I have fond recollections of the old Latin Mass — of a prayerful childhood in the sacred space of our grandly ornate parish church, with monuments of white marble and detailed embellishments carved into stone and wood, and magnificent stained-glass windows stretching toward the vaulted ceiling . . . and the aromas of incense, candle wax and wood polish blending in the air.
I loved the sound of Latin, loved the way it tumbled from my tongue, my voice in rhythmic concert with others, its meaning as clear as rushing water. I did not mind that the priest had his back to us, leading us in prayer as we all faced God together — with transubstantiation a miracle before our eyes. We knelt in reverence along the altar rail to receive the Eucharist, so inhumanly sacred we dare not touch it but with our tongues.
When I was a boy, the Latin Mass brought us into the presence of mystery, the profound, the otherworldly, the holy . . . into the presence of God. It was an anchor of sanctity in a shallow, sinful, shape-shifting world.
As a teenager, I welcomed the changes of Vatican II, but the informality and awkwardness of the new Mass sometimes made for a secular ambience that transformed reverence into triteness. Still, it was years before I thought much about what had been lost — a deep sense of the holy.
I suppose I have been looking for that ever since.
I have found it in some simpler acts of ceremony: hall Masses during my student days, Mass with Father Hesburgh and colleagues on retreats at Land O’Lakes and other intimate gatherings when the Eucharist was shared with friends — making real one of my favorite biblical advisories: When even a few of you gather in my name, I will be there.
Maybe, when I speak of a deep sense of the holy, that is simply what I mean — God’s presence alive in our lives.
I do believe in those intersections of the sacred and mundane, those occasions when the divine blooms into the here and now. On a mountainside or riverbank. Beneath a star-filled sky. Or in Rome, in a hospital room or with family, or in the ghostly juncture of past and present.
Such encounters with a holy moment cannot be earned; they come as gifts, often when least expected. But I think it important to make room for God and then to be attentive — and to believe it — when it happens.
A whole generation of young people is drifting away from organized religion while seeking less traveled spiritual pathways. So much of religion concerns itself these days with sociology, politics and the proprieties of human behavior. I wonder sometimes if there is too little talk of God and too little attention paid to the ineffable, the numinous, and how to seek the divine and where to find the true and deep spiritual sustenance all humans crave.
While it is essential for faith to inform the way we engage the world, we all need to transcend our temporal congestions. Life is much more than a secular existence; the world finds rest in the hand of God, grace in the touch. There are immeasurable ways for little, daily acts to become sacramental and infinite paths to meet the holy.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.