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A Touchy Feely Mass

alec vanderboom

Every Benjamin came down with a nasty head cold this weekend. Jon and I took one look at our toddler with the greenish skin tint, puffy eyes and tuberculous sounding cough and decided that we'd better "piggy back Mass" this morning.

Jon kindly made us all pancakes and then jumped on the bus at 7:45 AM. As a solo parent, I enforced citrus consumption at breakfast, handed up lollipops as replacement to unwanted cough drops and hit play on multiple library videos.

In the middle of all this chaos, I tried to get my half-an-hour prayer of the quiet done. Needless to say, this was not one of my best prayer session. Just as I was about to faint from pregnant lady exhaustion, my spouse knocked on our door.

Jon was luminous after Mass. He said he missed us in the pew. "It was too quiet. Besides every at church hacked and coughed during Mass, we have fit right in today."

"Ha Ha!" I thought. "I'm NOT going to be complaining that Mass is quiet today." I happily grabbed our Lenten Liturgy of the Hours from my husband and volunteered to leave for the bus stop 17 minutes early today.

Alone in the "quiet" of a busy city street on one of the first warm days of Spring, I read a beautiful account of the Samarian women by the well. A reading today said "Her righteous was caused by her conversation with Jesus." At first, I misread the passage as "her righteousness was caused by her conversion." Then I reread it as properly as "conversation."

Somehow my slip of the tongue, made everything clear this Lent. I keep getting confused with "conversion" and "conversation." I mistakenly think because I'm now a formal convert to Catholicism, I'm supposed to be perfect. I'm horrified by my many sins and failures. Yet I realized this morning, I need to keep focused on my "conversation" with Jesus. It's the daily chat's with Jesus that will lead to my righteousness. Prayer leads to sainthood. You don't need to wait until you're a saint to be a Carmelite who prays on a regular basis.

I hugged my Daily Liturgy, got on the bus and looked forward to a happy, holy Mass.

I walked into Mass alone. I didn't need to remind anyone to dip their hands in Holy Water or to stop running down the aisle. I sat in our usual front row pew. I had time to finish my Daily Liturgy in front of Jesus in the Tabernacle and said a long pre-Mass pray from St. Thomas Aquinas. I picked up a Mass booklet for the first time in four years. My hands were unusually free from finding dropped crayons or ending sibling wrestling matches.

"I'm alone with Jesus," I thought happily. I opened my heart for a glorious, silent, focused Mass.

Just before the Procession, an elderly couple slipped into the pew behind me. "These are good seats" the man remarked loudly. "Yes they are," the woman responded. The couple proceeded to loudly argue during the entire Mass. They argued over the page number of the Hymns. They argued over which Sunday it was in Lent.

There was a ten minute debate over whether the Lector said it was the "First Sunday" in Lent or the "Third Sunday." I cringed all during their argument. I debated about turning around and showing my page number, but decided to practice the virtue of Silence instead.

"There goes my quiet Mass. I guess the Lord wants me to praise him among noise and distractions each and every Sunday. Why should I get used to a quiet Mass this week."
I took the disappointment in stride. I kept my heart cheerful.

Then the lady touched me.

Someone touched me on my back shoulder. I turned quickly and saw a lady's arm. It was that lingering, purposeful movement some ladies do when they kindly tuck your tag back into your sweater neck. "I must have had a tag out" I thought. I was sort of mystified as to what tag could have been poking out of a silk scarf. I quickly dismissed it from mind and got refocused on Mass.

Then I got touched again.

And again.

At the fourth time, I became furious. "Someone is touching me during my ALONE Mass. I get poked, and kicked, and hugged, and touched by three kids every single Sunday of my life. This is supposed to be MY Sunday to be left ALONE!"

At the fifth touch, I decided that I must be going crazy. It had to be my imagination. I didn't know the couple behind me. Surely no stranger would be so brazen as to repeatedly rub your back. I must be feeling some phantom pregnancy pains or something.

By deciding that I was crazy, I could sweetly greet the elderly couple during the passing of the peace. I saw a couple who were in their late seventies. "They are probably hard-of-hearing, that is why they couldn't whisper during Mass," I thought cheerfully. I didn't want to spread germs, so I just held up my handkerchief and said "Sorry, I'm sick." I gave them my best smile as a replacement for a firm handshake.

Then the lady grabbed my shoulder. "I love your scarf" she said, fingering the silk with longing. "Its so beautiful, I couldn't help touching it all through Mass."

I recoiled with horror. You were the one touching me? During Mass? Someone who had never seen before?

Immediately, it was time for the most holy part of Mass. I gave my uncharitable heart a firm talking to. "Look, you've got to shake this off Abigail. You've got to offer it up. You can eat the Holy Eucharist with this much anger in your heart."

I forced myself to forget the incident and refocus again the the beauty of this Sacrament.

I took the Eucharist. I prayed my Animus Christie in thanksgiving. I tried to mind that my actions seemed routine and ordinary. "He's really in there," I told my soul. "He's really in you."

And then a miracle happen, like those subtle miracles that aways happen to remind me that the Eucharist is real, and not something from my hyperactive Catholic imagination.

After the closing hymn, the elderly couple stayed to greet me. "I love your scarf", the woman said touching it again.

As easily as I'd hand a piece of banana bread to a hungry child, I took off the sentimental silk scarf I'd owned since eight grade. "Here take it," I said and put it in her hands.

Her husband was horrified. "No, no, we just mean that the scarf looks good on you. You wear it."

I decided that this must have been what it feels like to be a Franciscan and give away your cloak to whoever asks it from you. I'm a Carmelite. What do I need a silk scarfs for? I can't wear it to church on normal Sundays because soon there will be a little newborn to throw up on it. I'm a simple cotton dress girl through and through

"No, you keep it. When you wear it you'll will remind you to pray for me to Our Blessed Mother. I'm pregnant with baby number four" I said, rubbing my belly. "I need lots of prayers this month."

Suddenly, standing face to face in the pew we became friends. The couple are the parents of six children. I told them my oldest three were home sick with my husband this Sunday. The elderly couple were so happy to see a pregnant Catholic mommy. The husband inquired of my name and promised to pray a rosary for me each night this week.

"I'll remember to pray for the lady who gave me the pretty scarf," my wife agreed.

"You've got hundreds of scarfs at home, you don't need another," the husband said firmly.

The lady kept all ten fingers clutched on my scarf as her husband yanked it from her hands.

The lady looked at me. "You wear that scarf next Sunday when I see you with all of your lovely children. I'll tell you next week whether I really want it." She winked at me.

I laughed and hoped I would remember to pack in it my pock next week to hand to her after Mass. I nodded goodbye.

I turned back to Jesus to say a better thank you for the Eucharist. I'm a small, selfish girl. I've got a mean heart, and a stiff neck. I commit many sins. Somehow, in the silent conversation of the Eucharist, our big brother Jesus still enters into my heart and transforms into something unrecognizable and strangely beautiful.