Tuesday, January 6, 2015

MY MESSAGE FROM GOD: DRESS APPROPRIATELY FOR MASS




PALM CANYON DRIVE,
PALM SPRINGS, CA
DUSK

Wow. After suspending my normal writing schedule for the whole of December, out in Palm Springs I've been free to spend many uninterrupted hours a day feverishly writing.

So here, as promised, is the joke's-on-me coda to my Christmas eve Mass rant...

It all happened back in September, when LA was in the midst of a sustained, torrid heat wave. The whole city was parched, wilting, and at the tail end, as it transpired, of a years-long drought. The church to which I was headed for 5:30 pm Mass that day had no A/C. The ladies would inside would be fanning themselves the whole time with rolled-up bulletins or missalettes.

Anyway, I wheeled into the parking lot just a teeny tad late. Mostly I'm on time and I'm never ten minutes late, but I will more often than is perhaps strictly necessary be late by, say, a minute and a half. I'm not proud of it, but that's how I sometimes roll. This is due to a habit, perhaps a compulsion I have, of not allowing myself quite enough time to get places and/or squeezing in one too many minor errands, and then careening through the streets and deriving huge satisfaction from arriving at my destination with ten seconds to spare. It's a stupid ego thing, an adrenaline hit, and a practice that is obviously not terribly cognizant of others.

I hadn't run any errands before Mass but I was coming from the gym. I still had on a kind of workout tank top, blue. I also had on a pair of Diesel jeans, a nice belt, silver earrings and a bracelet, and Mephisto sandals. My nails were done. So I wasn't dressed like a street person (which is okay if you ARE a street person). But I was rushed, and my hair, as is its, or my wont, was a bit disheveled, and my tank top, sleeveless, was perhaps a bit tighter than we all might wish. As I was dashing from my car into church, the thought did cross my mind that maybe I should put on the long-sleeved shirt I had in the trunk. But as I said, I was late already and the temperature was over 100 and I figured I'd slip in, sit in the back, and all would be well.

So I slipped in during the first reading and sat in the back. It was Tuesday, which meant Adoration afterwards, which I fully planned to stay for. That made me happy, and being at Mass, any Mass, always makes me happy, and I had always liked this particular church to which I'd been coming frequently to the 5:30 for years.

I'd been coming for years and people tolerated me but no-one had ever gone out of their way to say hi. That was okay. I'm used to smiling at people and not having them smile back. Plus if they did smile back, I'd probably run.

Anyway, right away I also noticed: a new priest! Mid-thirties to early forties. Earnest. Beautiful singing voice. Filipino perhaps, as was much of the parish. Said the liturgy slowly. Lovely all around.

I pondered all these things in my heart during the readings and homily. When it came time for the Eucharist. I made my way down the aisle, singing "Pan de Vida" with the others, my Magnificat open back in my pew so I could say the Communion antiphon when I returned to my seat.

I was in the right-hand line, the side on which the new priest was standing. When I got up to the front, I held out the little throne I'd made of my hands to receive the Eucharist, as I always do.

The priest placed the Host in my hand.
He said, "The Body of Christ" as usual.
And then he leaned toward me with the most welcoming, beatific smile and said something else.

For a second, as you can imagine, I simply couldn't compute. For those of you who aren't Catholic, the priest never EVER speaks to you during Communion. Then my mind kicked into gear, and here again, I'm not proud, but I just couldn't imagine any other possible explanation.

My God, I thought, does the man read my blog? Does he recognize me? Is he trying to tell me he likes my pieces in The Tidings?

I stood there uncertainly for a second, smiling,  and whispered, "What?"

And the priest leaned forward and very slowly, very clearly, said, "Please dress appropriately next time you come to Mass."

Does that not trump all? Is that not absolutely 100% beyond brilliant? Genius.

I was stunned, I was shocked, I made my way back to my pew, pulsating with embarrassment but also strangely...exultant. I did have a split-second of wanting to turn back and say, "Dude, these jeans cost a hundred and twenty-five bucks."

I did have a half-second of wanting to say, My God here I have trudged to Mass, bravely, loyally, alone, for eighteen years. Good for you: So dress appropriately.

Part of me wanted to protest, I come to this church where after years no-one knows who I am, no-one cares, no-one knows I write for the Magnificat they're toting. I feel connected to them. I pray for them. I'm grateful for them. Good for you: So dress appropriately. 

