On the hard pews of the church down the block, I hear groans. People don’t like the way Father says Mass. The music is lame and the homilies are limp. Some hate the air conditioning or think the flowers this week are garish. It’s a tough life.
Of course, the gooey dish of gripe-and-moan should remain a “sometimes” food. But, as has often happened on the Christian people’s journey, truth can be revealed in grumblings along the aisles. The faithful know when something’s up. Something is missing. We’re hungry for something we can’t quite name.
A sense of the sacred. Maybe that’s what we lack.
A sense of the sacred. Not mystification, but mystery. We are happy to use our minds, thank you. We do understand something about God. In fact, as the most educated laity in the history of the Church, we may understand quite a bit. But we know that God is too great to be wrapped in plastic and laid out neatly. He can’t be picked up with forceps. And we’d rather not pretend He can be.
Where’s the mystery? In the second decade of the 21st century, we pew-sitters are often asked to swallow the cultural assumptions of the mid-20th, when psychology and sociology, the card catalog and the comptrometer were at the peak of power. It was the age of ‘better living through chemistry,’ and our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t want to be left behind.
“We Catholics can be Moderns, too,” they seemed to say. They built suburban churches to prove it. Look at our blindingly bright lights in every niche and alcove. Hear our sensitive microphones amplifying every smack of spittle as the lector bores through a reading. Listen to the homily, in which the sublime work of the Savior is sealed up in aphorisms — easy-swallow capsules — much in the mode of Readers’ Digest. Nothing suspicious going on here. It’s all perfectly simple.
As digestible as that may seem, it’s bunk.
Like it or not, there is something suspicious, or at least deeply mysterious, going on in church.
At Mass, the Maker of the World lies on a plain plate and chalice. Then He touches your tongue. At that font, souls that look like Eve’s are washed into souls that look like Mary’s. That confessional is where the Seven Deadly Sins go to die. The air is thick with powerful mysteries, and no 100-watt bulb can dispel them.
There are many ways to bring an appropriate sense of awe to the liturgy — the word means “public work” — the way we pray together. There are ways to make sure our churches are not warehouses or workhouses but houses of God, where you enter and gasp and kneel of your own accord, without the lady on the microphone telling you you’re supposed to. Many of those ways require integrating the past with our present.
For now, leave behind the documents, the sheet music and the committee minutes and come into a world that is as far from the DuPont labs as possible: a place that is haunted by the sacred, where the existence of God is obvious to all. You might like it.
It’s kind of a strange place. So weird, in fact, that I hesitate to take you there. But it inspires. It’s odd and a little funny-smelling and grubby around the edges. But it’s good. And perhaps the contrast with our own world will be illuminating.
We’re going to Poland. The Poland Saint John Paul lived in as a young man. Poland before the War. And it’s not the Poland of teeming convents and Corpus Christi parades, which might seem somewhat familiar. This is Jewish Poland. Buckle up.
Through the magic of the Internet, you can watch a film from 1937 that is the pearl of its genre. It’s called The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds. A dybbuk is a possessing spirit — a ghost. This is a ghost story in Yiddish. This film takes place so deeply in the Jewish world that you feel like a trespasser for watching it. Filmed on location in Kazimierz, this is a record of a bygone world. There were massive Yiddish-speaking communities in Central and Eastern Europe: three million speakers in Poland alone. New York was another hive of Yiddish papers and theater and song. And so there was, for a few precious years, a big market for a deeply Jewish, wholly Yiddish movie like this one. And then the Germans came.
So why should Catholics watch? For one thing, the director was a Catholic. The famously courtly Michał Waszyński survived the war with Anders’s army and landed in Italy, then Spain, where he produced The Quiet American with Audie Murphy and the Charlton Heston epic El Cid. He was buried in Rome with great Catholic pomp in 1965 (one of the last good years for pomp). But he was born in Volhynia: Mosze Waks, a Jew.
And as Jewish as this film is, it is also Catholic. Its intuitions about God and man would be intimately familiar to any Irish farmer or Calabrian nonna. The invisible is real. The Evil One prowls the world, though God is more present and much more powerful. The supernatural is manifest in a thousand ways, and it won’t go away just because we ignore it. We can touch it. It touches us. And, amid the enchantment, the human condition is full of irony and humor, the buffoonish and the beautiful, as well as poverty and pain.
Watch, if you can, and enter a world that is not as lost as you think. Let the actors use their whitish faces and melting inflections to pierce your heart across the barriers of language and culture and time. Listen to the prayer-songs chanted by poor, pious men. Listen to the silver-gold words of the Torah, sung out in Hebrew by a cantor who died in a camp. Watch and contemplate what a sense of the sacred means as you behold a world of many unknowns that knew the basics better than we.