Last weekend on Saturday we attended the wedding of Allison and Henry; we’ve known Allison since she became our youngest daughter Meg’s friend in the second grade. Twenty odd years later, both Meg and Allison are professionals with letters after their names and married. Both have now been in each other’s wedding parties; Allie was a bridesmaid in Meg’s wedding in August. Allie’s wedding was in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul near downtown Providence, the main building completed in 1889 on the site of a former, smaller church, built on “Christian Hill” in 1832. The structure is magnificent and is a sign of the majesty of God, constructed by the faith of its builders and thousands of worshippers who have assembled there for over a century.
For Allie and Henry’s wedding, the ceiling height pipe organ filled the space with classic music, including Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D as the beautiful bride processed into the church and later Shubert’s Ave Maria. During the wedding Mass, the priest told a story of the late actress Helen Hayes, a lifelong Catholic and one of only eleven people to ever win an Emmy, an Oscar, a Tony and a Grammy. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Reagan. Her first stage role was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when she was five, and her last was as Agatha Christie’s character Miss Marple when she was eighty five.
When Helen was first married to her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, they had little money. On their first anniversary he gave her a paper bag full of peanuts and told her he wished it could be a velvet bag full of emeralds. After nearly thirty years in a loving marriage, Charles was diagnosed with terminal cancer; Helen was fifty six. On their final anniversary together, he gave her a velvet bag full of emeralds. Her response was to tell him she wished it was a bag of peanuts, and they could do it all over again. As he finished the story, Rita and I reached over to grasp hands as both of us were filled with gratitude for our forty five years together.
After the homily, the priest joined the young couple before the altar and guided them through the marriage vows. He left the microphone off, and in such a large church, only those witnesses right near the bride and groom could hear them. It wasn’t necessary to hear. As they exchanged rings, everyone present could see and knew their love and sincere intent to “have and to hold” for the rest of their lives. To me, it was entirely appropriate that their vows and love were for them alone – simple, in complete focus one to one, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul.
“The spirit’s foe in man has not been simplicity, but sophistication.” George Santayana
Last Sunday, in lieu of our regular parish, we went to Mass at St. Patrick’s on Smith Hill in Providence, an inner city, poor, bilingual church – poor in money and accoutrement, rich in Spirit and Love. The church building had long ago been declared structurally unsound and demolished, but the parishioners converted their school auditorium into a church and persisted with both school and church. St. Pats hosts a soup kitchen on Mondays and has for over thirty years. The school evolved three years ago into St. Patrick’s Academy, a small high school staffed by both professionals and dedicated volunteer mentors. Next year will see its first graduating seniors. The contrast to the soaring cathedral could not have been more striking. The music was guitars and a piano, not a large pipe organ; the pews were filled with all manner of folk, color and age – teenagers, children, the elderly, families, the halt and the lame. The sound of children, silent or rare in many churches, was beautiful.
We were a bit disappointed that her pastor, Father James, wasn’t presiding over the Mass, and an older priest was there in his stead. Father James’ homilies are always to the heart, his humility genuine and immediately apparent to all who are fortunate enough to pass his way. Since he is fluent in Spanish, he must have been the celebrant last weekend at the Masses in that tongue. He has done such things as live anonymously on the street as a homeless person to more fully understand the poorest of the poor in our city. Father James is a gifted listener and counselor.
“I am not a genius, I am just curious. I ask many questions, and when the answer is simple then God is answering.” Albert Einstein
Our disappointment was short lived as we heard the lovely Irish lilt, saw the impish warm smile, intelligence and wisdom of this priest we had never met. Reminiscent of the many Irish priests of my youth, he was simultaneously loving, witty and direct. His homily about the gospel reading reminded us that complaining about “not getting anything out of Mass attendance” quite misses the point. “Since when did we become the center of the universe?” he asked. Worship is not another entertainment we think should have to compete in a world of feel-good distractions, to be judged and participated in based on the liveliness or ‘relevance’ of the music or the emotions and passion of the preaching. We come for the Eucharist and the Word, to give thanks, to gather together as Christians have gathered for two millennia. Being a “good person doing our best with good works” is an inadequate response in and of itself to the transcendent Gift which bridged the gap between the eternal and the ephemeral, the mortal and that which never dies – the soul and the Creator.
The music was occasionally ragged, the voices in harmony, but untrained, some of them in their teen years, some of them in their sixties. Nothing was diminished by the imperfections; the spirit was authentic. Everyone sang.
“Being with someone, listening without a clock and without anticipation of results, teaches us about love. The success of love is in the loving — it is not in the result of loving. ”
A Simple Path – Mother Teresa