I often joke that I'm the only white Catholic in hipster Silver Lake. Very funny, so show your respect for the people of color who sit beside you in the pews by dressing appropriately next time you come to Mass.

I nipped those thoughts in the bud, in other words, and I'll tell you why. Because all those years of prayer and of trudging to Mass and of schlepping to Confession had formed in me the habit of obedience. In spite of my faults, they had formed in me a humble and contrite heart.

Ever since coming into the Church I'd been waiting for Christ to speak to me. And he had.

St. Francis of Assisi heard, "Rebuild my church." Mother Teresa heard, "Wouldst thou not help? Wilt thou refuse?" I heard, "Put on a shirt and comb your hair."

Seriously, at once I took the message as coming straight from Christ. It couldn't possibly have been more appropriate. That priest had seen straight through to my core, to my central conflict, to the way I'm still trying to serve both God and mammon.

To wit: I've been single for 15 years. Like the priest, all priests, I'm called to be a celebrant, not a star. That's hard sometimes. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is to matter to someone. Usually I'm okay with the fact that I don't, but when I feel rejected or abandoned or anxious or afraid, I do tend to want a little more than usual to be seen. Something had happened the day before that had made me feel rejected.  I had been craving, subconsciously at least, a little male attention.

It wasn't lost on me for a second that someone had seen me. Christ had.

In addition to addressing my craving for attention, the priest's words touched on many other unfortunate tendencies of mine. To think the rules are made for everyone but me. To think Oh but my heart yearns--why should I care what my hair looks like? My impatience. My tendency to use activity to anesthetize my emotional pain. .

Later in the week I told the story to a lapsed Catholic friend. "Don't you think the priest might have been prompted by his own unworked-through stuff?" she asked right away. "No I don't," I said firmly. "I don't care what his hang-ups are and I don't care what his politics are. He was right. You show respect for Christ."

Later still I thought,  I didn't have on my wedding garment that day. By wedding garment I don't mean some weird kind of pre-Vatican II chapel veil which for me would be a grotesque affectation and I couldn't wear for two seconds without obsessing, Is everybody noticing how holy I am?

No, the real wedding garment is largely inner. The real wedding garment is doing things nobody's going to notice. Leaving on time. Taking a few minutes of silence to prepare. Cultivating the humility and love constantly to be aware that our appearance, demeanor, and capacity to be present affect the people around us. That doesn't mean we have to look dowdy. It means that, whatever our station in life, our heart is oriented toward motherhood, in the deepest sense of the word.

But the real deal was this.

During those 15 years of single life my thought had been: Maybe there'll be a second marriage in my life and maybe there won't be. Up to God! I'll just go along being faithful to the teachings of the Church but also being "open." As time had worn on, though, I'd begun to see that maybe I had actually been called to a life of celibacy. Every relationship I've ever been in (not that there have been many) has been marked by unalloyed pain. For whatever reason, the area of romance had always for me been a reservoir of conflict and woundedness.

You have to work that out, of course, in or out of a relationship, because the real relationship is with all other people, with Christ. I'd always been afraid that to "embrace" celibacy would be a thinly-disguised, unhealthy fleeing from the world. But in fact I was participating more fully in the world in various ways than I ever had been. I felt more whole, more useful, in these past few years than I ever had.

And now Christ seemed to be saying, You have to choose. You have to make a decision. Otherwise you're going to be forever hedging your bets.

That's the real reason the words of that priest struck to my core. I'm always telling Jesus how much I love him. It's as if he were saying:

"Do you? Do you love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
"Feed my lambs."
"Do you love me?"
"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
"Tend my sheep."
"Heather, do you love me?" 
"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." 
"Feed my sheep."

And dress appropriately for Mass. Everything you need, the strength, wisdom and courage to make any decision, will grow from that.

I knew the priest's words had flowed from the deepest kind of love. And because those years of schlepping to Mass had formed in me as well the knowledge that I belong, that I am welcome no matter what, I stayed for the whole hour of Adoration.

You spoke to me, Lord, I wept from my place in the back.

Never had I more truly understood the words: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."




