Liturgy changed my life. It reshaped my understanding of worship, prayer, and the point of going to church at a time when the point of going to church had become less clear for me than it was for my Evangelical parents. That the formulae, the familiar prayers, the standings and sittings and kneelings of “high church” folk were not, as my father balefully suspected, “vain repetitions,” but rather words and acts that united us with a wide communion of saints, that they could teach us as we uttered and embodied them—these were transforming ideas for a disenchanted twenty-something looking for a way to breathe new life into a fatigued faith.
Liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, meaning a public duty or service, is the architecture many people of faith rely on, as we rely on well-constructed buildings, for protection, support, warmth, and welcome. It gives us a sense of where we are and who we are, and allows us to stand for a time on holy ground, held safe before the burning bush. Though there are many to testify to the ways liturgy can become rote, overfamiliar, and flat, there are many others who rise up from all corners of the church to remind us of how it forms and teaches us, not only directing us toward sound doctrine, but doing so with a beauty of phrase and gesture that is part of the teaching: beauty in worship is “right and just.”
Paula Huston is one of those others. As an adult convert to the Catholicism she embraces with wholehearted intelligence and the gratitude of a refugee, she offers readers an insider’s view of the Mass that is intimate, informed, unpretentious, and, in places, exuberant. The book is no mere introduction to Catholic worship for outsiders; it is a piece of spiritual autobiography that invites us into the vulnerable moments of reflection, resistance, reawakening, and simple rejoicing that occur on “an ordinary Sunday” in the course of the Mass. The Introit or Sanctus or Agnus Dei—Latin terms that remain in the rubric like antique gems—recall for her in turn not only biblical stories or Psalms, but also personal concerns, memories, and sometimes unwelcome feelings that become part of the warp and woof of what is woven in a sacred hour.
Huston’s own journey from a midwestern Lutheran upbringing through a period of resistance to all things religious to a season of lingering in the back pew as a curious outsider to the life she now lives as a deeply committed lay leader has been one in which intellectual honesty, self-awareness, longing, and life circumstances have led her on a path she could not have foreseen. Her own surprise at the turns that path has taken is reiterated during worship when she glances at her husband and reflects on the odds against their finding their respective ways to faith.
The faith she shares with him, she shares in these moments with many others, some of whom she names, knows and loves, introducing them affectionately as they take their turns serving as lector or cantor or greeter—or hold a mate’s aging hand in an adjacent pew. Some, she joyfully points out, she doesn’t know, but shares with them anyway—fellow pilgrims who are walking through this same rite with their varying degrees of attention, obedience, uncertainty, or angst, all somehow united by a love that will not let them go. Huston’s evident delight in the small “breakfast club” that gathers after church, having just shared a sacred meal, is matched by an equal delight in the hush after the Gospel reading when each worshipper turns inward, eyes downward, wordless but aware of a deep togetherness of a kind that can’t be duplicated in any other form of human fellowship. Togetherness is, she understands, essential to the character of worship: as she reminds us, “Mass” basically means “here comes everybody.”
The sorrows that are assuaged there, including her own mourning of several losses and fears for a sister with cancer, are held in others’ prayers. The man who extends the offering plate fixed her sprinkler system. The priest used to teach in her department. She knows that the child missing from a nearby pew is recovering from surgery. Her comfort as she looks around her lies not only in human companionship; it lies in the long knowing, the education of heart and mind, that occur in and by the story reenacted every week in worship and the sharing of the central mystery that lies at its heart.
For Catholic readers, this book offers a beautiful re-introduction to a faith that continues to challenge believers to mature in understanding. For non-Catholic readers it offers a hospitable invitation to consider what Catholics experience and perhaps to reassess whatever notions they have harbored about what goes on in the church down the street. For all of us it offers encouragement to explore our own spiritual journeys with a fearless, generous willingness to face our deepest longings, to listen for the voice of the Beloved, and to say yes when we hear that voice, as she did, calling her by name.
Marilyn McEntyre, formerly professor of American Literature at Westmont College, now teaches Medical Humanities at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, offers writing workshops and retreats, and finds that her happiest days are those that include a little quiet time, a few hours of writing, conversation, and a walk by the river. Her books include Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, What's in a Phrase?, A Faithful Farewell, A Long Letting Go and, forthcoming in spring, 2018, Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Minds and Open Our Hearts.
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