The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Friday, April 21, 2006

Postcards From a Catholic-in-exile

Part I- The Tenebrae Lessons

Holy Wednesday. St. Anne Chapel, Palo Alto, CA

Never try to get anywhere in the Silicon Valley at five o'clock in the afternoon. My plan to get from Gilroy to Palo Alto in an hour turned out to be more like an hour and a half. And of course, I had never been there before, so I hoped that my directions were accurate.

The chapel, thankfully, was not on a busy street. It was in a rather nice, quiet neighborhood. Parking was not hard to find, and I ran in in order to catch the service that had already started.

"Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law..." I knew that this was from the Prayer Book, but the atmosphere just seemed too much like "Tridentine Low Mass-lite". The exact position and behavior of the priest at the altar made me have flashbacks to the days when I had to serve the Latin Mass on a side altar in whispers at seminary.

"So, this is the Anglican Missal Mass," I thought. Not the "low Church" 1928 Book of Common Prayer that I was used to at my little Anglican community in Hollister. This was my pilgrimage to see how the real Anglo-Catholics lived, and I was not too impressed. I guess my experience with the Eastern Church has made me come to respect the ethos of each liturgical tradition. To me, it seemed that the Anglo-Catholic Mass mixed things that did not belong together. It just didn't flow gracefully as a liturgical service. The Holy Communion service that we do here in Hollister from the Prayer Book seemed much more inspiring to me.

The second portion of my pilgrimage would be attending the Office of Tenebrae at the same chapel sung by a Gregorian choir. The Mass ended an hour before the office was supposed to start, but the singers arrived at the end of Mass to practice. At first, I was a bit disturbed by the atmosphere the singers seemed to bring with them. I was used to singing Tenebrae as a liturgical service, but it did not seem that all of the singers were particularly religious. I was hoping that it would not seem too much like a piece of musical archeology rather than one of the most sublime services of the Church.

While they practiced, I took a walk around the surrounding neighborhood. At first, my old Marxist Mexican-American self began to wonder about the money these people had to make in order to live here near Stanford University and that a person with my name would only set foot there in order to mow the lawn or trim the hedges. But soon my thoughts turned to more Christian subjects. I reflected on the Mass I had just attended, and whether or not I was really prepared to start receiving Communion in a non-Roman Catholic Church. I had attended the services at the Anglican Church in Hollister without receiving Communion since I left the monastery about a couple a months back now. I really wanted to be sure that I was not doing the wrong thing, that I was not "leaving" the Roman Catholic Church for the wrong reasons. I had resolved then, that I would receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday at the Anglican service. For me, this would be something significant, although for others it might not be. I had been a loyal son of the Catholic Church since I was baptized into it as an infant. Did I really want to leave?

Also, of course, my thoughts turned to my "failed" vocation. It has been very easy to try to assign blame. At this point in my life, I cannot see clearly what really happened. The only word of peace I heard on this walk through the cool and damp evening air was that I had to let go of the anger inside of me. I am human, and it won't be easy. But it has to be done.

"Zelus domus tuae comedit me..." As soon as those first words were sounded, I returned back to that humid plain outside of Buenos Aires in an empty cavernous church with a fifteen branched candelabra in front of the altar. The "performance" was indeed an act of worship in all respects. It is hard to explain a true act of worship; modern Christians often have never experienced it. It is an act of communion with God and the celestial choirs, with the Church, both of the past and of the present. I really prayed for that time. I prayed that I would do the right thing. I prayed that I would learn to let go.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.

Holy Thursday. Mission San Juan Bautista

I arrived at the church fifteen minutes before Mass was supposed to start and stationed myself in the very back pew against the northern wall of the eighteenth century church. "This is how I had grown up," I thought. Like somreenactmentnt from a distant past, people continued to go through the motions that their fathers went through: genuflection, sign of the cross, etc., etc. For them, nothing had changed. This is the way it has always been. For me, however, things were now different. And as the night went on, I couldn't pretend that things were otherwise.
The first annoyance of the night came in the "bilingual format". Anyone who has attended a bilingual Catholic Mass will know that instead of uniting a congregation, it divides it all the more. Unless you are like myself (perfectly bilingual), the Mass degenerates into "our part" and "their part". This, however, was the price that had to be paid for the "active participation" so desired by the advocates of aggiornamento of the late 20th century.

The banality of the music and liturgical acts in general also proved to be a bit of a trial. I acknowledge that this was a sincere act of worship on their part. I acknowledge that they are worshipping the Lord as best they know how. I even acknowledge that the sermons of the priests were good and perfectly orthodox. When, however, the "sign of peace" degenerated into a series of hugs and reluctant handshakes, I couldn't help but think that the Fathers of the Church were rolling in their graves. This is not what they meant by this action, and even if similar scenes took place in ancient Rome or Constantinople, this was probably why the action was discontinued by the Universal Church.

At the communion time, I knelt and prayed, but the last six years came flashing through my head. Being master of ceremonies at an SSPX priory, life as a traditional Catholic seminarian, long monastic vigils in a monastery in the Mojave Desert. I could not pretend these things never happened.

"Gone", it suddenly occurred to me, "all gone". I had tried to live as a good Roman Catholic in a liturgical bubble, worshipping in a way foreign to most people under the Pope of Rome. THIS, what was going on before me, was the real deal. If I wanted to continue to be a Roman Catholic, I had to accept that. I could no longer lie to myself by living in a Potempkin village within the Catholic Church.

