Today, another excerpt from Judith’s Marriage, by Bryan Houghton. In it, a young non-Catholic student of medieval history attends Mass for the first time in the late ’50s:
…it was rather absurd to be studying mediaeval history and never to have attended Mass. After all, apart from ruins, it was the only thing that had come intact from Imperial Rome, through the Dark and Middle Ages down to the present day. As an historical phenomenon it was unique. She could write brilliant essays for Miss Biggs on religious movements in the 12th century but had never looked at the reality in the identical shape under her nose. It had nothing to do with Edmund. She was being objective; it would help her understanding of history. She found out the times of Mass at St. Aloysius’s for the next day, Sunday.
… In the first place, being unused to church-going, she arrived for Mass far too early. There was nobody there to give her a cue. You had to do something or other with holy water. She dipped her glove in but decided that you were probably meant to take the glove off. She put her hand in but had forgotten to bring a towel and none was provided. She waggled her hand about until it dried. Genuflecting in front of the tabernacle: that ought to be easy enough. Yes, but which knee, right or left? After much thought, she did both, one after the other. Then came the insoluble problem of where to go. If only the church had been full she could have stood inconspicuously at the back. But it was empty. To stand would be terribly conspicuous.… She was on the point of leaving when a boisterous family barged in, blocking the only exit; coppers were given to the older kids and sticky sweets to the younger. Behind them was a motley crew filling the little courtyard. She recognized a girl from Somerville whom she particularly disliked, so she could not push her way out for fear of meeting her. She followed the boisterous family and sat directly behind it.
What turned out to be rather less than half the congregation had piled in when a bell was rung and a diminutive boy emerged from the right followed by a priest. Judith was well-acquainted with vestments from splendid pictures by Rubens, and with birettas from 17th century engravings. Naturally, these did not prepare her for how immensely comic they looked on the gaunt figure of Father Philip McEnery, S.J.
The priest gave his cap to the diminutive boy, spread his tools on the altar, turned his back on the people and started off at high speed in incomprehensible Latin.
Judith had always imagined that Roman Catholics had a special grace or charism – – whatever the word was – – enabling them to understand Latin. Perhaps they had, but it was quite certain that they were not using it. Nobody was paying the slightest attention to the priest, just as the priest was paying not the slightest attention to the congregation.
… However, all these good people must have had a vague consciousness of what was happening at the altar because they all followed with unbelievable discipline a sort of sacred gym of breast-beating, cross-signing, kneeling, sitting, standing and the like. Exhausted by over 5 minutes of gym, the congregation collapsed into the benches while the priest put on his cap and ascended the pulpit. Judith steeled herself for a sermon; she had always abominated them at school. She need not have worried. Although in the vernacular, it was clearly a part of the liturgy: a list of events which nobody could possibly want to attend, a ticking-off about money and the long catalogue of totally unknown dead people for whom one was asked to pray. The priest returned to the altar, having duly given his cap to the diminutive boy.
Then things seemed to start in earnest. The priest began fiddling about with his tools in complete silence. …Something was up. From her mediaeval studies, Judith recognized the Sanctus. There was a surge onto knees; she could hear the click in the old folks’ joints. There was another bell and even the smallest child in front of her disappeared under the bench. Then there were six bells and the elevation. Judith knew what it meant: it was the consecration, the Real Presence. There fell a silence like the primeval silence before ever the world came to be. It was colossal.
Anyway, so it went on, all utterly inhuman, out of this world… Eventually the priest collected his tools, put his cap on and, preceded by the diminutive boy, went out as he had come in… Judith stayed.
So that was Mass. Certainly it had been nothing like her preconceived notion as to what a religious ceremony ought to be. It was not in any sense a community service; everybody seemed to be doing exactly as he liked. There was no question of “improving” anybody. Neither were there any of those ghastly, smug prayers which used to make her writhe at school. Their memory haunted her yet: “Let us pray for the United Nations and all who work for peace,” “Let us pray for racial justice in South Africa,” “Let us pray that industrial conflicts should find a Christian solution” and so on. They had probably contributed to Judith’s irreligion more than the influence of her father. But at Mass nobody or nothing had been prayed for at all, apart from the list of unknown dead “whose anniversaries occur about this time.” No, that was not quite true: right at the end when the congregation was surging out there had been some Hail Marys followed by some incomprehensible prayers.
Yes, that was the Mass: aboriginal Christianity. Judith sat there completely shattered. Thousands upon thousands of people had died to defend or deny THAT. The Wars of Religion had always been completely incomprehensible to her, people getting killed for abstract arguments concerning grace and good works. She could see it now. The wars had nothing to do with grace or good works: they had to do with THAT. It was for or against THAT that people had been willing to die. The rest was just rationalization.
In the sharp light of a first impression Judith could see the problem clearly. It had nothing to do with particular theological arguments; it concerned the whole orientation of man’s outlook. Was religion centered on man or was it centered on God?… Was the basic religious act one of adoring or of begging? The Mass gave a peremptory answer: the religious act was theocentric; it was an act of adoration. All those strange folk, including the boisterous family in front of her, were not begging for peace or justice but, quite unselfconsciously, were attempting to adore. The object of their adoration, too, was perfectly clear: it was the Real Presence.
[…] The insignificance of the priest also surprised her. She had always understood that Catholicism was priest-ridden. But the priest seemed to be no more than a mere craftsman, of much less personal importance than the chaplain at school. All the priest did was turn up with his little mate and lay on the Body and Blood of Christ as the plumber lays on the water. He picked up his tools and vanished once the tap of Eternal Life had been turned on.
By this time Judith was alone in the church apart from the priest. A moment ago, he had been decked out in lace and silks. Now he knelt, a black shadow, at the altar rails. Yes, Judith could see how it was: he had enacted his part, the moth fluttering round the Light of the World; inevitably he had scorched his wings and was again no more than a mournful caterpillar.
It took enormous courage. Judith went up to him and said: “Father, I want to become a Catholic.”