One thing that no one told me before ordination was that I would start having what a Jesuit friend refers to as Mass nightmares.Mass nightmares are similar to the dreams everyone seems to experience during school years, and sometimes beyond. For example: you’re sitting unsuspectingly in a classroom and are horrified to discover that it’s the day of the Big Test, and you’ve completely forgotten to study. Or you haven’t prepared at all for the Big Oral Report, and are forced to stand in front of the class and wing it. I recall my utter surprise when, after being out of school for many years, I began my Jesuit philosophy studies at age 30. Suddenly, the precise type of nightmare I experienced last when I was a college student flooded back into my slumber, but with a different cast of characters. Welcome back to school! What next, acne?
Mass nightmares are simply a variation on that theme. A priest friend reported that he began having his nightmares a few weeks before celebrating his first Mass. This, we decided, was a sort of subgenre: First Mass nightmares. And, like clockwork, a few months before my first Mass came my own. Standing before my friends and family at a local Jesuit church, I was gripped with weak-kneed terror. Not only had I forgotten to practice celebrating Mass, I had also neglected to prepare a homily. How could I have been so stupid? thinks my dream self. The congregation looked on in silent embarrassment as I stumbled my way through a dreadful, made-up homily. Waking up in the proverbial cold sweat, I jumped out of bed and checked the notes for my homily and reviewed the Sacramentary.
In a novel and somewhat comic twist, the other night I was visited with the following reverie. I was in my high school chemistry class (Bunsen burners, sinks, etc.) and, believe it or not, was expected to deliver a homily to the class. (I should note that in my public high school, the celebration of Masses in chemistry class was rather a rare occurrence.) In any event, all eyes were upon me, but...I had forgotten to check the readings for the day and could only offer a weak apology. Oh no, I thought, this will certainly affect my chemistry grade! Following my humiliating performance during the in-class liturgy, my chemistry teacher announced that there would be a test, for which, of course, I had not studied. I woke up and laughed, marveling at the clever human psyche, which had successfully managed to roll two fears into one. (Whether or not this represents a psychological step forward or backward is hard to tell.)
All of this made me wonder if people in other professions experience nightmares like these. Maybe doctors have nightmares about surgeries that they’ve no idea how to perform. Or teachers having forgotten to grade tests at the end of the term. Or lawyers arguing cases for which they are unprepared. This, of course, was greatly cheering, as it makes the occasional Mass nightmare seem relatively benign. At least priests who lose their place during Mass can rely on the Sacramentary, a sort of leather-bound, ecclesiastical cheat sheet.
As with most of what our unconscious minds do, there’s probably a healthy reason for all of this. Perhaps to draw our attention to fears that need to be faced, and so on. (And after all, in both the Old and New Testaments, God regularly speaks to people through dreams.) Indeed, it’s probably salutary to worry about crafting a good homily or celebrating Mass the proper way: parishioners deserve the best. So maybe the odd Mass nightmare is one of God’s sly ways of reminding the priest of his responsibility to his congregation.
On the other hand, if there are any chemistry questions during my next Sunday Mass, I’m in big trouble.