The daily Mass at St. Peter’s begins promptly at 7 a.m. From the church’s stone tower, bells ring out through the Capitol Hill neighborhood, resounding off nearby House office buildings. Out of a back passage, the presiding priest trailed by two sweater-clad servers walks to the altar. The congregation rises. With both hands lifted and bells still ringing, the priest begins the introductory rites. “In the name of the...”
Or so I imagine. I have never actually made it in time for the start of a weekday Mass at St. Peter’s. Instead, at this juncture I am usually biking down Pennsylvania Avenue within earshot of the bell’s chime, pedaling furiously in answer. I have slept through alarms and thrown on my daily Mass best: the clothes nearest and cleanest to the bed that morning.
For the tardy, St. Peter’s daily Mass offers little grace. Stripped of all ornament, the diurnal offices brisk along without song. Arrive five minutes late and you’ll have missed most of the liturgy—10 minutes, half the Mass.
For the tardy, St. Peter’s daily Mass offers little grace.
The swinging doors of St. Peter’s announce latecomers with a repeating flap and groan. Suited staffers, lapel-pinned lawmakers and neighborhood elderly—the churchgoing pros—turn to watch stragglers scurry in with a hurried genuflection. This is daily Mass, the big leagues, and I am just a rookie.
In 2016, I started the Lenten season with a lot to prove. Most years, I stumbled into Holy Week. Like a thief in the night, Easter caught me uncrumpling ties, ironing blazers, rushing to packed services and, if the high holiday happened to fall the same week as the federal tax deadline, filling out 1040EZs.
For once, I wanted to go whole hog. I resolved to pray, fast, give alms and, of course, abstain from eating hogs on Fridays. But what to give up? My precarious state of grace called for a real Lenten challenge. Chocolate or Netflix? Too easy. Why give up one treat with a thousand delectable, streamable replacements available? Instead of giving something up, I wanted to do something.
I wanted to go whole hog this year. I resolved to pray, fast, give alms and, of course, abstain from eating hogs on Fridays.
On a Metro ride in February, I noticed the black smears covering the foreheads of riders. The dark and splotchy forehead crosses administered during the Ash Wednesday service signal mortality and set a solemn tone for the next 40 days. When seen en masse, the crosses become a mobbish reminder to the lapsed of forgotten obligations. So focused on preparing to lead a lives-of-the-saints Lent, I had almost missed its start.
I found a lunch-hour service. With the priest’s thumb tracing grainy, intersecting beams across my forehead, intoning a sure return to dust, I made my resolution. This Lent, I would go to Mass. And to get those stats up, I would make it daily.
The first weeks of Lent resembled my first months, possibly years, of working life. I struggled with punctuality, feared the judgmental eye of an omniscient supervisor and experienced great confusion over what I was actually supposed to do.
This Lent, I would go to Mass. And to get those stats up, I would make it daily.
A cradle Catholic, I possess an instinctive feel for the Roman rite’s rhythms of standing, kneeling, sitting. But I had no idea how to turn those acts into a spiritual exercise.
If I had adopted a paleo diet for Lent, after 40 days of raw kale and rabbit meat, I would have found myself a few pounds lighter and easing trimly into my Easter Sunday suit. Attending daily Mass, however, provided no obvious metric of my progress. I needed a spiritual Fitbit to wear on my wrist to track inner growth. Lacking such a device, I turned to my fellow parishioners.
In the faces of the regulars, I searched for the benefits of steady church-going, a glint of halo or an emanation of grace. The more closely I looked at these people, though, I could not help but imagine the personal horrors at work in their lives—the trials that compelled them to go to Mass every single day, especially during Lent.
Attending daily Mass provided no obvious metric of progress. I needed a spiritual Fitbit to track my inner growth.
Lent’s daily Masses have a grim, medieval quality. In the dawn hours, cold, pre-spring winds whip through bare trees. The stenciled panels of the church’s stained glass do not radiate grandly across the walls the way they do on Sundays. Instead, they are dimmed and clouded, gathered into themselves. The readings feature glum passages about sackcloth and hair shirts, deserts and famine, beating of breasts and rending of garments.
Something had to be terribly wrong with these people to drudge daily to Mass under these conditions. Love lost, death, illness—all of the things that can go wrong in a life—seemed to occupy the pew rows seeking sanctuary. I was bringing myself to St. Peter’s because I deserved the penance; the weekday faithful seemed to need the Mass itself.
“Lent is challenging,” the pastor of St. Peter’s tells me when I share my struggles with him. “Lent has a somber tone reflecting the death of winter. The season commemorates Jesus being led by the Spirit into the quiet, desolate place of the desert to reflect on his identity and mission for 40 days.”
The solitude of Lent was reflected in the fragmented body of St. Peter’s weekday Mass. Unlike the cheek-to-jowl Sunday crowd, the smaller congregation distributed itself scattershot throughout the church, a pew to each person. Separated from the flock, I heard my own voice, jarringly clear, as I recited creeds and Pater Nosters. No longer able to hide in the murmuration of a Sunday Mass, I felt like someone belting out a karaoke tune that I thought I knew by heart, only to have the prompter cut out mid-song:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty…
And to the Republic for which it stands…
We look for the resurrection of the dead
Hiding somewhere...in the niiiight!
Thank you. Amen.
I had hummed and ad-libbed my way through basic articles of faith for years. The stripped-down weekday Mass provided an unvarnished view of my spiritual state. Whatever hearts-on-fire moment I had expected during Lent was not happening.
I had expected Mass to bring with it a bursting of spirit. But this is Mass—nothing is going to jump out of a cake.
March, April—the Mass bells tolled on. Two weeks before Easter, the purple cloth of Passiontide covered Mary, Joseph and the statues of other assorted saints. And while the finer points of faith remained shrouded, I was beginning to detect its faint silhouette, backlit by Lent’s honest light. The more I went to Mass, through no special effort of mine, the more spirituality began to take shape in my life, forming within me hollowed pockets of need.
“There is a God-sized hole in all of us,” says Richard Rohr, O.F.M. In his book Falling Upwards, the Franciscan spiritual teacher describes the soul as “a place of longing.”
In Father Rohr’s spirituality, a filling of self occurs not through any kind of special devotion but as a gift. “God creates the very dissatisfaction that only grace and finally divine love can satisfy,” he says.
In this way, I could understand not just fulfillment but wanting as the gift. I had expected Mass to bring with it a bursting of spirit. But this is Mass—nothing is going to jump out of a cake. It can remind, though. The liturgy can open a door to an inner room and build there in the untended hearth a desire for warmth and illuminating love.
The daily Mass ends at 7:25 a.m. “Go in peace,” the pastor says. His vestments fan across the sanctuary as he walks toward a side door followed by the servers, cable knit and cardigan. From somewhere in the church recesses, the P.A. system flicks off, and silence settles into the high-ceiling vastness.
The regulars make their way toward the exit. I keep my eyes on my own work though. The church is empty. I am empty. A swelling inhalation collects the air into a strong, clear breath. It fills me and carries me out of the pew, down the aisle and out into the day.