22 comments:

  1. I have been eagerly awaiting this post since your 'teaser' about it a few days ago and it didn't disappoint! Thank you for always being willing to be so blatantly honest with us. I love it. What a wonderful story. I think the world has devalued obedience to the point that it is easy for us to forget how important it truly is.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I remember seeing pictures of women nursing their babies during mass...in the Philippines. They didn't cover up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Which is fine. I'm a bit past nursing age myself, though...

      Delete
  3. Heather thank you so much for your obedience and your humility in accepting His word to you. Thank you for writing too - this website is food for me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Maybe it was the MEPHISTO sandals!

    Seriously, I wonder if Father would have mentioned it if you hadn't come in late. You weren't all that late, of course, but still -- it's possible he noticed, and that it irked him in tandem with your general dishevelment.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is beautiful. Alas, my reaction would have been to focus on my self - be defensive, and probably a bit angry. I'm so glad that you weren't because you were then able to write this. It's why I read your writing and recommend this blog and your books, Heather.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hear, hear. You have used this to inspire others (me included). Thank you, Heather, for allowing Christ to work through you!! Needed to read this today, especially because I, too, would have been bruised by this, and it would have taken a lot for me to see the good in it. New Year's Resolution - dress better for Christ in the Mass.

      Delete
  6. This past midnight Mass I made the mistake of wearing jeans. I don't normally. I shouldn't have then. As you said--am I wearing my wedding garment? Part of me feels it's just most important to be present at Mass, but I also recognize it's important to respect the moment as well.

    Great post--and great food for thought.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, M. Lynn, I don't think it was the jeans, it was more the whole sort of harried, not-quite-prepared divided-self thing. My impulse to say they were GOOD jeans was meant to be funny, sort of like if you have a hundred-dollar haircut and good jeans you can act any damn way you want. i don't think jeans are necessarily wrong for Mass, it's more a kind of neatness, GATHERED in every way kind of thing we maybe want to aim for....

      Delete
  7. This was great! Your openness astounds me! It makes me want to be more real, although that thought has been swirling in my mind for quite some time anyway, this piece broke open something.
    Also, I'm often sailing in at the very last moment before Mass or even as the penitential act is being said. I pretty much know why I do it and it's really ridiculous. Father is often looking for someone to do the readings right before Mass on weekdays and I'm so afraid he will ask me. He has before and I said that I couldn't. I still feel like a schmuck for it! I'm afraid that I might pass out if I were to get up there in front of everyone. Even worse than that, I have a voice like a ripsaw and can't sing the "alleluia" a cappella for fear of embarrassment. I have a lot to work through.
    Great post! Thanks!
    Peace,
    bren

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks, folks, I'm so glad you got it! I really think this was a deep encounter. It illustrates perfectly my whole conviction that being a follower of Christ means going way way beyond politics. An encounter with Christ can never be described in political terms, as being either right or left. As soon as you put a political frame around your action and thought, you box yourself in. A woman who defines herself primarily by the feminist label would have seen Father's remark in political terms and then you sort of HAVE to respond with high dudgeon, feel yourself discriminated against, start pointing out all the slobby men at Mass. On the other hand, if your Catholicism is largely defined by "following the rules," the danger is that you make a show of, say, donning a chapel veil while possibly interiorly burning with resentment, shame, a competitive spirit, and the desire to be approved by your peers (as opposed to Christ).

    So I love stories like this that blow ALL that out of the water. Truly following Christ is something else altogether. I love Simone Weil's observation: "Can anyone imagine St. Francis of Assisi speaking of rights?" Of course we're concerned with alleviating, say, discrimination in all its forms. When we're oriented toward Christ, our approach will be right...

    The capacity to be appropriately corrected is true liberation. That is true freedom. That is to come fully into one's humanhood and personhood, whatever our gender.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "The capacity to be appropriately corrected is true liberation. "

      This is beautiful, and often the most difficult thing (for myself!)

