My high school choir director couldn’t have been more emphatic. “Whatever you do, whatever happens, no matter whatever else you do wrong,” he told us before we left for Europe, “don’t lose your passport!”
Needless to say, I did.
I made it through four countries without a hitch, stashing my passport in my hotel room after check-in, and retrieving it before departure. When we hit Brighton, England, however, I got a bit too clever. I hid my passport so well that I couldn’t find it several days later before leaving for London. As a result, I spent a whole day at the U.S. Embassy filling out forms and being grilled by officials while my compatriots toured Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Bummer.
On the plus side, however, I got to hang out at the U.S. Embassy, and being in that physical space – on American turf within a foreign country – was unexpectedly solemn and comforting. There, I was home, although not home. There I was safe and could get the help I needed to continue my journey home.
I have similar feelings when I go to Mass every day. It’s like I’m slipping into God’s embassy for a respite from the jarring and disorienting journey of my daily jumble of life.
Hilaire Belloc touched on this in The Path to Rome, where he listed four reasons that daily Mass was a source of “continual comfort” to him – four reasons that James Schall, S. J., has described as being “as profound as any seen in theological literature since.”
For example, Belloc includes the simple fact that daily Mass compels you to regularly set aside thirty minutes to be quiet and “recollected” – no small thing these days. Also, when you give yourself over to liturgical ritual, it can “relieve the mind. . . of responsibility and initiative. . .during the time it lasts,” a gift in itself, but also an exercise in humility. Most significant for Belloc was that daily Mass attendance was an ancient tradition: “Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit. . .we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy.”
But my favorite of Belloc’s four reasons is his third – Mass as an escape and a refuge:
That the surroundings incline you to good and reasonable thoughts. . . .Thus the time spent at Mass is like a short repose in a deep and well-built library, into which no sounds come and where you feel yourself secure against the outer world.
This is vitally important, especially to a slug like me. I am not always properly disposed or attentive at Mass – a truism that might be lost on those who don’t make Mass a daily priority. Those of us who do make it a priority know that it’s certainly not because we’re particularly holy, or anywhere close to it. In fact, the opposite is the case: We know we’re lousy sinners, and we want to be holy. Getting to daily Mass is just the lazy man’s approach to the matter.
Lazy man’s approach because, as Belloc was suggesting, all you have to do is show up to accrue some benefit. I even confessed this once – that my practice of going to Mass every day seemed like spiritual sloth because it was just too easy. Shouldn’t I be doing more than that? My confessor laughed and pointed out the pride in my question. “Just being at Mass is of infinite value, regardless of your state of mind. . . .After all, it’s Jesus that’s doing all the work. You just have to get yourself in the pew.”
Romano Guardini wrote about this in his Meditations Before Mass: “Primarily it is He who acts; in our ‘remembering,’ it is Christ Himself who stirs.” However, Guardini also warned against the possibility of a “veritable crisis of boredom and weariness”:
When the Mass threatens to become a habit for someone who goes regularly during the week, it is certainly advisable for him to attend less frequently, perhaps only on Sundays for a while, substituting visits in the quiet church or Bible reading.
Gulp. Is that me? I’m frequently distracted at daily Mass, or even so fatigued that I fall asleep. Yet, even then, isn’t there greater value in getting to Mass than simply making a visit or reading my Bible? If I make it inside the door, I’ll be present for the immersion in mystery and miracle that takes place there. Isn’t that preferable to virtually everything else?
My confessor and Belloc would argue in the affirmative I think, and perhaps even the Holy Father. In his recently published interview, Pope Francis used a memorable medical metaphor:
I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.
What a terrific image of daily Mass! When I get my sorry self into the pew for Mass every day – despite the distractions and fatigue, and regardless of how attentive or disposed I am – I’m a wounded warrior that needs first aid before returning to the battle. Yes, I need to strengthen my prayer life outside of Mass, and, yes, I need to say my Rosary and find time for spiritual reading.
But for the moment – a spiritual expatriate in need of assistance, a limping combatant requiring balm – just being there is enough. And I’ll be back again tomorrow.