Some job requirement must exist among higher ranked members of the Arch Diocese that requires all parish pastors to speak in long-winded soliloquies.
Some need to introduce a syllabus before the homily:
“I have five points I wish to cover today: each with half-a-dozen subpoints, followed by a real world example, which I will convolute through obscure theology. Half-way through my homily I will diverge into an intelligible tangent on drug use and the world of Harry Potter.”
Others love history lessons and menacing laughter:
“The Pharisees would mock and debase those that did not follow the letter of the law established by Moses’ covenant on Mt. Sinai. They were much like us today. They too were sinners. Heh heh heh.”
Of course, not all priests speak in abstract riddles or finish their homilies with condescending laughter (apparently only the ones I know). Either because they lack the talent for it, need a smoke, or possess good sense, many construct their homilies through a combination personal stories, concise points, and a smidgeon of humor just to make the sermon interesting. If schoolchildren are present, they might even ask questions. Pastors on the other hand seem to rejoice in the fact that the prisoners . . . er, parishioners are trapped, thus forced to listen to anything and everything passing through their minds at the moment.
Two Wednesdays ago, Ash Wednesday, I sat dumbfounded as our pastor trailed off from his discussion of the day’s Gospel, descending into Church history, deep theological abstraction, the essence of grace, and a nebulous aphorism about homeless shelters. A minute in and most of the congregation has grown lifeless, their mind departing for foreign climes, Saturday night sins, and weekend grocery lists. For my part, I stare at the back of a bald man’s crown, entranced by the intricate stitching of his black toupee. An indeterminate period of time passes. The priest has finally moved onto part three of his second point: free will, humility, and the Knights Templar. Before me, the man spasms. With a wave of his hand, a subtle scratch, the polysynthetic tapestry droops an inch or so into his back collar. My stomach churns; reflexively my eyes gaze skyward.
In malls and outlet shops, I take great interest in watching people cruise from store to store, from Gap to Baby Gap. You make up stories about each person based upon some deductive skills elusively gained from reading Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s a great way to pass the time, while waiting for mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and such. In mass, perhaps due to the lack of movement or dull zombie-like stares, I find people-watching far less interesting. My eyes usually take me to the ceiling in order to retain focus. There relaxation takes me; I count the number of lights and plot out the next Batman movie.
After nearly thirty minutes, a dozen tangled tangents on the definition of love, and nearly one-hundred and eight lights, the pastor ends his lecture. The congregation rubs their eyes and returns to the mass. The Penguin has taken over the Gotham underworld and issued a bounty on Batman’s head. The Riddler has taken up the challenge, and I feel that all is right with the world.
It was now time to dish out the ashes. Typically an interesting ceremony, ashes from last year’s palms (i.e. Palm Sunday) are burnt, blessed, and then distributed to the congregation. The priest and his ministers etch a sign of the cross on the forehead with the reminder: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The memento mori has always been a special sign to me – shortly before I realized what the word meant: reminder of death. A morbid gesture to some perhaps, but it has always reminded me that life is short and in death all men share a common fellowship.
The congregation shuffles from their seats and lines form around the altar like spokes in a wheel. As I approached the minister, Mom whispers in my ear.
“That’s Miss Jill, the boys’ Confirmation teacher.” I let out an inaudible groan, instantly sizing up the woman with long red hair. Do not misunderstand me. I am sure there are plenty of competent, admirable individuals who teach the sacrament of Confirmation, remembering that after eight years of Catholic schooling another lesson on Love or Peace on a Saturday morning helps to instill very little of either in anyone. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet one; thus my bias leads me to consider the woman as both silly and a little self-righteous. Unfair perhaps, but stereotypes are like superstitions, proving themselves all too true more often than not.
Miss Jill dips her thumb into the bowl and rubs a large sizable cross on my forehead, then says: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Now as I was reminded later, the memento mori was only one of three blessings chosen by the priest or minister, the last being “Repent and hear the Good News.” It was simply my bad chance, a poor luck of the draw. Still at the time, I felt a little disappointed and nearly cursed on the way back to my seat, which in consideration of the children, women, priests, and well . . . God was a bad idea.
Afterwards Mom and I planned to go shopping for groceries, but taking a look at one another’s faces we decided against it. Instead of a small humble cross, Miss Jill had painted our entire forehead with black ash, which did not sit well with either one of us or ease my earlier bias towards Confirmation teachers. As we drove down the highway, the small black flakes descended like snow before my eyes. Mom tried to wipe the black smears that had fallen on her nose and cheeks. Nearing the store, we decided to hibernate for the rest of the day. Mom took to baking double-chocolate chip cookies (perhaps in case more ash fell) while I took in some Indiana Jones. As Nazis’ dessicate and the Penitent roll pass curved blades, I slowly nod and sleep, silently thanking the Powers that religion is not so exciting after all.