When they transferred the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, I knelt and joined along in the Pange Lingua, sung in Latin. I continued to pray, but my thoughts turned to my own soul, still so wounded by all that has happened in the past six months. Will I really ever be happy?," I asked the Lord. I remember how my mother said in her village in Mexico, everyone stayed in vigil all night before this altar, praying for a good rain and the health of their children. I stay, with the words of Our Lord echoing in my head: "Could you not watch at least one hour with me?"

"Miserere me Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam," I begin, praying Psalm 50 in Latin over and over. I felt so ashamed before God. Am I a failure? Have I just been too selfish to succeed in all of this? But just as I began to fear the judgements of God, I finally saw the Cross, and then I realized the most chilling and frightening thought that a man can ever think:

The Cross is an instrument of judgement, but it is a sign that God' s love is immovable. "Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis." No matter how much I screw up, no matter how much I might try to ruin my life, He will always be there, hanging on that tree in love with me. There is nothing I can do to change that look of suffering and love. And that is scary. That is what most wounds human pride. "Will you love me? I have always loved you.?"

I walk through the porch of the corridor of the mission, dimly lit by fluorescent lights, listening to the persistent chirping of frogs after a spring rain. The streets of this small tourist town are empty now. My thoughts then turn briefly to the errands I will have to run tomorrow.


At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holey moley, so you were at St. Anne's on Holy Wednesday?
I'm at DLI in Monterey, and I thought of going there on Saturday night. I was even in Palo Alto during the day.

I pass SJ Bautista every time I go north on 101. I've always wanted to stop by, but I've always bet dollars to doughnuts that the liturgy is terrible-like the beautiful old cathedral in Monterey, its just nice to look at (even San Carlos Cathedral has been throughly wreckovated).

I'd love to chat more offline sometime, or whenever.


Michael King

fellow disgruntled seeker
Monterey, CA
mchlskng at

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

What's DLI in Monterrey?

Sure, maybe we can get together and chat sometime.


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Young fogey emeritus said...

Another disgruntled seeker, a Catholic in a po-mo, post-denominational world, reporting in...

I know what you mean about feeling like the Prayer Book and the Roman Missal are somehow bunged together in the American Missal Mass as found in the Continuum (and formerly in swaths of the Episcopal Church). A spiky Lutheran online once described this sort of disconnect as 'Bruce Lee' liturgy where it looks like one thing but the dialogue coming out of the actors' mouths doesn't seem exactly in sync with it ('Damn you! Wanna fight, huh? Hwaaaaaaah!' and Lee's lips keep moving after he's done talking.) 'Looks like a Low Mass, sounds like a Prayer Book Communion service!' I'm not a big fan of Low Mass but couldn't go back to the old Prayer Book as printed. Too Protestant. The American Missal Mass is OK.

Went to Tenebræ (done by Anglo-Catholics of course) for the first time this year and liked it very much. I can see why a visitor may find it boring - it's slow and monotone (recto tono), because it's penitential of course, but as a member of the congregation said afterwards it's 'hypnotic'.

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DLI=Defense Language Institute, where people in the military learn foreign languages.

I'm a 26 year old wobbly Orthodox, ex Episcopalian and (briefly) threw in my hat with the RC's at an Indult parish.

So, in a nutshell, I've been just about everywhere on the ecclesiastical spectrum.

I think that has made me a little flippant towards religion at times,
but I've discovered that too many people take themselves and their little ideologies (a lot of convert Orthodox, neo con RCs, some traddies, and so on) way too seriously.

You're definately not alone in your experiences of the Church, and I do enjoy the quality of your writing.

Michael King

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Young fogey emeritus said...

I'm a 26 year old wobbly Orthodox, ex Episcopalian and (briefly) threw in my hat with the RC's at an Indult parish.

So, in a nutshell, I've been just about everywhere on the ecclesiastical spectrum.

That's not so bad.

If you've been some kind of traditional, liturgical, episcopal Christian all your life that's pretty stable.

I've been there - get into an argument with somebody who knows you and you'll get the changes thrown in your face as if you were a Buddhist one year, a Muslim the next and a worshipper of Native American spirits the next after that.

Given the murky religious landscape we've been born into (you more than me - I remember the very tail-end of the old days) the moves are understandable, especially as we are born Anglicans. Anglo-Catholics have really had the ladder kicked out from under them and Rome isn't much better with the Novus Ordo (and culturally even more hostile). Orthodoxy and born Orthodox are cool but our native tradition isn't crap as some (especially converts?) like to claim.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Dear Michael,

Do you go to St. Seraphim's in Seaside?


At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nominally, yes. Very nominally.
Have you been there before?
The only other EO church I've been to locally is SS P and P in Ben Lomond. And, from time to time, I do pop in on various non-EO churches (hence the "nominally" in my first sentence!).


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

I used to go to St. Serphim's all of the time for Vigil. I was just there for the Sunday of the Cross duing Lent.

At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, since you're not that far away, I'd love to hook up some time.

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former altar server at St. Anne's, I think you would find all the services sterile and unmoving but with techincally beautify music.

Unlike Young Fogey, I am not a fan of the Tirdentine Mass, and would prefer St. Anne's over the the 1962 Roman Missal in Latin. But, still, Anglo-Tridentines are so affected compared to all-out, English-Use, Prayer-Book Anglo-Catholics.

Give me the "wrap-me-in-the-Union-Jack," "Green-fields-of-England," "St.-Thomas-Fifth-Avenue" Old-High Church liturgy any day of the week. It's a bit pompous, by somehow homey at the saem time, its solemn without being precious, and its incarnational in tasteful, non-kitsch way.

Hey, I am part of Atlantic Anglo-American culture (not a ultramarine European Continentalism much less Ultramontagne Romainish), and I am not ashamed of it!

More English-Use Prayer-Book Catholicism!


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