I attended my first High Mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF) this morning. It was glorious! I’ve been wanting to attend one for a while now, but there’s a story behind why I went today.
Basically, I did something really stupid last night, such that I really, really needed to go to Confession before Mass! The only priest I could think of who offers Confession before Sunday Mass was our FSSP chaplain. So I dragged myself out of bed before 6, and mustered up my courage to go to a new place, for a new kind of Mass, and to confess to a new priest.
I got to the monastery chapel where the Sunday EF Masses are said, and I got there in plenty of time. But I couldn’t tell where the confessional was, and I had not seen the priest around. I finally asked a young man sitting behind me, and he told me I needed to go outside to an adjoining building. Well, by the time I got there, there was quite a line. And about 20 minutes until Mass was to start. The priest had to cut us off.
I stood there, crestfallen and uncertain what I should do. The young lady who’d been in line ahead of me told me that Father also hears confessions after that Mass. That was well and good, but I felt I would have to refrain from receiving the Eucharist if I confessed after Mass. I thought about going somewhere else, in hopes of possibly finding a priest to hear my confession.
But I felt oddly compelled to attend the high Mass. It was something more than interest or curiosity that compelled me. Something much more powerful… something supernatural, which came from within me and from without at the same time… if that makes sense. The phrase I have long used for it is a gravity upon my soul. An ineffable, external force which also ignites a great longing within my soul, a willingness and eagerness to respond to the force.
So I walked back over to the chapel, which by that time was standing-room only. I stood in the doorway, not sure where I should go or whether I could possibly find a seat. I was feeling very uncomfortable and hot and self-conscious. Honestly, I just wanted to disappear, and in fact, I was about to turn and slink away when a young man came and told me there was a seat up front. I didn’t like the idea of having to refrain from Communion in front of the entire chapel (as if it were all about me, right?). But I also didn’t want to be ungrateful for the consideration shown to me. I hesitated, but again, I felt that compulsion.
I followed the boy to the empty spot, sat down and tried to pray, fumbled around for my missal. All while being devastated that I couldn’t in good conscience receive Communion. I felt sort of like there was an earthquake going on inside me. I wondered if the people around me could tell–it seemed impossible that they couldn’t.
And then the music began, organ and choir. A simple hymn before Mass, but it was so beautiful that I could imagine the angels in Heaven appearing and becoming audible. Then a bell rang, and the splendidly-attired servers and priest filed in. The priest began the chanting of the Asperges Me, and the choir and congregation took it up while the priest sprinkled holy water on everybody. I recognized the text of the antiphon as a passage from that most excellent prayer of penitence, Psalm 51:
Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall become whiter than snow.
(Angelus Press 1962 missal translation)
As I felt a small shower of water come down around me, I felt God’s mercy wash over me.
And I was transported. Transported out of my worry and discomfort, transported out of my nervousness and the internal earthquake. Transported out of everything dark and worrisome and into a marvelous light. The chanting, the Latin language, the incense, the splendor of the chapel and the vestments and the finely choreographed movements… it all transported me. It wasn’t about me at all, and yet I found myself in a most wonderful place. “It is good that I am here,” I thought, echoing the sentiments of St. Peter as he stood before the transfigured Christ, dazed but fully conscious of the blessing he had received.
Yes, of course, I found the liturgy a bit strange and hard to follow along with (I still find even the low Mass challenging at times). But it didn’t matter. I was aware of what was going on. A great mystery, to be sure, but a mystery into which we are meant and indeed created to enter, without fear or hesitation. I had been compelled to do just that, and I was now part of it in some small way. What my feeble mind didn’t grasp, my soul certainly did. It resonated with every sound, smell, sight, and motion.
And then there were the Scripture readings and the homily. As I listened, I thought and prayed: “OK, Lord, so this is why You compelled me. This is all exactly what I needed to hear, and what You wanted to tell me.” We heard Galatians 5:16-24, where St. Paul speaks of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit and how we must live in the Spirit and crucify our flesh together with Christ. Yes… I suppose I needed that reminder. The Gospel was Matthew 6:24-33, where Christ warns that one cannot serve both God and mammon, and that if we have faith and trust in God, we will not be anxious about provisions for the needs of the flesh, for God knows us and provides for us, as He does for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field–and then some. “Seek ye therefore first the Kingdom of God, and His justice; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Yes… I definitely needed that reminder!
As part of his homily upon these exhortations, Father encouraged us to pray the Rosary. It was probably the best and most inspiring preaching on the Rosary I’ve heard! It really moved me, almost to tears. My prayer life of late has been… shall we say… a bit weak. Not because I’ve been unable to pray, but, honestly, because I just haven’t made praying a priority. (Gosh, maybe that’s why I’ve been falling to pieces lately. Do you think?)
The Mass proceeded. I implored the Lord for a spiritual Communion. After Mass came Adoration and Benediction. I once again bewailed my sins and begged for mercy. I was still painfully aware of my separation from Him. And the fact that it was I, not He, who had caused it. A hard conviction to pass upon oneself. But not a death sentence. God doesn’t hand out death sentences (despite some all-too-popular misconceptions about Him). Rather, I felt Him say to me, “My child, I know that you came here to be reconciled, and although things have not gone as planned, I have kept you here so that you might receive hope, healing, and encouragement to sustain and re-fortify you.” I thanked Him profusely and reaffirmed my intention to get to Confession as soon as possible and to do better. I marveled at how He brought that beautiful morning from the previous day’s pitiful failing.
I tried to go to Confession again after Mass, but again, there were too many penitents and not enough time. At the time, I was still disconsolate about it. But I decided that I would wait until Tuesday morning and go to Confession at my parish church, to my parish priest, my usual confessor. And in the meantime, I would trust in God’s tremendous mercy and providence.
That’s what I am doing now, and with considerable peace of mind, thanks be to God. But perhaps that raises another question: So, why go to Confession anyway? I’ll address this question in a separate post. I was planning a similar post anyway, and what happened today provides a good context for it.
Let me just close by saying:
1. Mortal sin IS. NOT. WORTH. IT. So avoid it at all costs and save yourself a whole lot of grief!
2. But if you can’t avoid it, DO. NOT. DESPAIR. Be humble, honest, and contrite before God, and get to Confession ASAP!