Imagine a star athlete who, for personal reasons which are sound, leaves the team. But he still goes to all the games, partly to cheer for his old teammates, but mostly because he has always loved going, and can’t imagine not going. He cannot really remember ever missing a game, from the time he was a young boy up to the present. When he was old enough to go from being a spectator to being an actual player, and then a star, it was like living out every happy dream of his young life.
But now he has gone back to being a spectator, and as he sits alone in the bleachers he quickly realises that nothing feels the same: he feels distant, removed from the action, which of course he is. But he had no idea that he would feel this distance so…acutely. And as time passes the feeling gets worse rather than better. Before long he finds no joy at all in the game he once loved above everything else. The experience actually becomes increasingly miserable for him, serving only to remind him how much he loved playing, being part of the action, how much it meant to him. And it reminds him that he will never, never be able to play again.
There are people in my life who suffer to some degree from seasonal affective disorder. The dark cold gloom of the winter months is sometimes too much for them, weighing down their otherwise-sunny spirits and robbing them of their ability to even face the day.
But finally spring comes around once again. The days grow warmer and longer. Windows are thrown open; they can fall asleep caressed by cool breezes, and awake to the sound of songbirds, or gentle cleansing rains. Their dark winter of the soul is past for another year.
And mine begins. It is around this time of year that I, too, suffer from the season. But the season that so affects me is not meteorological, but liturgical. It is during the beautiful, joyous season of Easter, and during Holy Week in particular, that my soul is most flayed and swollen with pain, loss, and desolation, as I am most reminded of how much I loved serving at God’s Holy Altar.
My personal experience of Catholicism is focused almost-entirely on the public liturgy of the Roman Rite in all its solemn splendour. This started to be true for me even as a young boy, and became exponentially more so as I began the journey toward priesthood. As my young pastor’s protégé I quickly became a star altar boy, playing an increasingly-important rôle in the liturgical pageantry of the high feast days throughout my high school years. I was busy behind the scenes with preparations and long rehearsals the afternoon before, and when evening came I was thrilled to be found worthy to hand the gifts for the feast, to kneel so close and ring the bells as bread and wine became my God.
As a seminarian all this continued, but the intensity was exponentially greater. Not only was I older, more poised, and increasingly more knowledgeable of liturgical intricacies and minutiae, but I was actually on the path to doing something unimaginable: in just a few more years it would be me standing there, reverently holding the Scared Species in my long elegant fingers as I carefully uttered the words of consecration. It was an awesome, exhilarating prospect, and the euphoria it produced in me came to cover a multitude of failings.
By my junior year of college, Mass was not only the most perfect expression of the Catholic Faith; for me it was my faith. I found theological arguments bewildering; issues of social justice were only presented to me by such wishy-washy messengers that the whole message was easily dismissed; personal, informal prayer became more and more burdensome as my spiritual aridity had less and less to conceal itself behind. But in the liturgy I felt connected, involved, particularly when I was vested and moving about the sanctuary with a grace I assumed must be Grace. And the focus and pinnacle of entire liturgical year is the three great days of the Triduum: Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the day that commemorates the institution of two sacraments — the Eucharist and Holy Orders — and ; Good Friday, the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion; and finally, at the end of Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil During the Night, “the mother of all vigils,” with its blessing of fire, the spine-chilling Exsultet sung to a packed church lit only by candles, the seemingly-endless readings recounting the whole sweep of salvation history, the litany of the saints, the blessing of water and the baptism of new members of the Church, and finally the Eucharist, with swelling choral acclamations, bells and incense at the Elevation of the Host and the Chalice — this was the mightiest liturgy in all the year, and I was right in the centre of it all.
When I left seminary at the end of 1999 I was unprepared for how I would feel back in the pew after so many years serving at the Altar. Somehow I expected that I would feel quiet, attentive, reverent. In my naïveté I fully expected to simply go back to being the earnest, pious young man I was four years earlier, as if seminary had never happened, or had simply been a peaceful interlude.
But I was not that earnest, pious young man anymore, and nowhere was this fact more clear to me than in the pew. I didn’t feel at home there; I was at home up in the sanctuary, and while my exile from the Holy of Holies was self-imposed, voluntary, and right, it was an exile all the same, and the pain of it grew as the months crawled along. I felt more alone with each passing week, and as I slumped at the back of various parish churches around the Twin Cities, I found no comfort. Like a man standing in the cold dark night outside his former lover’s window, watching with abject misery as she yields to the embrace of her new paramour, I was devastated and inconsolable. Silent sobs would rack my body as I tried to sing the familiar hymns, but I could not read the words through the tears. I became adept at choosing pews where I would be visible to as few of my fellow worshipers as possible; I didn’t want to cause a scene. I just wanted to cry alone, to mourn for the life I had left behind, to huddle in my cold hard pew, so very far from God.
Time is a great healer, and love is an even greater one. The years have passed, and I have grown and healed a great deal. I am happily married, and my wife and I have enjoyed worshipping together throughout our courtship and marriage. The process of sharing my Catholic faith with her has drawn me out of the shell I constructed for my soul, and although painful, has enabled me to find some closure and peace. Now a growing young son provides plenty of distraction at Mass, so there is seldom the opportunity for Proustian breakdowns, even if I felt the inclination.
And for the most part the crisis is past. I very rarely experience the fierce stab of loss that I have described above anymore, which is a welcome relief. But there is a long road ahead for me. I fully realise that am settling for a dull feeling of comfort when I go to Mass every Sunday. My soul is stabilised, sufficiently medicated to not feel the pain anymore. But it does not feel the joy, either. Will I ever feel that joy again as I worship with the Universal Church? I pray that I may, but I do not know when. But joy, pain, or mere comfort, I will be in my pew, no longer alone, and I will know that God is near to me, even if I can never again feel His Presence.