In which Ruth ponders the housework of ministry

Following on from my musings on ministry (last blog post) I came across this quote from Kathleen Norris’ book The Quotidian Mysteries. This spoke to me today.

I found it remarkable – and still find it remarkable – that in that big, fancy church, after all the dress-up and the formalities of the wedding mass, homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink.  The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception. And I found it enormously comforting to see the priest as a kind of daft housewife, overdressed for the kitchen, in bulky robes, puttering about the altar, washing up after having served so great a meal to so many people. It brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning. It welcomed me, a stranger, someone who did not know the responses of the mass, or even the words of the sanctus. After the experience of a liturgy that had left me feeling disoriented, eating and drinking were something I could understand. That and the housework. This was my first image of the mass, my door in, as it were, and it has served me well for years.

A photo illustration shows a priest cleaning the Communion vessels inside the chapel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' building in Washington Oct. 24. At the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion will no longer be permitted to assist in the purification of the sacred vessels at Masses in the United States. (CNS photo illustration/Bob Roller) (Oct. 24, 2006) See SKYLSTAD-VESSELS Oct. 24, 2006.

Mass preparation

Checking out Mother Kimberly’s blog this morning and interested in her comments about preparation before Mass. So I’m pinching her question and asking you, what do you like to do before the Holy Mysteries by way of preparation?

The very first time I went to church I was aware that when you stepped through the door from the narthex into the church, you were stepping on holy ground and silence reigned. Yes, there were little whispers here and there but mainly people knelt and … did what? I wasn’t sure but I assumed they were praying. But what on earth did they have to pray about for such a long time? I mean, some folk came half an hour early!  Who’d voluntarily keep quiet for that length of time? So I found that 5 mins was really my limit and allowed me to say the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary and then bring to mind any folk who I knew needed prayers. Then I’d sit back up and gaze around the glorious church – at statues and candles, and stained glass colours and dust motes in sunlight, and the smell of beeswax, and charcoal being stoked behind the scenes, and the still face of the Risen Christ on the rood cross, and whether all 6 altar candles would stay alight or incur father’s wrath if they didn’t.  Lots to see and adore.

As a Curate in a cathedral the tradition was for clergy and altar servers to mostly stay in the Sacristy in preparation.  Chatting to the folk was kept for after.  So there was a bit of giggling and high spirits (mostly due to me) but agonising silence for long periods. And it never made me feel any more prepared.  Just impatient with anticipation. Agony!

My first Charge was linked so I had 2 churches to look after.  Greeting the people had to be done before the service in my first church because I wouldn’t have a chance after, having to dash off over a hill to the next church in time. So any preparation, my Spiritual Director told me, was to be done at home before I left.  So it was noisy and chaotic and chatty because you came in the door and you were right in the middle of it all, there being no narthex, vestibule or porch.  Some folk vainly tried to kneel and pray but you really had to be pretty dedicated to make it. So I introduced the 5 minute bell – the last 5 minutes before the service have to be in silence.  That allowed me to slip through into the Sacristy/Kitchen/Toilet/Office and get robed and wrestle with the urn-fillers and cup-putter-outers. Not really prayer time then.  Then after that service I left in my car and hot-tailed it over the hill like a rally driver and ran through the doors (usually leaving The Archers at a cliffhanger) and threw on my robes and the service began.

Prep at St Mark’s is the 5 minute rule again and as I’ve said before I really wish I could be one of those holy clergy who sit in our Crypt Chapel praying in silence for ages. I can only look with envy at their stillness.  Instead I am upstairs finding out who needs praying for and how Mrs so and so is now and telling everyone how gorgeous they are. Then the bell goes and its downstairs to robe and although we did try sitting in silence in the chapel about 3 times, I’m afraid its back to checking for my specs, my sermon and now the anti-bacterial handwash. I just can’t do it and that’s that. And if I did keep silence my mind would just be whirring with all those last minute thoughts anyway but I wouldn’t be able to voice them and check which would be ten times worse.

So how do you like to prepare? What rituals do you go through? Are you noisy or silent?