Tuesday, September 7, 2010

worshipful movements of humans through space, part 4: mass

Photo: Nynashamns Kyrka
Hakan Svensson

I go to Catholic mass maybe once or twice a year, for Christmas and funerals mostly. When I was growing up, I went every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. Mass was almost as familiar to me as going to school. I went to mass as often as I rode my bike around the block. Now I go so infrequently that I see it from a different perspective, an outside point of view. Last week, when I was at mass, it felt like I was pointing.

Mass is a group of people of shared faith celebrating an ancient choreography. At the front of the church is an elevated altar and a man – a priest – standing behind an altar. He faces the crowd as they stand and sit and kneel, always pointing toward him. The congregants stand in rows of eight or nine, one behind the other, and move in unison for forty minutes approximately. They know when to kneel and when to rise. When they are unsure, they wait until those around them make their move and then they do what those people do.

The only break in the synchronized pointing is when the priest commands the flock to offer each other a sign of peace and the men and women turn toward their neighbors and give a few of them a handshake or a kiss. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what the priest is doing during this time, because my eyes have never been focused on the priest during this part of the ceremony. My eyes are pointing instead to the area immediately around me. It is a moment of levity in the service. People break away from the formal stance they have been maintaining for thirty or so minutes and smile solemnly with a loosened posture. After practicing pointing for thirty minutes, people have heightened focus, so when they point their eyes toward their neighbors to offer them a peace-be-with-you, they see each other with greater clarity. Their eyes are wide open and they receive one another warmly. The brief intermission ends and everyone turns to point to the altar again.

During mass, my three-year-old cousin was sitting next to me . . . and walking along the pews and crawling over the kneelers and flipping through the prayer books and counting out some pocket change and giggling and complaining, anything but pointing forward. His eight-year-old brother sat quietly beside him, standing and kneeling in sync with the adults, pointing as they pointed.

Mass puts you in a pointing frame of mind. Mass is target practice. The target is God and the more you practice, the better your aim. When you leave church, you continue to point yourself toward God for a period of time, some people longer than others. You are as receptive and as warm as a peace-be-with-you. You point yourself with greater purpose. Over the week, the further you get from the celebration of mass, the less focused your pointing becomes. If you attend mass regularly, you are never more than seven days away from a lesson in the art of pointing. If you attend mass religiously, seven days a week, you are probably always pointing.