Desolation in a time of Resurrection

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.

1 Comment

  1. Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and mov­ing piece. Thank you. May your heart find a way to let God join you back in the pews. He’s there, trust me. He’ll find a way in, if you let him.

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