BY RICHARD WHITE
Caryl Houselander is a favourite of mine. Even since I read her biography by Maisie Ward I have found her life and writings nourishing. Caryl died in the 1950s, so why am thinking about her now? What has a spiritual writer, mystic, poet and slightly off-beat Catholic got to say to an increasingly un-Christian society at Christmas?
I was thinking about one of her poems, Low Mass on A Sunday. I don’t have it in front of me, but I remember it as a description of various characters at the, say, 7:00 am Mass on a Sunday, the no-frills, in-and-out event. Old people, arthritic and awkward on kneelers, in pews, couples, men on their own, restless children with distracted parents, a singular absence of contemplative moments and glorious liturgy, and, this is where Caryl saw Christ.
These images were not far from my thoughts as I struggled at my own “low Mass on the Second Sunday in Advent.” The barn of a church was designed for the Summer and beach crowds and heat. There were the usual suspects from the last times I graced its doors, perhaps a few less, the odd younger person, the occasional family.
The singing was the same, belted out by the elderly choir director and his handful of stalwarts. I closed my eyes during the sermon, not to listen better, but to control the irritable questioning that accompanied the priest’s banal and undeveloped, disconnected, familiar thoughts. I was struggling and wondering why I had come. Then, there was the Creed.
The new responses were flashed on a screen, to the right of the altar, high on the wall. The changes from the old wording of the Creed were up there first, as preparation or warning. “Get it right, or else!” Then, the doctrinal riches of the ages flowed, without interruptions, prefaced by a profession faith, occasioning further wonder in my already irritated breast.
I recalled an article in The Clergy Review of the sixties by Sebastian Moore OSB entitled A Catholic Neurosis? In the article, Moore speculated about Catholics being cursed (my word) by too much certainty. What does it do to us when we have an answer for everything? What does it do to conversation or dialogue? What does it do to our own struggling human hearts?
The Eucharistic Prayer began and the vaguely familiar words (including “many” instead of “all”) provided the background music for my persisting alienation. The warmth of the sign of peace, strong elderly fingers clutched my hand as the other supported him on the back of the seat, everyone around me, smiling and exchanging greetings as if untouched by the reservations and resistance I was experiencing. The “usual suspects” were behaving in their typically unusual, loving, human way. But, it got worse, or better, whichever way you look at it.
The priest sat down after the final prayer. “Oh, no”, I thought, ‘not a talk on fund raising or something.” Well, it was a talk from a man, one of the eleven members of the local St Vincent de Paul Conference. I suspect he had retired some time recently and he explained he had only been a member of the Conference for four years.
He spoke simply and genuinely about the work and about a Christmas tree in the right hand corner of the sanctuary (I had noticed that, too, with possibly a hint of disapproval). There were Christmas cards on the tree, for families who would be struggling at Christmas. Parishioners were invited to take a card, fill in the form beside the tree and make up a hamper of goods for next Sunday.
When Mass finished, while the choir was still uplifting us, in their way, there was a decisive move by a number of people to the tree. It was the last straw for me.
All that alienating ruminating fell away. I don’t know what happened. Something happened. The “usual suspects” were unusual. We were all a motley lot, carrying our own bits of baggage and concern, there for an hour or so and strangely illuminated from within. “Low Mass on a Sunday” continues to work.
For Caryl Houselander her visions took the form of seeing Christ in the ordinariness of people’s lives, in ordinary people, all the time. A bit of that happened to me last Sunday. I will be back for the Third Sunday in Advent.
Richard White blogs from Cootamundra in southern NSW.
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