I’ve been considering why it is we don’t feel the presence of God in our lives the way we should and I had an experience recently that points to part of the answer. The sense of separation we feel has been so ingrained in us for so long it’s difficult to overcome, even when we know better. I want to say that I don’t write this with any animosity to the Catholic Church but only because I’m beginning to see an evolution of spirituality underway which hasn’t been clear to me before. I seem to understand where we are a little better when I see where it is we’ve been.
I was raised a Catholic, taught by nuns and priests for twelve years through elementary and high school, but it had been more than 30 years since I had been to Mass. My uncle was visiting on a Sunday recently and had asked me to take him, and I agreed. St. Joseph’s was amazing - vast and ornate with beautiful marble statues of Jesus lying in the arms of the Blessed Virgin on one side of the altar and rising gloriously into Heaven on the other. In the middle a huge crucifix hung, the sad face of Jesus looking down at me. There was a large iron gate below the crucifix which enclosed a second altar on top of which housed the Tabernacle which contained the body of Christ. It was a marvelous thing to behold and I marveled at the profundity of it all. Unlike most protestant churches I’ve attended, this looked and definitely felt like a place where God would live. An old lady sitting next me had the ecstatic look of an angel who had just seen the face of Jesus. I began to have high hopes for an enlightened experience of my own.
The choir sang triumphantly as the priest, a white-haired Cardinal type, followed a solemn procession of acolytes, altar boys and lesser deacons down the aisle to the front of the church. It took five minutes for him to get there. The sound of singing and smell of incense rose to the highest ceilings of the church and filled it with a sense of God’s holiness. I could almost feel His heart beating in my chest. When everyone was in their place and the choir had stopped singing the priest turned around and spoke the first words. “Let us have a moment of silence to be reminded of our many sins - through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. When he spoke again he said, “Heavenly father, look down on us we beseech thee and forgive us our sins. We are unworthy that you shouldst come under our roof, but only say the word and our souls will be healed.”
Zap! Immediately I was no longer in the presence of God. I was aware only of the distance between us. From that moment on what I saw looked more like a performance of ritual, people moving about the stage attending to various duties of ceremonial service. The old angel seated next to me no longer seemed so radiant. Actually she appeared to be begging for something.
A few lines of scripture were read and another song was sung, then suddenly the Iron Gate creaked open and everyone fell to their knees. The deacons were entering the second altar and opening the tabernacle. I imagined myself on a dusty hill, watching the high priest enter the Holy of Holies. I could hear the bleating of sheep being sacrificed in the parking lot. The deacons returned to the stage, each with a gold chalice filled with hosts symbolizing the Eucharist. The congregation rose and slowly filed toward the altar to receive Holy Communion. It had been years since I had received Communion in a Catholic church and I noticed some people taking it in their hand. The priest acted surprised when I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue. After a moment of hesitation he placed the wafer on my tongue. I remembered what the nuns taught us and was careful not to touch it with my teeth. I let it dissolve and clasped my hands prayerfully as I made my way back to my pew.
After a few moments of appropriate reverence I looked up to see the participants busily moving about the altar putting things away. A few final prayers were offered up. Then everyone went to their knees again as the Tabernacle was being closed. Someone locked it with a big gold key. The Iron Gate swung closed and God was safely back in his box.
Everyone stood and filed towards the exits, leaving him there.