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Family Life

Mass transforms the pattern of our daily lives


My husband and I have five children. We’ve become the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the Sunday Two-Step.

It goes like this: Whatever blood has been shed at home (“I don’t care if is hot, you’re not wearing ripped jeans to church”) or in the car (“If you slap her one more time, you’re doing the dishes all by yourself next week”) on the way to Mass, the two of us know how to exit the car in the parish parking lot smiling and waving and looking, as our oldest child once described it, his teeth clenched, like “The Happy Christian Family Goes to Mass.”

We know how to pinch discreetly as we pass through the carved oak doors leading into St. Mary’s, and to hiss quietly and distinctly in the offender’s ear, “I will discuss this with you when we get home.”

The meaning is clear: We’re in church and we need our church faces, our church demeanor. We can resume the fighting as soon as we cross back over the border, but for one hour, peace, or something that looks like peace, will prevail. Or you’ll be sorry.

Our children, however, have steadfastly refused to dance. If they left the car angry, they entered church angry. They have been known to sit, slouched in the pew, arms folded, head cast down, broadcasting their discomfort to the assembly. I still remember the Sunday one of our teenage daughters stood beside me in the pew, careful neither to touch nor to look at me. At the Sign of Peace, I turned to her and said, “The peace of Christ be with you.”

She looked at my outstretched hand, the hand of someone she neither knew nor cared to know, and sighed, “Whatever.”

Well, truth be told, I didn’t mean it either.

It’s taken a while for me to see the grace here. But grace it is, the understanding that what we gather to do each Sunday is not separate from, but part of, our lives. Mass isn’t the logo stamped on the fabric, like those on the cheap printed tees we buy at Wal-Mart; it is one of the threads, woven in and out with all the other threads of meals and arguments and errands and tears and caresses and shoves and whispered conversations in the dark, woven in and out to make the cloth, whole and entire.

And Mass becomes the thread that changes the whole pattern, transforms it.

Nothing to buy

I take my purse everywhere I go. If I pick up my son at school, it turns out he needs $15 for a sports fee or $3 to pay back the friend who lent him money at lunch. I stop to fill the car with gas, to buy a gallon of milk, to mail a package to our daughter in college. At home, I pay the plumber who cleaned out the root-clogged line, the electrician who repaired the hall light fixture.

Only at Mass is my purse a hindrance. We stand up to walk to the table for Communion. What to do with my purse? If I carry it over my shoulder, the bag gets in the way when I receive the bread, take the cup. If I leave it, I worry about theft, all those credit cards, and that worry, too, gets in the way when I receive the bread, take the cup.

The fact is, Mass is the one place where there’s nothing to buy, where my money’s no good. It’s the one place, the only place, where I walk, hands open and outstretched, like a beggar. I’m not trading dollars for services; what’s laid out on the table isn’t for sale. I’m simply receiving; my empty hands are filled.

At Mass, I bow. Americans don’t bow. We walk tall through our lives, erect, unbending, Gary Cooper at high noon. American women are told to walk briskly on deserted streets, through parking lots, to look confident and purposeful lest they become the victims of assault. But at Mass, I bend and bow, kneeling like a servant, on my knees like a slave. And just try bowing with a shoulder bag; it swings forward, overloading me, throwing me off. It suddenly seems ridiculous, this large zippered thing. It might as well be filled with crumpled newspaper for all the good it will do me there.

My life is divided: I live next door to people who can afford the same hefty mortgage payments as my husband and me. I swim with people who can pay the monthly fee, volunteer with parents whose children can gain entrance to the same academic programs as my own. I sit in restaurants and watch the man walk by the window, unwashed, unshaven, pushing all his belongings in a shopping cart. He can’t afford to come inside, sit beside me and order from the menu, my menu.

But at Mass, I sit beside and kneel with and bow to people I would never otherwise meet. A woman, an esteemed member of our parish, works on the serving line at an elementary school cafeteria in a poor part of town. I would not know her except for Mass, where she is honored as a wisdom figure, a woman whose guidance and counsel is sought and heeded. I would not know her except for the table of the Lord, where we are sisters.

I share a cup with people I would work to avoid sitting beside on the bleachers at a ballpark. Think of it: Drinking after another is an intimate act, an act restricted to one’s family and, perhaps, closest friends. If I stopped by a deserted table on my way out of a diner and gulped down some stranger’s unfinished coffee, onlookers would be revolted. I would be revolted.

But at Mass, I walk to the table behind a man, the stranger brother, who smells of days on the streets and nights in the park, his open sores untended, his clothes bearing the marks of every hour outside in the wind and the snow. I do not want to drink after him, but I must, or admit the lie, my lie, that we are not members of one body, bound by the blood of Christ. I must either do what brothers and sisters, family members do -- share the one cup, share the one loaf -- or turn and walk away.

