An Evangelical Goes to Mass

Roman Catholic mass can be a stolid exercise, perhaps even more so during Midday Mass at Conception Abbey in rural Nodaway County, Missouri. Walking up the steps of the basilica I'm braced by the cold -- there's a foot of snow on the ground and the wind is whipping. I enter the building through great wooden doors to the sanctuary. Cast in subdued light, I'm hit with the warmth of the room. The smell of incense is immediate; the sacred space a menagerie of images.

Built in 1883, the abbey church is a basilica, a status granted only to churches of major importance in the regional life of Catholicism. There are paintings on every surface, and statues or columns in every sight-line. The Beuronese murals which line the top of each wall tell the story of God. Dipping my fingers in the basin at the back of the church, I cross myself and bow to the altar. There are several dozen people already seated, scattered about. While the organist quietly plays a prelude we kneel and pray, awaiting the procession.

As I look around the room, I'm reminded that this place was once the scene of terrible violence. In 2002 a man named Lloyd Robert Jeffress entered carrying a pair of rifles and began shooting people. He walked through the halls of the monastery killing two and wounding others, then returned to the basilica and killed himself. The next day the bells of the abbey sounded once for every year the two slain monks were a part of the order -- a total of eighty-three times -- today they ring us back to mass and to sing the psalms throughout the day. That these peaceful monks suffered such heartache yet remain vulnerably open to visitors is not only a testament to their hospitality but also their commitment to the rule of St. Benedict, "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ." I have much to learn from them.

The mass begins. The liturgy of the word includes several call-and-response sections which I pretend to know, but no one would notice if I remained silent. One of the younger monks reads from the lectern. It is the same monk who read at morning prayers -- his turn I suppose -- Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospel for which we all stand. The priest reads the passage, and then we sit to listen to the Homily delivered peacefully.

When he is finished we sit in silence for a long time. Contemplation is assumed. The basilica is capacious, but so is the liturgy; room to think, room to pray, room to simply be. Every cough, sneeze or rattle reverberates throughout this place. Sounds live longer lives in a room like this, fading slowly. We sit and await the next moment, awaiting our Lord, awaiting ourselves. Our posture is one of hands open, receiving this mass not generating it. A restless person would find this off-putting, but nobody here checks their watch. The priest breaks the silence for the prayers of the people.

As we move toward the Eucharist, we begin with rites of community. We recite the Lord's Prayer and pass the peace and I'm reminded that one cannot receive the sacrament unless they first receive their neighbor. I walk the ten or twelve feet to close the gap between me and my fellow congregants. It must be done with intentionality and purpose. The monks who are ordained as priests join the celebrant on the altar and offer this Eucharist together. They raise their hands in concert, like reverent choreography.

It is at this point in the mass that always I feel the most like an outsider, an eavesdropper. As a Protestant I am not permitted to receive the sacrament. I think of the injury which separates us and feel only sadness for the schism that keeps me kneeling in my place. Five-hundred years of Protestants blaming Catholics while we ourselves split into a million denominations; enough inhospitality to go around I guess. Us, them, we, sing a song and watch the priest prepare the altar. He washes his hands, not just for himself but for all of us. We pray together over the gifts. The climax of the mass is here.

The bells are silent as the priest prays his epiclesis. I like the bells at this point, and although they hang by the stalls of the monks, I've never heard them ring at the abbey. I love when the priest holds the bread high above his head and breaks it in half. "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy." The consecrated host and wine are offered first to the priests, then the monks, then the congregation. I kneel and pray, "Take and eat; this is My Body." Someday we will all share this moment together in solidarity. When the host has been received and the altar made tidy, we all sit in silence once again. Mass in the city never contains this much tranquility and expectation. A prayer and a blessing, then we are dismissed. I kneel once toward the tabernacle on my way to the back of the church. I spin and bow to the altar in dipping my fingers in the basin to cross myself. I'm out the door into the cold again.