By chance I was on campus late at night recently, and realized that I could savor Mass in one of the residence halls; there are ten such halls on my campus, with ten small humble unadorned honest chapels, and there are nights when there are small motley friendly shaggy late Masses in all of them at once, gentle Masses with none of the pomp and gravitas of Mass in church, let alone the operatic bravura of Mass in basilica or cathedral; so I wandered into a residence hall, and proved who I was to the cheerful student at the desk, and ambled into the chapel, and waited for the congregation to arrive.
The congregation first was a very tall thin boy wearing pajama pants and a sweatshirt so voluminous that you could have used it for a spinnaker. He was followed by two yawning girls and then one sleepy girl and a girl being carried on a boy’s back, the two of them giggling so infectiously that the five of us in the chapel could not help but laugh. The celebrant then arrived, followed by a dog whom I thought was unaccompanied until two girls walked in arm in arm and one of the girls made a sound with her tongue against the teeth and the dog curled up at her feet, next to her white stick. Then five or six boys came in at once, the last one closing the chapel door behind him at a signal from the celebrant. But one more girl slipped in just before the door sighed all the way shut, and then Mass began.
I will assume here that you have savored Mass before, and know the rhythm and character and structure and pacing of Mass, and, that you, like me, enjoy the bony simplicity of the act, an hour in which stories and eating and drinking and miracle are conjoined in a ritual so ancient that we forget how ancient it is, and forget too the even more ancient rituals it echoes, the sacrifices and smoke and chants on stone tables on high hills all over the world, in deserts and forests and dolmen and temples now long crumbled to dust; so that when I say that the Mass in the chapel flowed quietly and gently you know that I mean that the readings from Old and New Testimonies were spoken clearly and slowly, and that intercessions were chanted, and that the celebrant presided over a miracle with a patent and admirable attentiveness to the incredible magic of the moment, and that we stood and reached for each other and held hands and prayed, and then shuffled up to the altar, several of us barefoot, to accept the wafer of bread. Something about the ways the lights were arranged in the chapel made it seem that the wafers were small circles of light. The girl who offered sips from the chalice of wine, I noticed, had spectacles with lenses exactly the same size and brilliance of the wafers of bread.
A moment later Mass was over and the boy who had carried the girl in carried her out again, and the dog led his or her girl out of the chapel, and everyone else left, the tall boy and the celebrant last, but I stayed where I was in the corner, and thought about the Mass, and how when I was a college student I went to hall Mass sometimes when I was hungry for something I could not name. I still cannot name what it is I hunger for, more by the year now, but I find that I don’t care about its namelessness anymore; I only care that it is everywhere available, and everywhere refreshing, and everywhere generous, and everywhere quite possibly exactly what you need just exactly when you need it, no matter the venue or the celebrant or the motley of the congregation. I think it is itself miraculous, in ways that we cannot explain or understand; and that every time you avail yourself of it, you can, if you attend closely, hear something like the voice that sang the stars into being, long ago and far away and right here and right now.
This article also appears in the September 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 9, pages 36–37).