The Storms Are on the Ocean
A fairly violent thunderstorm came through my town during the Easter Vigil last night. There had been rain earlier in the evening, but it had mostly stopped by the time the Vigil Mass began. The Mass begins outside the church. A light rain was still falling when we gathered there, and most of the participants, including the priest, stayed under the eaves of the building next door until the last moment. The Easter candle was lit—a bit hastily, it seemed to me—and the words “Christ Our Light” chanted. A few heavy drops of rain began to fall as the priest and acolytes processed back into the darkened church, followed by the rest of us, holding unlit candles.
There was enough light to keep people from tripping over each other, and we found our seats. Acolytes went up and down the aisles lighting the candle of the person in the aisle seat of each row, who turned to the next person, and so on until most people in the church were holding a lighted candle. By the standards of what we are used to, this was still a dim light. The sounds of thunder grew closer and more frequent.
The church was built within the past ten years or so and is fairly “modern” in design, although it’s much less unattractive than many. It’s not ugly but there’s something about its shape and its brick, wood, and carpet that remind me of the lobby of an upscale suburban motel. It has the almost requisite auditorium-style seating, with four banks of pews fanned out facing the altar, so it’s proportionately wider than the traditional style, being closer to a square than a rectangle. The ceiling rises sharply from the sides of the building to a square cupola in the center which has clear windows. Behind the sanctuary is visible most of a large stained-glass Christ, and above that a row of clear windows.
As the Old Testament readings began, the storm arrived. I could see the lightning flashing through the windows of the cupola and those behind the sanctuary, and making the otherwise invisible Christ figure blaze out for an instant. Soon I heard the heavy rain. The somewhat heavily-amplified choir drowned out the rain and thunder whenever they played and sang, but during the readings I could hear them plainly.
During my twenty-plus years as a Catholic I have complained a great deal about the liturgy, as have most of us, especially those of us of a relatively traditionalist cast of mind. I have complained in general, and I have complained in particular about the four or five parishes I’ve attended regularly over those years. My current parish is better than many. The music is very capably done but is hit-and-miss as far as the selection of hymns is concerned—sometimes the Glory and Praise stuff that I mostly dislike, sometimes songs from pop Christian groups, sometimes Latin or traditional English hymns. This night was a hodge-podge of all of them; if it was not particularly conducive toward any consistent effect, it at least included some beautiful moments, such as the Latin Veni Creator Spiritus and Charles Wesley’s good old Jesus Christ is Risen Today. But there’s nothing anyone (anyone local) can do about the flat, insipid, and often banal prose of the current scriptural and liturgical translations, and I’m always a little pained by them.
Yet tonight none of this mattered terribly. I would have preferred that things be better, but far more important was the fact that it, by which I mean everything—the physical church, the universal Church, the Faith itself—was there at all. The storm raged on as the Old Testament readings proceeded. Not too far away, no more than twenty miles as the crow flies, is the Gulf of Mexico, and its waves must have been thrashing and flailing. I love the sea but every now and then I have a dream of being assailed by it on a dark shore, of being swept off into some sort of abyss.
I had a very literal sense of being in the bark of Peter. At the Gloria the lights came up. There we all were, a crowd of ordinary people without a great deal in common other than our presence together in this small bright space, sailing serenely on through storm and darkness toward a promised destination which is both longed for and unknown.