This is my memory of mass from my twelve years of Catholic school.
We are in the main square, 400 girls categorised by the names of flowers and lined up in neat rows, the hot sun beating down on all of us. Me, with my forehead against my friend’s back, her uniform sticking to her skin. The saints are watching, their bronze faces shiny and unwavering as they peer over the bannister from above.
Father Benedict stands on the balcony, wrapped in white robes. He has a magnificent singing voice. I recall a story my Catholic friend once told me about the Pope addressing crowds from a window of his house every Wednesday in Vatican City. That was very nice of him since he seemed like a very busy man.
10, 20, 30 minutes. My ears prick up at my favourite part, at what I think is the most beautiful melody of the entire mass. Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever…
Soon, it will be time for communion. My Catholic friends will sleep right up till Father Benedict asks them to rise. They will march down the aisle, stretch up their arms as if begging for alms, take the wafer and make the sign of the cross. We crane our necks to see them saunter back to their designated spots. Later on, they will cross the road and smoke cigarettes near the dumpster at Block 96. I once asked my best friend Sarah Anne what the “broken body of Jesus” tasted like and she just shrugged and said: like cardboard. I was not expecting that at all.
It’s almost noon. A spot of my perspiration falls onto the asphalt tile, forming a dark spot before seeping and disappearing into its bleeding redness. The blood of the lamb…
This is how mass was like last Tuesday.
We step into church at five minutes to six, wet from the sudden torrent of rain. The weather has been bipolar lately, much like the day that has just passed, made up of a string of good and distressing news. I don’t know what I’m doing here, except that I felt a strange, involuntary stirring in my spirit when Mitchell said that she was going for mass and before I could stop myself, I hear myself asking if I could come too. So here we are, at the 6pm weekday mass at the Church of St. Bernadette.
We try not to drip too much as we sit down. I look around at the half-empty pews, arranged in a semi circle around a curved, marble platform. We are the youngest people here, children exempted. Before I have time to contemplate what that means, a soothing, female voice chimes through the speakers, informing us in crystal clear tones that mass is starting. Soon, a priest and two altar boys emerge from the inner folds of the sanctuary.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Up, down, and then up again. I sit down a tad too late or say the lines stiltedly. I wonder if people can tell that I’m not Catholic. Mitch tries to help me along but things are moving too quickly and besides, I don’t mind just following.
May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.
The words come in dribs and drabs but it’s amazing how much I remember considering how many years its been. The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, the Doxology. Dormant but alive, they have left indelible marks on my memory. The sensations – the weight of the hymnal resting on my palm, the feel of the leather against my knees as I kneel to pray, the murmuring of the congregation – are ones that I am accustomed to. The order of it all is comforting, bittersweet.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give Him thanks and praise.
I know what’s coming up next: communion. Mitch asks me if I would like to go up but I shake my head, sit back down and close my eyes. I am back at St Anthony’s Canossian again, eleven-year-old me, with pigtails and in a pinafore two sizes too big. Somehow it is hard to reconcile that image with the person that I have become. God, where can I find you in all of this? I imagine a thin wafer dissolving on my tongue, absolving me of all my sins.
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Say the word. As people shuffle around me to receive communion, I realise that I’m blinking back tears. I’m reminded of that e.e. cummings poem that I love so much – it is so long since my heart has been with yours – and I nearly keel over from the feeling of familiarity, the feeling of being well-acquainted with the one who knows my heart the best.
Say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Say the word.