Life, As I Find It
God can redeem our worst efforts, but we shouldn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to. These are the words I often hear myself saying at writers’ conferences or in conversation about the arts. I determined, as an Evangelical Protestant and most certainly as a Catholic, that there’s no excuse for poor artistry or craftsmanship just because it’s Christian as if being children of the Creator gives us an excuse to be substandard.
As an Episcopalian, I attended a church that made every Sunday an artistic feast. The aesthetic environment of the church itself, with its stained-glass windows and gothic columns and wooden pews, the ornate altar, the statues of the saints behind it, was breathtaking. Then there was the music, with the excellent organist on the pipe organ and the robed choir hitting every note perfectly. And the priest and various attendants moved with precision and dignity. We even knelt at a rail to receive the bread and wine. Every detail of the service spoke of excellence. Who could complain?
Dan Burke warned me – as I drew closer to becoming Catholic – that it was unlikely I’d find that kind of experience in our parish. He cautioned me about my expectations. It became clear that I shouldn’t become Catholic if I was doing it for the beauty of how the liturgy would be expressed. I would be disappointed.
I took Dan’s words to heart. Yet, in spite of his warnings, I wasn’t really prepared for my first Easter experience as a Catholic. I wanted it to be wonderful, marvelous, joyous – a punctuation mark to my life-changing decision. Why not? It’s Easter. It’s the Catholic Church. It’s the perfect combination.
I can’t begin to explain how everything went wrong, mostly in ways that were remarkably petty. To begin with, in spite of our best intentions, we were late for Mass. I don’t mean “late” for the appointed time, but “late” in the sense that we got there twenty minutes before Mass started instead of an hour. So we wound up at the edge of the baby section, in the folded chairs with no kneelers. For some reason, our priest didn’t do the homily but left that for another priest to handle – a foreign speaker I simply couldn’t understand. I also learned that day that Catholics, unlike Episcopalians, don’t know the exclamation of “Christ is risen!” with the response “He is risen indeed!” I think the general response I got that morning to “Christ is risen!” was “Uh. Yeah. Good luck with that.”
I may be wrong.
The choir, God love them, often sounded as if they weren’t actually singing the same songs as we were. Not that the songs were particularly good anyway. The selection was foreign to me – and forgettable —and I thought surely the Catholic Church can do better than this after 2000 years of effort. I mean, it’s one thing to do good music badly and another to do bad music badly. I think I’d rather have no music at all than either of those choices. But that’s just me being a snob. I ached for a Christ The Lord Is Risen Today or All Hail The Power of Jesus Name. Instead I wound up with leftovers from a failed draft of Godspell.
The worst part of my experience, though, was what happened around the altar. The priest and everyone around him looked as if they’d never experienced an Easter Sunday Mass in their lives – as if it had been suddenly sprung on them without warning. They were like the lead character in The Actor’s Nightmare, stepping on stage without knowing what play they were performing, or what their characters were, or what lines they were supposed to say. I thought I might be turned away from the Eucharist as they nearly ran out of the wafers and did run out of the wine.
My first Easter in the Catholic Church and I was ready to join in the chorus of crying with the babies around me. My wife, who is not Catholic, could only look at me with a certain expression of accusation. I didn’t blame her.
I know, I know. I shouldn’t be so uncharitable when talking about well-intentioned people who volunteer their time and energies every Sunday. And I kept reminding myself that there are parts of the world where people meet in mud shacks (if that isn’t a luxury for them) and have no choirs or priests or any of the things I take for granted. I get that. But, if you’ll forgive my petulance, I don’t live in that part of the world. I live in a part of the world that ought to have better aesthetics and music and artistry and beauty and… well, that kind of stuff.
I’m sure I’m wrong for even bringing this up. It’ll anger some people. I’ll get lectured for being so immature. I wrote to Father John Bartunek about it, telling him in detail about my first Easter as a Catholic. Shall I tell you how he responded? He laughed. It tickled him to no end that Paul “Mr. Aesthetic” McCusker would celebrate his first Easter in the Catholic Church in that way. I’m sure he thought it was purgative for me. And I’m not even sure I know what purgative is.
I wish I could say that I have a smashing conclusion for this little blog. An epiphany. A revelation. An enlightened perspective. Sadly, I don’t. I struggle constantly between charity and exasperation. In every Mass, wherever I’m celebrating it, a part of me is intensely aware of the collision of my expectations. Part of me wants to simply smile and nod at the wrong notes, the fumbled words, the missed sound cues, the bad acoustics or the well-intentioned-but-amateurish efforts. Another part of me wants to cry out in lamentation over the lost artistry, the lack of best practices, the higher standard that ought to be the hallmark of the Catholic liturgical experience.
And still those words come back to me: God can redeem our worst efforts, but we shouldn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to.