Becoming a Sunday Crybaby: How I rediscovered the beauty of Mass

An elderly woman prays during Mass Nov. 13 at St. Peter Claver Church in Baltimore (CNS photo/Bob Roller).  An elderly woman prays during Mass Nov. 13 at St. Peter Claver Church in Baltimore (CNS photo/Bob Roller). 

Sunday Mass is in my DNA. This was not always a given. For a brief time, mostly during my high school and undergrad years, I did not go to Mass. I rebelled. I flirted with atheism. What I saw in the church was at worst hypocrisy, at best rote boredom. After I got my driver’s license, I would leave the house with my younger sister on Sunday mornings. My mother thought I was taking her to Mass. We usually went to the park instead, only stopping by the church to snag a bulletin as evidence.

Before I flew to Europe to spend a college semester in Rome, my mother made me go to confession, in case the plane crashed. With the brashness of youth, I told the priest that I was there under duress, and that I could not think of anything I wanted to share with him. He was wise enough to have a conversation with me about the gift of travel rather than try to convert me.

A semester in Europe with a Eurail pass meant that I immersed myself in history. I visited churches and chapels and cathedrals. I walked through the piazza in front of the Vatican almost daily. I marveled at the Sistine Chapel. I took a tour of Chartres. I went to an organ recital in Notre Dame. But I never once, in the midst of all that Catholicism, went to Mass. I regret that now, of course. At the time, I thought it was not for me.

Mass found me in my senior year of college at a Catholic university, and I have been going back ever since. I finally got it: the ritual, the communal celebration, the Eucharist, the palpable presence of God. I have not always been purely concentrated on worship; while my children were growing up, I often was more concerned that they behave in church than I was in tune with the Mass. I was a Director of Religious Education at a parish for eight years and often had to orchestrate the participation of students in children or youth Masses. I loved Mass, but it was part of my job. I was a go-to person in church, always busy, never still.

Now, however, I usually go to Mass alone. I am anonymous in many different parishes, as there is not one I call home. I usually sit in a pew that I think of as “All the Single Ladies,” as we seek each other out and make room for each other without exchanging a word. I think we spot each other by the secret signal of fanning ourselves with the bulletin, even in cold weather.

Each Sunday, I usually find myself in tears at some point before the final blessing. You might say it’s hormonal. Or the deep, satisfying breath that is only taken when one is at rest in a pew, where there is time to think, to reflect, to slow down, to let go. Or the reverence that Mass instills in me. Maybe it is all of the above. But there is something every Sunday that so deeply touches my nomadic Catholic soul that my eyes fill with tears. Sometimes I choke up. It may be a choir that is so full of joy that their music makes me cry. It may be the incense rising in a holy cloud as we in the pews are blessed. It may be an Irish hymn that reminds me of my mother, who died this year. It may be a family of hopeful faces, whose three young children are baptized during the Mass. Or last week: A little boy who had lost his father that very week led us in the “Our Father,” his voice sweet and clear. How could these things not make me cry?

I imagine I look like the odd old bird, sniffling during the homily, blowing her nose at the offertory or turning a tear-stained beak to wish a stranger peace. It’s fine. I am a Sunday crybaby, the lady my own children would have felt sorry for, the crone who must have experienced some terrible sadness to make her weep so openly. But I am not usually sad. I am just moved to witness the Spirit so alive and so well. I am an open heart, so grateful to be so loved by God. I might have come in wounded, but during Mass I am healed and made whole by the risen Jesus, who accepts me as I am and sends me back out there for the week.

And I am not alone in being a Sunday crybaby. A few months ago, I went to Mass with my brother-in-law. The Communion song was “Be Not Afraid,” and as usual, I had to stop singing at the point when the song overwhelmed me and I could no longer get out the words. Then I noticed: he had stopped singing. There was a tear on his cheek, too. “That song gets me,” he said, a bit embarrassed. I just smiled. I know, brother. I know.

Hilda Fernandez
4 months ago

Thank you! Your commentary brought me to tears. I to was lost during my twenties and early thirties. Sometime before I had my daughter I found the church again. I feel solace and a quietude fall upon me during mass, as though the Holy Spirit removes all my concerns so I can have peace during the mass. I may not go to mass as often as I would like, but when I do make it, it feels like a warm hug.

Kate Gile
3 months 4 weeks ago

Thank you, Valerie. At age 65 I'm just now going through what you experienced in your teens; occasionally feeling bored, alienated or frustrated for various reasons. Your essay gives me hope for a renewal.

Winifred Holloway
2 months 3 weeks ago

I am a bit late responding to your post, Valerie. I didn't leave the Mass temporarily or otherwise, though I was and am critical of the institution. I kept at it - a love of Holy Thursday and Easter Vigil liturgy, a connection to my past and the long history and tradition of my family of origin. At some point, I loosened my grip on having to uphold the traditiion , to model some staunch Catholicism for the sake of my children and to just relax into the liturgy, the community, the shuffling of feet in the Communion line, the sometimes wonderful music, the sometimes awful music. When we were kids, we were always instructed to pay attention, not let our minds wander, listen, listen, listen . Concentrate. Impossible for kids and adults are not much better at concentrating every moment. The period of grace and freedom came when I let go of all the shoulds and let the liturgy, the sights, the sounds, the words wash over me. If my mind wanders, I don't upbraid myself. The mind wanders during meditation. Why do we expect that it won't during the celebration of the Mass. The Eucharist is a beautiful thing. At its most ordinary, it is a beautiful thing.

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