Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As novices in the Dominican Order, we regularly engage in study and reflection together. On a weekly basis, we will take a passage or a concept and each write an essay. Each of us will then comment on each other’s work, so that our study becomes part of the bond of our community. This past week, our topic required us to reflect on our experience of worship. Mary, one of my Dominican sisters, wrote the following piece:
Well the week of worship started a little differently.
Last week I was driving my son to the doctor and we passed the sign leading to one of our prominent suburban parishes currently in a rector search. My son said, “Mom – don’t you really wish you could be preaching THERE on Sundays instead of at Saint Otherwise?” Translated from his tone of voice and prior verbalizations – instead of at your hopelessly small, hopelessly underfinanced, hopelessly eccentric and, generally hopeless little congregation. To my surprise I said “yes. I really would.” And then rattled on a bit about frustration and other human emotions. I hate to confess having said this or felt this. I have a very faithful (to the Lord) and loyal (to the church and if truth be known, to its not always so humble rector) congregation. Which is or at least so far has been, persistently small, persistently underfinanced, as eccentric a collection as one would find in any given Episcopal parish, albeit without a lot of average types to absorb the eccentricity. After almost eight years of what sometimes feels like slogging [as our neuralgic deacon likes to point out] (in the most neuralgic ways possible, without ever demonstrating the desire to do anything other than get dressed up on Sundays and chant things) no visually apparent results, I hate to confess that it is harder than I would like it to be to stay with it. And of late I have more often than I would like to confess to you all had a harder time than I should in putting in the prayer, the time, the study, the listening, and all the things that go into the relationship of priest and parish, and preacher and assembly. And I wonder if there will ever be an answer to what seems to be the most lingering congregational question, asked every Sunday possibly since the parish was founded 126.3 years ago: does anyone remember which can has the decaf in it?
Yet when I come on Sunday morning, wondering as I always do whether there will actually be a minyan’s worth of people in the pews, and feeling alone and somehow unblessed in my priestly ministry, getting over the weekly “what do you mean you’re not coming to church and can I ever get out of here on Sunday morning without an argument” conversation at home, we begin the celebration of the Eucharist, with whoever is there, there and whoever is not somehow brought present perceptibly by those who are (I don’t know how they do it but they do – could it be, well love?), and somehow a change begins. Not in them but in me. I look at them and listen to them, and I get up to preach the word with the gospel open behind me. I walk into their midst and they change me. And I don’t remember anything about the suburban church or the congregation replete with potential foursomes for golf and loads of well-groomed acolytes and articulate lectors. And the sermon I didn’t think I had, has me instead, and the words start to remold themselves from what I imagined and hacked away at into living connections to lives and I am somehow between the gospels and those lives as the connections are knit. And I wash my hands among the innocent and begin the Eucharistic prayer. And I look up and down the center aisle through the glass windows of the doors someone came and put in because they knew the old ones needed replacing. And I see a world from which they have gathered. And I look down and the way the sun plays with the reflections of things around the foot of my chalice I see myself, and I see them and I see the high altar cross, all reflecting from the cup from which our Lord asked us to drink together. and I am where I should be, with them, in their dyings and risings and dying again. And I am graced. And I am humbled. And I am home. And another week will turn. Ethel has died at 92 and her son didn’t want a service. and Sophia will have her tenth birthday prayer. Nicholas will insist he is not a saint, and his mother will agree with him. Carolyn will tell us about the family for which we prayed for a year while their six-year-old son died of cancer giving birth to twins. The senior warden will ask if we can have a secret location for the vestry meeting so that the deacon doesn’t come. I will try to think of a canonical way this could happen. Joyce will go back to her husband and son for another six months of abuse in a remote part of Florida and she will weep as I pray a blessing for her and tell her to come back safe in April. George will have laughed at the jokes in my sermon. Mary Kay and Mike will be at home because Mike is sick from the fourth to the last radiation treatment on his spine. When I say “take them in remembrance that Christ died for you” Trish and I will catch each other’s eyes and she will know we are with her when she goes to painful divorce proceedings on Tuesday. The Organ will have ciphered, even though the repair guy said there was nothing wrong. Christ is among us, and hopeless is not a word that can be thought or spoken. That is my Sunday last. And if God is gracious, my Sunday next as well I think.
And I have tried to keep you all, as I do each Sunday, in the midst of its consecratory power.
I am both humbled and proud to call Mary my sister. When I read her piece, I found myself simply struck speechless. And then I realized that I am too rarely speechless. And that is why I am a Dominican.
James R. Dennis, O.P.