Last weekend, I went to Mass for the first time in well over a decade. To say that it was a strange and disorienting experience would be to understate things dramatically. But it was also a deeply comforting and familiar experience. I know that that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but in my experience very little ever does when it comes to sorting out one’s personal relationship to faith.
I should maybe back up a bit.
I went to Mass because I was in San Antonio on a media tour, and the missions of San Antonio were part of that tour, and once I saw the missions – wandered their grounds, touched their walls, let myself be moved by the great stone carvings of angels and saints and crosses and the spirit of faith and mission – I decided that I needed to delve further into the experience offered there. If I was moved by the structures of the missions, would I be moved by the practice of faith that occurred therein? If I found myself drawn to the small prayer grotto devoted to the Virgin – and even moved so far as to murmur a little prayer there – might I not be drawn to the prayers and hymns sung in the chapels? Might this not be an opportunity to test my commitment to exploring faith?
Also, I heard there was a mariachi band at Sunday mass at Mission Concepcion. I decided to go.
I didn’t go comfortably. I’ve been resisting the Catholic Church – the appeal of its familiarity, the lure of memory, the attraction of returning to the bosom of the faith that defined the happiest years of my childhood – because I don’t want to like the Catholic Church. Everything that I loved about it as a child and a girl – the comforting rituals, the poetic words, the joyfulness of the hymns that were sung, to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars, in our hippy West Coast Irish Catholic parish – was gone, I thought – gone in spirit, anyway – and replaced by politics and controversy and all the terrible things that an adult mind and heart can’t ignore. I didn’t want to wrestle with that. If I was going to re-embrace a practice of Christianity – and that, I should note, has by no means been a given – I figured that it would probably be Anglican. Maybe United. But probably Anglican. I like the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So I went in the spirit of research. I went to observe and report to myself on my findings. I didn’t go to pray or to recite the Nicene Creed or to take Communion – not that I could take Communion, lapsed as I am – or to be blessed. I went to analyze.
I didn’t analyze. I prayed and recited the Nicene Creed and didn’t take Communion but approached the altar anyway with the other communicants and asked to be blessed by the priest – a friendly Texan who goes by ‘Father Jim’ – and fought back tears as he blessed me and prayed some more. I did get a little analytical during the Intercessions – I have mixed feelings about intercessory and petitionary prayer – but I still bowed my head.
And I sang. You can’t not sing when there’s a mariachi band strumming their guitars and blasting their trombones and singing with an almost manic glee about how wonderful is heaven! And how awesome the Lord! Such that for all my ambivalence about all things politically Catholic and practically Christian I joined in and sang in English and in Spanish – badly – and couldn’t keep from smiling as the band leader – sunglasses around his neck, trombone in hand – shouted Hallelujah! This, I thought, this is what it used to feel like. Sure, it was folk guitars and Dylan-inspired hymns and I was young and didn’t know from good music or bad, but it was happy. Joyful. It was a musical practice of faith that caused one’s toes to tap and one’s heart to lift. It was why I loved the Church. Because it made me feel joyful. It made me want to dance.
The mariachi Mass at Mission Concepcion made me feel that way again, for an hour or so.
I don’t know what this means for where I go from here in terms of figuring out faith. I can’t fly to San Antonio every weekend for mariachi Mass, and so far I haven’t found anything like that anywhere near to where I live. And I am, still, deeply troubled by the Church and its politics and I don’t know that that can be overcome with some trombones and cacarones.
But still, there was music. And I sang.