much of this faith of course was still dark to Isabel; but yet she understood enough; and when the murmur of the priest died to a throbbing silence, and the worshippers sank in yet more profound adoration, and then with terrible effort and a quick gasp or two of pain, those wrenched bandaged hands rose trembling in the air with Something that glimmered white between them; the Puritan girl too drooped her head, and lifted up her heart, and entreated the Most High and most Merciful to look down on the Mystery of Redemption accomplished on earth; and for the sake of the Well-Beloved to send down His Grace on the Catholic Church; to strengthen and save the living; to give rest and peace to the dead; and especially to remember her dear brother Anthony, and Hubert whom she loved; and Mistress Margaret and Lady Maxwell, and this faithful household: and the poor battered man before her, who, not only as a priest was made like to the Eternal Priest, but as a victim too had hung upon a prostrate cross, fastened by hands and feet; thus bearing on his body for all to see the marks of the Lord Jesus.