I went to Sacred Heart, Flannery O’Connor’s church, this morning. I am not a Catholic, and I’ve only been to one or two Catholic services ever, and those out of the country, so I didn’t know what to expect. It’s always awkward for me going anywhere new in any context, so that added to my trepidation, but I slipped into a pew with just a smile and a nod to those I was sitting beside.
One of the things that most makes me feel at home in a church is knowing the songs. Today, I knew only one, and the one I knew seemed to be one that was new to the congregation, so that didn’t help the sense of community much. But they, as a local congregation, shared the liturgy, knew it, responded together with the expected phrases that were familiar to them but unknown to me. When they began what I thought was the Apostles’ Creed, I gladly spoke along with them, but their words quickly diverged from those I knew, though snippets here and there drew me back into a shared faith.
There was a lot of singing, weaving throughout the service, descending from the balcony with a young man’s voice, his occasional female harmonist, and an able guitar. From below, the congregants joined their voices, mostly unaided by hymnals, knowing when to allow him to lead solo, when to enter into the praise. I fumbled along with the hymnal, not knowing the words and imperfectly reading the music, but making the effort, wanting to be a part of it all. I don’t know, but I imagine O’Connor not singing much; I picture her instead only mouthing the words or listening attentively, not trusting her musicality or pitch. Some today did that, but there were also many voices, all part of the song: the older woman behind me, whose sureness in words and tune spoke of a lifetime of attendance here; the baby who wailed periodically from the back of the church; the younger man in front of me who was perpetuating his family’s faith; and me, a non-Catholic who nevertheless shared the faith, who was part of the larger body of believers.
Nothing emphasized this more than the priest himself–Father Nguyen, a 38 year old Vietnamese man in his first position as priest, dropped down into the deep South. At least one of his assistants also was of a different nationality. A Hispanic family filled a full row in the front right. All around me I saw the limbs of Christ. Today I felt a bit like a little finger, but when we passed the peace, and my fingers slipped into the hands of those around me, I knew that I was more.
And communion: every church has its own practice and style–it is, ironically, often communion that is most awkward and stilted when you are visiting elsewhere. In my church, the communion tray is passed down the rows, a wafer conveniently placed in a tiny plastic cup which is then overstacked by an identical cup filled with grape juice, making the ceremony seamless but also a bit mechanical, like the Incarnation untouched by human hands. Here, the congregation filed by Father Nguyen by rows, each taking the bread from his hand, then continuing to an elder who held a common cup. Most, I noticed, did not take a drink, but filed by as though intentionally ignoring it. Does fear of germs today impede this full communion? How can one acknowledge the body without the blood? This was Shylock’s conundrum, who was entitled to the flesh but could not also have the blood. So I drank, from a cup which by that time was virtually empty.Those who came after me could only symbolically drink, only their spirits participating in the sacrament.
The priest’s sermon was the most surprising aspect of the service to me. In contrast to the well-defined ritualism of the other elements, the sermon itself seemed extemporaneous, casual. He stood behind no pulpit, no screen flashed bland Powerpoints, no notes were in his hand. Perhaps these are all Protestant props. Instead, he offered a simple analysis of Christ’s image of his easy and light yoke, non-pretentious, sharing freely his personal yokes as illustrations, inviting us into a holy life of no excuses.
The whole service was just short of an hour. More than once he repeated that he would be brief, as though we were anxious for release from the yoke of church from the moment we sat down. Is this what we have become? A group who puts in our time? A congregation who wants only a “pre-packaged tour of the sublime,” as Dillard puts it? I hope not. I wanted more spirit, more time together, more worship, which I sensed more from the community than from the singing, the homilies, the sermon, the recitations. As it should be