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.