by Alissa Newton
Last week Andrew and I took our niece, Sophia, to the Epiphany mass at St. Paul's. Sophia will be three in April, and some might question our decision to take someone at such a tender age to a long anglo-catholic mass at 7pm in the evening. (her usual bedtime is around 8, I think.) But Sophia's parents were at a childbirth class for baby #2 and we were feeling adventurous, so we went for it. Sophia has been a fan of St. Paul's since visiting on Thanksgiving with her parents, and whenever she talks about her experiences there she brings up "people in robes" and "how we bowed quietly!"
Sitting in the hushed and sacred space of the sanctuary I realized yet again something I've known deeply for years, but often forgotten superficially: worship is many things, but it is not boring.
I should qualify, perhaps. If one is paying attention - and few adults pay attention the way that a toddler does - mass is not boring. There is too much going on! I watched my niece take it all in with wide blue eyes: the lofty vaulted ceiling, the lit candles, the robed liturgical ministers, and the smoke rising from the thurible as it swung, incense burning inside. I watched her take it in with her other senses as well - the smell of the incense, the feel of the smooth wooden pew beneath her hands, and the softer cushion under her small knees when we went to the communion rail. The feeling of Mother Melissa's hand on her forehead as Sophia received a blessing with a shy smile and pleased eyes. The warmth of the candles at the Mary shrine, where she insisted on stopping to kneel after we left the rail.
This is not to say she spent the entire hour and a half riveted to the service. Few of our children, do! But Sophia noticed the things that are easy for me to forget about. She was captivated by the elements of our worship that are our truest attempts to capture the mystery of our relationship with God, to express the inexpressible about the Divine one incarnate in the world, with-us. We use incense and candlelight to augment our response to that mystery. We dress our priests and other liturgical ministers in brightly colored vestments in an attempt to celebrate the sacrament we experience together in bread and wine, because while there is much that we don't understand or cannot adequately express about that feast, the one thing we do know is that it is a celebration.
Sophia got it. She was thrilled by the smells, the colors, the candles, and the movements. She stood and sat down and bowed quietly. She also drifted a bit during the homily (though it was lovely) and the prayers. Those were just people talking, and what's so thrilling about that? Grown-ups are always talking. The magic is with the mystery, the unexplainable parts of the mass.
I think the same is true about faith (and prayer) itself - there is something unexplainable about it. Many people try to put it into words, and their attempts can be illuminating, even transformative. But the essence is a lot more like incense or candlelight - sweet and wonderful to behold, undeniable when experienced, and somehow cheapened by description.
I think one of my goals for the coming year is to pay attention to the world the way a toddler would. There's a lot of mystery and wonder to be found - both outside and inside of me, my family, my church, and my religion. I want to keep an eye out for the unexplainable, and my heart open to see and wonder at mystery when it can be found. I also need the reminder that there is much pleasure to be found in the simple routines of life - in this case standing, sitting, experiencing the smells and sights and, when appropriate, bowing quietly.
Alissa Newton is a postulant to Holy Orders from St. Paul's and the editor of the parish blog. This entry was adapted from her personal blog, which can be found here.