On Serving at Altar
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
The greatest thing a layman can do in the Roman Catholic Church is to serve at altar. Aside from actually saying the Mass, representing the people at it is the greatest honor a man can have. Which writer was it who said that the beautiful thing about the traditional low Mass was that the priest went to the altar to do a job only he can do? That is the essence of masculinity: to get what has to get done done. And the altar server is his sidekick. The priest can do it, but he can’t do it alone. In the traditional rite and even in the new one, the priest cannot say Mass by himself. He needs the presence of at least one more man, even if it is a snot-nosed little kid (the most common and appropriate person for the job) or an eighty year old kid at heart.
As in all things in Catholicism, men’s faiths are made and broken at the foot of the altar. For many men who served at altar as boys, it remained a powerful reminder of childhood innocence and faith. Having to recite words you don’t understand for a sometimes nasty and unholy priest gives a great lesson about life and perseverance. It can mean that real religion is often born in the midst of boredom, but that boredom can become enchantment in the memory. To others, like the liturgist Dom Botte and my Anti-Staretz, serving at altar was agony distilled and concentrated into twenty minutes of liturgical butchery. Getting rid of this institution, however, has only made things worse and not better.
Nevertheless, it is at the foot of that altar that our present civilization was formed. Political ceremonial, choreography, the solemnity of military drilling and modern drama all owe their origins to the Western liturgy in general, and to its smallest nucleus, the Low Mass, in particular. Who can dispute this? Even in the most humble chapel in the countryside, with the laziest priest and the most spaced-out altar boys, that element of the sacredness of motion and gesture were still preserved. Let us note that such things are not passed on most assuredly in their best manifestations, but are often made to persevere through their worst. It is only when things are not perfect that they are made “idiot-proof”. Then we know the system really works. For then it no longer a matter of this priest “saying a good Mass” (as in the Novus Ordo theatrics of all stripes) but rather of the priest merely saying the Mass, as the parish priest before him said it, and as the one before him said it, all the way down to the Apostles.
I would contest that it was this attention to detail that constituted the now absent heart of our civilization. For at one time, from the rising of the sun to its setting, a priest got up, picked some reluctant boy from the congregation, and went to the altar to talk to God in a language that most did not understand. In spite of all the things that changed in two millennia, this priest and his sidekick would continue to do what the priest before him did, and the priest before him did, etc. That was a powerful spiritual and cultural motor: to know that a saint from two centuries back could walk into the same church after being gone for generations and things would be EXACTLY the same. Can we say this about the modern Church in this day and age? Why is this no longer the case?
Is it any wonder that all the other churches only began to really go berserk when we decided to change our liturgy? With the exception of the Eastern Churches, we were the first to jettison our traditional liturgy, and others followed our lead. Need we point out all of the revisions to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that came out after the Novus Ordo Missae of Paul VI? Many Lutherans in this country still held their services in German before the Second Vatican Council. And even if the Eastern Churches did not follow along (thanks be to God!), some of the more liberal Orthodox jurisdictions were toying with the idea of pulling a Novus Ordo of their own. Monkey see, monkey do.
But I digress. Having served hundreds and hundreds of low Masses, sung Masses, Solemn High Masses, etc., I can say that they have changed me as a human being. And I only learned to serve when I was twenty-one. When you serve in the old rite, you have to take on another persona. It is the most self-emptying and transformative experience you can go through, at least if you take it seriously. The way I was taught, you always have your hands folded, you always look down, each step is subtle and measured, and all movements are supposed to be slow and elegant. When you are before the throne of God, you should act like it. This act grafts you into the continuous worship of God that has gone on since before time began, as it goes on in heaven continuously, and as our ancestors prayed before us. This is the ultimate democracy of the dead (to quote Chesterton): that we should continue to worship as they did, emptying ourselves of our own modern ideas of how worship and religion should be.
Liturgy is gravely serious business, but the paradox is that this is what makes it so fun. Children will often behave like angels for their parents because they know that their parents like it that way. They may be little devils most of the time, but when they know they should behave, they can do it on cue and earn even more appreciation from their parents for their efforts. This is how I feel when I serve Mass. Yes, I am a dissipated, foul-mouthed, hypocritical, uncouth runaway ex-monk. But at least I can be angelic in front of God for twenty five minutes on a Wednesday evening. It is my way of trying to show God that I might not be such a terrible scoundrel after all. It is my poor attempt at the widow’s mite.
And when it is done right, when it is true rational service mixed with humility and bodily motion, a low Mass can be even more beautiful than a starry sky, a craggy sea shore, or a snow covered mountain that shoots up into the clouds. This is what we are here for, it is our eternal vocation: to serve, to dance, and to be joyful before the throne of the Lamb. Ecce Agnus Dei…..