So, I drink. Sometimes, I gag. I’ve always managed to swallow. And I have been changed, my patterns altered, by that bright thread running through my days, joining week-to-week, season-to-season, year after year.

The rich smell and taste of God

Still, if the thread that is the gathering, the blessing and the breaking of bread transforms the pattern of my life, it is also true that this thread is held firm, the weave taut, the pattern kept in place by the daily life I live -- with my husband and children, my elderly mother, my neighbors and co-workers and friends, the folks I see only at the local Safeway or parked in front of the high school, waiting for our kids.

At Mass, we sing and speak and move together. “Our Father,” we pray. “We lift up our hearts,” we cry. “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,” we recite as one, even our bodies in sync, all of us knowing to take a breath after “heaven and earth,” and before “We believe in one Lord … ”

We all assemble at funeral Masses to pray that our dead may find rest where Lazarus is poor no longer. We witness marriages and stand, witnesses ourselves, as testimony to the openness to children, in all its glory and grief, and the pledge to fidelity, even when that promise leads us down dark roads.

But in my daily life -- of market and mall, office and carpool -- we do not share a creed, do not know by heart the silences and the songs. I have a neighbor who aborted her child. I know this, carry this knowledge, even as I know she does not -- did not -- want to hear my belief that we can do better, for desperate mothers and their helpless children, and did not want my offer of another way.

I work with people who bear scars inflicted at church, people who view their exit from the church as the first healthy act of their lives. I volunteer with men and women whose partnerships are understood to be unnatural and non-generative, but whose hospitality to me and my family has fathered us and brothered us, mothered us and sistered us into grace, more and more grace. I have friends whose divorces and remarriages were hard gifts, but gifts all the same.

There are those, some of them beloved, whose creeds collide with mine, the clauses of one threatening to cancel the clauses of the other. There are kids in whom I delight, kids raised as orthodox academics, their belief in the standardized test, the blind experiment, the university study touchingly absolute. And other kids, who have been raised as highly trained skeptics, who prefer to hold nothing at all, lest it be snatched away.

The neighborhood atheist, the divorcee down the block, the gay man on the corner, the woman whose children are friends with mine, she of the “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries” bumper sticker -- what am I to do with them, and they with me?

They bump up against my beliefs, sometimes gouging and scratching the surface, sometimes threatening to do deeper damage. How do I live with them? And they with me? I bring them with me into Mass. They walk beside me like the sullen teens, my own, who refuse to pretend we did not argue all the way up the church steps.

Mass is a feast

It’s taken awhile for me to see the grace here, too. But grace it is, the understanding that Mass is not a hedge behind which I duck for a safe hour each Sunday. It is my world, a house right in the center of the world, its doors and windows open to all the sounds and smells wafting in from the streets, the minivan, the school and the kitchen.

Mass is not a place I go to have my opinions refined and reinforced so that I can go out and do battle with a mistaken world. I don’t attend a briefing session for apologists and cheerleaders. I’m not handed talking points for the next neighborhood barbecue.

I go inside to bow and bend, to put away my purse and my pride and confess, “I have sinned … in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.” I hear stories, often terrible ones, and I wish the peace of Christ to people I don’t always like, some of them people I married and bore. Then, all washed up, assured, once again, that a table with a place for murderers and cowards and whores has a place for me, I walk forward, my hands empty, into goodness, into life.

Mass is a feast, the feast, to which I have been invited. It is the table where I come as a guest, to be fed, to dine on the sweet abundance, the rich smell and taste that is God.

I am fed with God’s body and blood that I might go out and be that body and blood. In the world. For the world. Feeding the world. To a people who cannot even name the hunger that cramps their guts and parches their throats. For that is the only difference, really: I know the name of my hunger, and so can seek the source, the only source, of its satisfaction.

When life outruns theology

It is a good thing, I tell the students at the college where I serve as campus minister, it’s a good thing when life outruns our theology. It helps us remember that theology is always a proximate science. We are mortal; God is immortal. We are human; God is divine. Finite minds can never encompass or define or explain that which is infinite. We approach the mystery, using the only tools we have -- our words. God is like. God is like a nesting bird protecting her own, a father watching the road for his wandering son. God is like a shepherd searching for his sheep, or a woman turning the house upside down looking for a lost coin.

We get close, I tell them, but there is always more. However deep we go, God is deeper still.

Life reminds me of that, too. I bring the strangers with me into Mass and I take them home again. I see Christ in the face of one I know to be an alien, an enemy, a threat, a rebuke, a reproach. But I cannot turn away. I have rehearsed this moment for too many Sundays, for too many years. And I have learned -- I am learning -- often against my will, to take the cup from strangers, to drink after strangers and so to be fed.

Melissa Musick Nussbaum is a campus minister in Colorado and author of I Will Arise This Day (Liturgy Training Publications).

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002