Rummaging through a box of memorabilia from my youth that my mother collected and kept, I came upon the missal I used as a boy: the St. Joseph Daily Missal, the missal especially recommended for children and young adults. I remember being endlessly fascinated with the contents of the gilt-edged pages that lay between the faux-leather covers, using the ribboned bookmarks to ease my way to the liturgical calendar, the table of feasts, the mysteries of the rosary, the holy days of obligation, the rogation days set aside to mitigate God's anger at our waywardness and solicit His intervention in a troubled world, the stations of the cross, and various novenas, litanies, and common prayers. Most particularly, however, my fascination focused on the common, or unchanging part, of the mass, for on facing pages it was printed in Latin and English.
Prior to 1963, when the Second Vatican Council allowed the vernacular mass, the priest said the mass in Latin, and I recall eagerly listening to the priest's words, then quickly shifting my eyes to the English translation right-hand page. I liked the sound of Latin, the roll-off-the-tongue rhythm and echoed lyricism in such phrases as "per Omnia saecula saeculorum," and "et cum spiritu tuo," and "sit semper vobis," and "qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis." And I learned a good deal of Latin, too, so much so that when I became an altar boy--a Knight of the Altar, as we were called--I already knew the responses and, thus, was spared the anxious chore of memorization that beleaguered the other Knights-to-be. Indeed, when I was tracked in the Academic Latin college-prep sequence in high school, I pretty much found the four years of required Latin a meadowed stroll, though I did slip occasionally on the cowpies of the ablative case of nouns and the pluperfect verb forms in the subjunctive mood.
After 1963, however, the Latin, or Tridentine, mass gave way to English, and, for me, something was lost in the translation, something having to do with mystery, with moments unfastened from the ordinary and veneered with reverential allure, with gestures of awe, and a quickening pulse of wonder, and a deep-down tug toward some fundamental urge for transcendence.
As a boy I was especially receptive to the mysterious eventfulness of Church ceremonies. I felt a kind of embodied microdrama of holiness was unfolding, some kind of palpable presence, a fullness, some unseen, swarming, immanent meaning. I was transfixed by the Good Friday Stations of the Cross, the twilit luminescence inside the Church, the spiced pungency of vaporing incense, the priest and altar boys stopping at each of the fourteen stations, the priest beginning each with "We adore Thee O Christ and we bless Thee" and the congregation responding "Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world, Christ falling three times, the imprint of Christ's bloodied face on Veronica's veil, the pain of the Blessed Virgin Mary upon seeing her suffering son, the nails driven through the hands and feet, the hapless Simon of Cyrene, an anonymous Lybian Greek, plucked from the onlookers and forced to bear the cross when an exhausted Christ staggered and fell in his progress toward execution.
And then there was the pomp and spectacle of my Confirmation, the music and flowers and brightly lit apse, at the center of which stood the bishop himself, who, I thought, when the scapular was hung upon my neck, blessed me by saying, to my considerable confusion, "fox take 'em." Dad later explained His Excellency had said "Pax tecum," peace be with you. Much as the Plains Indians considered the ghost shirt, I considered that scapular a means of invulnerability, creating a kind of force-field carapace around me to repel even the most wily of Satan's seductions.
And there was the radiant energy of the miraculous itself, the central mystery of every mass, the transubstantiation, those uttered words "Hoc est enim corpus meum"--This is my body--and "Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei"--This is the chalice of my blood--changing, right before my awestruck eyes, bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, propelling me, as I thought, back through history, into deep time, and setting me in attendance at the Last Supper--an inexhaustible vein of wonder, words drenched in astonishment and trimmed in purple velvet, beckoning words, words dazzled in beyondness, words conjured elsewhere, rhapsodic words, mood-saturated words, words that promised a veil lifted and a curtain undrawn, words that unpinned me from the minute-and hour-handed radius of my experience, words whose seizing impulse pushed me beyond the circumference of the moment and myself.
So it was to me as a boy, before I was ambushed by doubt; before my capacity for receptivity gave way to interrogation; before I developed other allegiances and other forms of discernment; before the mystery of Church rituals and ceremonies unraveled, deglinted, and lost their embodied allure, their piercing provocation; before their rich allusiveness, their vein of immanence, played out, and I fell away, without an afterword, without a second thought, until I discovered my old missal.
Note: A tweaked version of an Our Salon post, March 2011.