4. What’s in the Chalice

In a mass the people must, emotively, help the priest to lift the chalice. Otherwise it would be too heavy. In it is all their sorrow and loss, to be transmuted into the joy they will celebrate. The priesthood of all believers is a matter of declaring wonder, cultivating wonder, until it infuses communal life. For awe and wonder draw together a community of people who can see love from the inside. And then our languages of spirituality are discourses of the inside, in the fullest measure. And our ritual actions become containers for pain transformed by love.

Maybe the strongest liturgy for feeling this is on Holy Thursday, when the priest washes some representative people’s feet and kisses them–a reenactment of Jesus’ goodbye meal with his much loved friends. Then the priest continues with the central part of mass, offering the bread and wine. The ritual can send one’s spirit on a rocket launch into orbit, lasting it might seem seventy times seven days of singing “O altitudo–O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” And then long millennia of singing “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” This carries on into a sense of being lost in time, because the mass ends with an invitation to stay as long as one wants in front of the consecrated host, to “stay here with me, watch, and pray.” Longer than one’s knees can hold out the ecstasy streams on. The joy verges on the anguish to come the next day, Good Friday–this last farewell dinner of love was preparation for it. So love gives strength for getting through pain, in the life of sacraments.

One week our ‘Renew’ group practiced the priesthood of baptism, the priesthood of all believers. Our organizer, whose husband has Parkinson’s disease and was off his medicine because of jaw surgery, arrived late with her youngest kid, nine year old Angelica. She said she’d just come to return someone’s book, but she couldn’t take part tonight because of things at home; then she tried to leave. She was upset. We got her to stop and tell us what had happened. Her husband had intense pain all weekend, and when she finally reached his doctor and put him on the phone, he made light of it, so the doctor didn’t do anything. And now they’d just had a family blow-up, with him getting into a fight between Angelica and her sister about a game.

We asked them to stay for a quick round of prayers. Sheila, at her crisp Irish tempo, said the Memorare to Mother Mary; — ‘never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection was left unaided.’ I read a psalm as a prayer: ‘I will lift up my eyes to the hills, . . . You watching over us do not slumber.’ Pat, usually a jolly, full-detail story teller, said a brief prayer for the husband. Mike asked Angelica if she wanted to pray one, and helped her start. She went on for a few sentences. So it went around the circle. After we said “Amen,” Angelica said she hadn’t meant to make trouble, and told her version of the fight. She was on a roll, getting to tell it to a bunch of grownups acting like they were on her side. Two women in the group were nurses. They asked a couple of low-keyed questions about the Parkinson’s symptoms, and got the impression that maybe the surgery had pinched a nerve in the neck–miserable but not life-threatening. As mother and daughter left, everyone gave them hugs. We’d been priests for her, as she had been for us in forming the group, and helping us find that we could talk about spirituality. It took about fifteen minutes.

Needing a break, we traded stories of recent happenings, until Sheila the mother of grown children had us laughing uproariously. At a Sunday brunch, a boy crawling under the table, patting the leg of a young guy next to her, made him think that she was making a move on him; and then she mimicked the look on his face. Verdicts ranged from “What won’t the kids do next!” to “What a stick-in-the-mud, he should have just enjoyed it anyhow.” Then we went back to our booklet Praying Alone and Together and did twenty minutes worth of our planned agenda. As we left Mike said, “Why is life so hard?”