      Delete
  9. I love this piece. I love that you heard the voice of Christ in that priest and knew it was meant for you. I have this same failing, that feeling of putting preparing for Mass on low priority, because...I am busy, I am special (God knows my heart), etc. I struggle a lot in part because I have three teenagers and "their" mass is in the evening at 5 pm. By then, we have been doing whatever around the house all day, maybe have done an errand, usually kids are doing homework, and having to stop and take a break to get dressed properly and go to Mass is not always welcomed by them or me. I used to love going to mass in the morning and I've been feeling like I should get back to that, youth program or no youth program. It just sets the whole day up properly, with the first priority done first. "Good for you: so dress appropriately." That just cracks me up and hits me to the core all at once. Thank you again for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  10. We have often heard that the act of prayer in a marvelous way changes us more than God changes what we are praying for. It a like manner I have observed that our dress impacts us more than maybe even those around us. I was a teacher for many years in public school. As teachers we often noted the change in student behavior on days we required a more formal dress code. A principal once told me, "Dress sloppy, act sloppy". I even notice in myself if I am dressed neat and clean in my sharpest outfit, my posture, my attitude, even my outlook changes. When I rush to Home Depot all dirty, in the middle of a plumbing job, I automatically take on the "swagger" of a manly "worker guy". If I can try to "dress for the King" when I go to Mass, in some way, it changes how I approach my Lord and my God.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The priest was trying to tell you to blend in with the women of his parish. It's a cultural thing.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I disagree. At my parish in New Orleans there are shawls available for women who are wearing tank tops or very low cut tops. It's primarily a black & white congregation. At shrines in Europe there are signs outside with the red circle & diagonal bar indicating what is not allowed inside, among them tank tops on men or women. This is pretty standard for respectful attire.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "Today if you hear His voice..."

    I am so appreciative that you heard His voice and shared it with us. It seems so right. That He speaks to us at all is such a phenomenal mystery, and that we get those moments of clarity when we can be open and receptive enough to hear Him...how truly magnificent. I'm inspired. It's like you do lectio with your life and teach from that place through your posts/essays. Such a good reminder to me to pay more attention because daily He calls. Thank you, Heather.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Love this column! I am shocked, shocked in the summer what I see at Mass; young girls in beyond short shorts, flip flops, camisole tops. My parish is very HOLY overall, but there is always some highly inapporiate attire. (Thankful its pretty cold here 7 months a year!). When one dresses "up" and modestly for Mass, one feels more prepared for The Lord's Banquet...drawn into the sacredness of the Mass. Another, practice that truly draws us into the sacredness and reverence of preparing to receive Jesus; is arriving 20 minutes early to pray and meditate, before each and every Mass. Our Blessed Mother, in Medjugorje taught this practice to the "seers" in the early years. Mother Mary, admonished them to always arrive to pray 20 minutes early, and even to be solemn and prayerful and on the way to the church. This will immensely change ones spiritual life and add graces received from Jesus. In our busy, multi-tasking society, this is difficult, but wholly worth the sacrifice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Diane, though I will say the piece was about openness, humility and obedience more than it was about the specifics about what we wear to Mass. Of course we want to be respectful but the real deal is always our inner orientation of heart--to Mass, to our fellows, to all of life. We can be 20 minutes early to Mass and still be serving very a very different master or masters than Christ. And those people by whom we're shocked--shocked!--may be very much closer to Christ than we are. Like St. Paul, we get to pray without ceasing and then we're open to being thrown off balance and being broken open one more time ourselves...

      Delete
    2. As the Lord has continued to transform, this 53 year old cradle Catholic...There is always a new and profound understanding of The Mass....Obedience, mitigates, honoring Christ in the Eucharist, by emptying ourselves of the worldly ways, norms, attire. We are temples and tabernacles carrying Christ. When I was a rebellious teen, offending Our Lord in ways now incomprensible to me.....I was not close to Christ, even though I never left my Catholic faith and the Mass; this I now see. He never gives up on me, pursues me still..."to live in this world, but not of it".

      Delete
  15. This is great! Funny and stinging at the same time. I know I find myself judging those who come in late and are a little less dressed than they should be. That's not good, either!!! If only I could turn that Judge Judy off in my head.

    Recently, I was at a sister church, and the priest began Mass by rebuking those who came late--not smiling, not joking-- I felt really badly for all those people. I worried they may never come back. I am glad your priest smiled.

    I pray for an understanding heart.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Dress my sheep
    - - -
    Quite honestly I cannot decide if the above sentence requires a period or question mark however, I rejoice with you, dear Heather, that you received the word spoken with docility and allowed it be a blessing in your Christian formation.

    ReplyDelete

I WELCOME your comments!!!