It has been a long time since I stepped inside of a church, and what worried me most today was that I would spontaneously combust upon entering the building, the rays of sunlight filtered through the image of Christ piercing me like arrows, old ladies scooping holy water on me only for it to incite the flames, my grandmother looking down from her short stature muttering, Very disappointing, very disappointing. I can't precisely measure the time since I've last been, although a fair estimate would be somewhere between 7-10 years.
As an especially oblivious young boy I wouldn't say I was fascinated by mass, which was boring, overlong but solemn, giving me a healthy fear of God and leading me to find the intricate "natural philosophy" of Catholicism as valid as scientific inquiry. The theological matters anybody half-aware of Catholicism knows about won't be explored further here. Suffice it to say I think all religions are equally useful but am most impressed by Catholicism's venerability and opulence, the greatest among all religions and, of course, its peerless status among all the Christianities, underwriting much of Western civilization.
Today I was going in order to put in an appearance for my family, a warm-bodied cipher, in the name of a late baptism for my brother. His baptism is late because we are lapsed Catholics and the matter was not immediately settled in the time after his birth, a period of low faith and good material fortune. Now things are different and it has become important to have him welcomed into the community of Christ, a relatively low premium to insure against the catastrophe of dying and there being an afterlife. Clearly there is no afterlife, but he is not my child.
My mother awoke me about 90 minutes before mass. We picked up my grandmother, the most religious of all family members and arrived at the same brick complex that, some 10 years back, swallowed me, my grandmother and my uncle every Sunday and spit us back out as as we had come about 75 minutes later, but no sooner. The doors could have been locked behind us and we'd have been none the wiser. My family was and continues to be like anonymous, foreign bodies in America, even though we are citizens now. Likewise, we passed through the bowels of the church making no contact or integration with the community, like the seeds of a fruit. Now the three of us came in laughing, walking past a throng of children in the antechamber where religious merchandise is sold after the show. They were given flowers to be placed in front of the Virgin's ikon after she was processed to the altar at the outset of mass. (Later a venerable and osteoporotic lady having attended these 18 years past was given the honor of crowning the Virgin with a wreath of blue flowers delivered on a pillow. She failed to seat the wreath right-proper on the Virgin's head and so lost the honor to a more vigorous member of the church's politburo.) The antechamber smelled like flowers, but it was not the children's roses, rather something unsourceable. The only word exchanged between me and the parishioners at any point is 'perdón'.
We seated ourselves at the lateral edge of a middle pew, but decided to relocate to a more central position, since those people entering the church after the altar girls had assumed their attack formation in the central aisle, holding candles and an extra-long crucifixion, would necessarily ask us to tuck in our legs to make their way past like theater patrons. The party secretary who funneled baptismal requests guarded the leftmost aisle; to sit farther from this spot meant less visual exposure on her frequent rounds of the territory. Meanwhile my grandmother informed me of my mother's hypothesis that people from one Caribbean island grouped themselves on one side of the nave, and those from another sat opposite. It was hard to tell. The congregation was mostly mestizo. A single, solitary Asian man worked the sound system. I cannot speak for the earlier mass given in English, but in practical terms the language division also means ethnic self-segregation.
The church itself is to be found in an urban complex consisting of the sacred building, a complementary rectory, a refectory (here I am stretching the meaning of words not in a metaphorical direction but just in irreverence to dictionaries, sorry), a fenced in parking lot and a building I have never seen anyone enter, nor any living body leave. The facilities used to include a school run by nuns, this is no longer the case. The church was constructed in brick while the flagship church in Tampa is made from marble or some other brilliant, fancy stone with rose windows. All other parishes are short, squat, ugly or stuccoed, failing to distinguish Catholicism from its Protestant sister religions, who believe Godliness can be mediated without rigorous training or permanent, costly structures. The roof was bare timber, and the upper wall was stenciled with a glorious array of stained glass windows, inscribed with the names of their donors, depicting the less painful and more transcendent parts of the gospel. Beneath those were smaller reliefs of the passion, numbered with Roman numerals so they could be read like a graphic novel, colored so the cruelty on the face of the man driving in the crown of thorns was apparent from two aisles away.
I had to use the bathroom. I'd never used the bathroom here before. Church used to be serious, now it was functional. I saw that no special reverence was required. As a child it would have been impossible for me to expel anything with only one flimsy door, one profane membrane separating me from the same space occupied by a tremendous marble altar holding golden chalices in front of a statue of Christ beneath an even grander depiction of him in the stained glass centerpiece. Now I was very upset by how long the lady ahead of me took to use the bathroom, there being only one bathroom partially located beneath a chained-off staircase. Although not necessary for my purposes, I decided to replace the empty roll of toilet paper so the next occupant wouldn't think me a jerk.
Heading back towards my seat I had to pass in front of the altar-girl formation, as the back-alley route had been pre-empted by a sclerotic mass of people spilling out of the antechamber. I hope I did not offend Jesus by momentarily interposing my real presence between him and the altar.
