Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vigil at Catholic Church

As 7:00 grew nearer, I grew more and more nervous. Holy Name Catholic Church is only about a quarter of a mile from my apartment, but I left at 6:30 and found myself pacing around in the parking lot for a quarter of an hour until I built up the nerve to go in. I wanted someone with me and I felt terribly alone and foreign as I was about to enter this strange church, which looked so bare and austere and modern. I still had 10 minutes, so I sat in the lobby while people milled around and talked. At 7:00 I went into the sanctuary, which was filled with pews. What did I expect? I guess I was kind of hoping it would be just a great big empty floor. I looked around and was struck by the almost severe lack of... things. The atmosphere was extremely different, what with every light in the place blazing at full wattage and with just three candles lit on the altar. There were no icons at all, and the walls were bare, except for the stations of the cross. Behind the altar was a large crucifix with tall banners hanging to each side with Alleluia printed on each one. The ceiling was low, wide, and vaulted, and there was a PA system at the far left of the altar. There were these things at the backs of the pews that folded down, and I saw that various people had pulled them down and were kneeling and praying. I looked behind me and saw people entering the sanctuary, dipping their hands in holy water, and crossing themselves the 'wrong way' with an open hand. I turned forward, crossed myself, and then I sat down and took off my prayer bracelet that Leah gave me and began saying the Jesus Prayer, knot by knot.

Finally the priest entered, walked up to the altar, and welcomed everybody. The he sat down and a lady walked up to a microphone and directed everyone to open a hymnal to a certain page, and everybody sang a hymn. There was no official choir; just the congregation singing hymns, led by this lady. I don't know what her official position was, if she even had one. After that, a different lady led the congregation in prayer, and then everybody stood there quietly. Then she read from the Gospels and then directed the congregation to sing another hymn. After that, everybody sat down.

By this time, about 20 minutes had passed and I was ready to get up and leave. I was feeling very uncomfortable, and I was hot and sweaty. I felt terribly alone as I sat there saying the Jesus Prayer at top speed. I looked around now and then and saw people looking at me, and I wondered if they had seen me crossing myself the 'wrong way', or the blur of the spinning prayer bracelet in my hands as I mouthed this strange chant over and over.

At this time the priest approached the podium and read some more from the Gospels. After that, he said a short sermon, and then everyone began to prepare for the Eucharist by singing a preparation hymn. This Catholic vigil was nothing like the vigils I was used to. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the Jesus Prayer. After a while I heard the congregation saying a creed very similar to the Nicene Creed, and I opened my eyes and looked around. I almost wanted to join in, but then they got to the filioque, and I was surprised that I recognized it as a glaring difference. "The Holy Spirit, which proceedeth from the Father and the Son". This was a part of the great schism, and here I was in the midst of it. I closed my eyes again and missed St. Maximus more than ever.

After a few moments, I opened my eyes to the sound of the altar boys who were kneeling before pillows and ringing bells as the priest prepared the Eucharist. My interest was piqued, as I was at least somewhat familiar with this, having seen the movie Doubt, which included this particular ritual of the Catholic Church. My nervousness decreased a little and I started to pay attention. The priest blessed the little round wafers, then poured a purplish brown liquid into a chalice and blessed that, all interspersed with the ringing of these bells by the altar boys. Finally, four people approached the altar and took communion first. I don't know why these four were first, but after this, everybody got up and formed two lines, approached the altar, and partook of the Catholic Eucharist. I watched this with interest until it was finished, and then the priest led everyone in something that was somewhat similar to the Great Litany, except it wasn't sung, and instead of 'Lord have mercy', the congregation said... something... shoot, I forgot. But it was the closest thing to a part of an Orthodox service that I had yet encountered in this strange church, apart from the altered creed.

After that, everyone prayed silently again for a while, and then the priest led everyone in the Lords Prayer. I said this with everyone, and when we got to the end, I habitually said "and deliver us from the evil one. For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen." I had forgotten that this part was different, and there I was, whispering this last part while everybody else was silent. It sounded like a shout to me, but it came out of my mouth as an ingrained, permanent habit, and once again I felt isolated and alone. I closed my eyes and went back to the Jesus Prayer as one of the ladies led the congregation in another hymn.

After a while I realized that the service was over. I opened my eyes and people were walking out, so I stood there and said the Trisagion as people passed by because I didn't know what else to do. When I was finished, I stood there for a moment, hoping that nobody would walk up to me and greet me like they do in protestant churches. After several seconds, I realized that I was being safely ignored, so I walked into the lobby and waited in line as the priest greeted everyone as they left. When I got to the priest, he looked at me and said "Thank you." I nodded and smiled, and left. The whole thing had taken exactly one hour.

It was an odd, isolating, fearful experience, but after an hour of saying the Jesus Prayer practically non-stop, I was surprised at how good I felt. As I walked home, I really did feel relieved, and good, and almost happy. I had decided halfway through the vigil that I wasn't going to go back to this particular Catholic church, but saying the Jesus Prayer for an hour really had done me some good. I need to go back to this church. It's a good thing that I felt so isolated, and alone, and fearful, because I involved myself in prayer at a level that I hadn't experienced since I left Texas. I look forward to bringing prayer back into my life.

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