I’ve just come home from my first visit at a Catholic Mass since Easter of 2000. A dear friend of mine was joining the Catholic church, and very much wanted me to be there, and so I was.
(My basic take is that I am happy when people I love find religious communities and lives and connections that enrich their lives, help them deal with the hard times, celebrate the good times, and make some sense out of the rest of it, and I do not care which traditions those happen to be. I am, of course, happier that my friend was doing this in a very social-justice focused parish, and deeply amused that her sponsor and other RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – how adults become Catholic, basically) folks knew she was inviting a priestess and witch, and were all quite glad to meet me.))
Anyway, it was definitely fascinating, for several reasons.
First, because the Easter Vigil is one of my favorite rituals ever. It’s hard to not find a ritual which begins in darkness, kindles a sacred fire, lights candles throughout the darkened room, has bunches of music, and then puts a very large lit candle into a very large basin of water three times – quite compelling. It is, therefore, right up with there with my trad’s Samhain and initiation rituals as things I appreciate for the pure ritual aesthetic experience, entirely separate from those rituals are doing ritually, as it were.
(And this year, the gospel was Luke, which was nice, because it’s the only one of the gospels I haven’t actually translated most of or sung most of in other forms, so there was less nitpicking in the back of my head about translation issues.)
It was also fascinating because, while I’ve been in other Christian services since I became a (as a friend and elder refers to me ) professionally trained stunt priestess, this was the first time I’d actually been in a Mass.
And not only a Mass, but one where – because of my involvement in Newman Catholic fellowship through boarding school and college – I’ve actually done pretty much every part of helping with that particular service that you can do without being a deacon, eucharistic minister, or, y’know, actual priest. (Two of the three of which I’m barred from by my gender, and the other of which conflicts with making sure there’s music during communion).
I’ve been the lector and the cantor. I’ve accompanied musicians and been the ritual cantor. (including singing Fr. Roc O’Connor’s “This is the night”, which is a compelling piece with lovely sung poetry, pretty much as a solo call and response when the other person doing the duet backed out at the last minute.) I’ve kindled the fire (and taught people the relevant bits of fire safety) and lit candles, and brought gifts to the altar. And I’ve done just about every bit of set up and clean up for it there could be.
And, once, when I was 13, it was the ritual in which I joined the Catholic Church (I was born and raised Episcopalian, but my parents returned to Catholicism when I was 13, and I went through the same RCIA program my friend did, adjusted for about 20 years difference in development.)
In other words, I arrived at my Pagan ritual experience already well aware of many of the ways ritual can work. But be that as it may, the last time I was in a Mass, I was not yet Pagan, and I certainly had not had the substantial subsequent nuanced training in how all of those bits and pieces make the ritual work. Nor to see, hear, and sense the wonders of transubstantiation – one of the most common acts of ritual magic in the world, surely – with far more trained senses.
So, it was interesting to sit back and watch and hear the shifts of the energy through the ritual, and note the places where it worked, and the places where it worked even though something was a little hurried or extended. That’s one of the things that a weight of tradition gives you – it makes it easier to carry through those slight awkward moments that every ritual with humans has somewhere. (Because humans are imperfect creatures. Wonderful, but imperfect.)
It does, however, require a certain mental agility, because of my approach to being in services outside my tradition – which is to say the bits I agree with, and not say the bits I don’t agree with. (Which occasionally means saying half a phrase and not the other half, but hey.) Jesus as a son of a particular God, who did great things, and said some very wise stuff, and inspired a lot of good things in the world, I’m fine with, for example. But saying that there is only one God, well, not so much. That goes against my own commitments and my beloved Gods and Goddesses.
[This practice of mine is not confined to Christian services, of course. I do the same thing in open Pagan rituals where I’m not sure what the commitments/statements of what we’re doing/magical workings etc. are likely to be.]
Likewise, there are some ritual acts I won’t do (like invoking the power of deity to descend into a particular person), because I have trained my brain to believe that these actions actually do specific things that is not appropriate in this framework, and would probably not be good for people to have it happen to them unprepared. In which cases, I cheerfully listen and watch politely, and keep my hands (and my energy) to myself. Do not cross the theological praxis streams, in other words.
But at the same time, it was lovely to be there. Not only to support my dear friend, but also because, no matter how much no longer being Catholic is the right choice for me (for various reasons that are probably pretty obvious), there is a part of me that is nostalgic for that, the same way I’m nostalgic for what Christmas was like when I was a child. It’s not that there aren’t other wonderful things now, that I didn’t have then. (There are). It’s just that remembering what was has its own potency and wonder. It was good and powerful to be in a large room full of people joyous at a religious moment, a transformational moment of renewal and rebirth.
More people having more awareness of those moments, and their power, resonance, and the responsibility to make the most of them can never be a bad thing in my eyes.