The organ lit up and the procession of the altar girls began, followed by the Virigin held high above someone's head, and the children bearing red and white roses. I wonder how these jobs were distributed, and whether they were performed out of devotion or egoism. When the procession was over and the children seated in their place and the music stopped and the devotees reverent and the air still and the light frozen in place out boomed a voice from the furthest recess of the altar inflamed with the holy spirit like the crackle of two broad flat stones receiving the Word of God—actually, the priest's voice turned out to be terribly pedestrian and anticlimactic. He was large man in a white cloak, his undershirt visible through his alb, whose front was decorated with the Puerto Rican flag, and he resembled nothing more than a rando who loved thawbs and island nations. His Spanish was impeded not by his thick accent (the previous pastor was Irish but made it work) but the total ignorance of diacritics, resulted in mangled verbs and the classic yet unfortunate año/ano switcharoo. Before he got to the sacred parts, sung in a lightly-modulated high pitch, I still expected the priest to appear out of the sacristy, apologize for his tardiness and dismiss this garish impostor.
Every phase of mass is bookended with a musical number from the choir seated at the mouth of the altar. A woman-organist was shoe-horned into an alcove (perhaps there was a window behind her but as soon as I escaped the building and the fragrance and the harsh fluorescence all the fine details of the occasion started leaking from my head like the juice of a squashed fruit. What kind of fruit? A wet fruit like a grape or an orange. Maybe even a drupe because I don't feel their moisture content is as entangled with the solid fraction as in melons or apples).
Eventually we got around to what I now know is called the homily. This is the priest's reaction to the reading prescribed by the missal. I WISH IT WOULD SUFFICE TO SAY THE HOMILY WAS A DISAPPOINTMENT, AN UTTER DISAPPOINTMENT, BUT I FEEL COMPELLED TO DOCUMENT THE TRAVESTY IN PAINFUL DETAIL. I have not mentioned that a projection screen was assembled to the left (my left) of the priest over a painting of Jesus (the Jesus) being baptized by the Baptist. The text of the priest's sermon and some inexplicable stock images were presented like the subtitles to a foreign film. Indeed, it remained unclear whether he understood what he was saying or serving merely as a holy loudspeaker, like a digital pass-through on a Blu-Ray player. Catholics, unlike Quakers, are not given agency to minister or reciprocate to the congregation, yet a spirited sermon from the priest, one that raises questions, can seem to be almost like a dialogue.
The gist of the lesson was these three servants who were entrusted by their master with 10 talents, 5 talents and 1 talent of gold each. The first two servants invest the gold and upon the return of their master present him with double what was left. The third servant buried the gold and therefore only has the 1 talent to present. The master was a stand-in for the Lord and he rewards the two servants who threw caution to the wind with eternal life while condemning the the risk-averse servant to perpetual damnation. You get back from the Lord what you put into the world. There is no mention of what the master's reaction would have been if the first two servants had invested Madoff or Enron.
Collections were taken, at least $2000, the larger donations presented by check in envelopes. The younger kids do love stuffing handfuls of singles into the basket as if they might trick someone into thinking the contribution theirs. I have never learned nor wondered before where the money goes, whether it is taken into a clean room filled with naked people, like New Jack City, who sort and flatten the bills and run them through industrial counters, while others scan the checks and fill out ledger books.
My grandmother was very upset at communion time, since she believed it was improper to receive the Eucharist without having confessed first, and there was no way in hell any of these people had been properly confessed by a priest with only a rudimentary grasp of Spanish. The priest began the ceremony by blessing a giant wafer, holding it up so that the divine light of providence might shine upon it, and then he conspicuously disappeared and the politburo went up and down admitting each row into the communion line and informing those of low mobility that if necessary, Remain seated and the communion will be brought to you. As far as I know neither my grandmother, uncle, cousin or mother have ever received communion, nor was I confirmed, because in spite of attending English Sunday school I was deemed catechismally incompetent, and that was that. We are not of the race of people who push back, challenge or side-step authority, merely rethink its value in the face of opposition. Could I really have been less capable than these lolling children forming a queue, looking discomfited, smiling ironically to distance themselves from the genuine pride or sense of accomplishment their parents felt looking to them from their pews? *Kanye West voice* NAAAH. As the last few dregs of sacrament-takers made their way to the front and received their diet-sized wafer from the forewoman pantomiming the blessing of the priest and delivering the body of Christ to their tongues, hands unwashed between customers, it emerged that the blood of Christ dispensed from a polished goblet off to the side must have run out because the man stood there motionless, one hand on the goblet, the other supporting the base with a pillow, and in fact I noticed that some of the earlier worshipers had imbibed of His real presence with zealous fervor.
In the latter part of mass, when the technical bits were done and over, the whole ceremony devolved into a mash of announcements for charitable outings, gatherings and parishioner deaths, interspersed with music (including a lovely secular number about nostalgia for the Puerto Rican motherland), and then we were compelled as always to shake everyone's hand with a smile on our face, which didn't cause me any anxiety because I wasn't the initiant, as opposed to when we had to clasp each other's outstretched hands in prayer for standing worship and I let my left one awkwardly dangle out of reach of my neighbor's, and I thought everyone behind me noticed because I was so tall and white and gangly and awkward. Afterwards the priest led in a reverse procession of the altar girls, accompanied by a lovely young woman in a swishy jibara dress in national colors, who looked like she had been crying, followed by the flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and the Vatican.