I am currently working in a managerial role in a Catholic School. I’m not actually working for the Catholic School, I am working for a separate organisation that is renting the site for during the Summer Holidays. And in the spirit on being in a Catholic environment, I thought I might give a small series of confessions. I’ve now met an aggressive atheist (i.e. someone who appears aggressive in their atheism) and I think mass is bug-nutty crazy.
I’ll start with Sandra (not her real name): the aggressive atheist. Until now I have said that I haven’t encountered these aggressive atheists in real life, and I certainly haven’t met proportionally more atheists who are aggressive than religious/agnostics who are aggressive. But I have now met Sandra, a person who seems an odd specimen to me as she is so very relaxed in all things, except her atheism. A monk on site mentions there is a “strong room” for their valuable items while we were touring the abbey and it made her angry to think of the wealth of this monastery when there is such poverty, even locally. She voices her outrage that Catholicism is a premium membership her native country–Germany–where you must be a paying member to be buried in the Church. She also has problems with the concept of abstinence; an “unnatural” command (there’s a nice sentiment for an attractive woman to utter…). And the demeanour in which she expresses herself is sincerely aggressive. Yet, she is so placid in all other areas. Working here I’ve also met José (not his real name) who, while staring at Jesus on the cross and more-or-less unprompted, said “how can they believe this bullshit?”
Now, I’m not chastising these people. There is a certain irony in people sending their children to a private Catholic Church in the certainty of the truth of Catholicism when it contains the seventh commandment; and there is a certain moral outrage is an organisation that makes itself a moral authority also hoarding wealth. And I am certainly not saying these two people are representative of atheism; I have found meeting these people to be remarkable (in fact, blog worthy) events. That shows their rarity, even if only in my experience.
My second confession: Mass is bug-nutty bat-shit crazy. I attended mass for a saint’s day because it was the name day of a student who is Catholic. Oddly enough, I felt I had a duty of care that included me attending. I apologise if it sounds accusatory, but I didn’t want to leave one of my students alone with a group of monks. I implore you, even if you are Catholic, to observe a mass with a cynical eye. We entered on the far right of the Abbey and sat in the left row of seats. As we crossed the aisle, people turned to bow down the aisle. They stopped, turned, and bowed to nothing in particular (so far as I could see). There was a reading from Exodus, where God says (and I’m paraphrasing here): “The Egyptians won’t let the Israelites go unless I really mess them up; so I am going to really mess them up” (and, as we know, what God went on to do was administer blanket torture to the innocent and the guilty alike, until the Pharaoh ‘let [those] people go’). It was seen as a passage of justice. There were several songs and chants, in English and in Latin and there was no indication of whether one should sing along, repeat after the Monk or announce “Amen” or “And to you”, yet everyone seemed to know.
Then the Monks began to set up communion. The wine and the chalices and the wafers were in various different places, and everything was done slowly and deliberately and every time a monk walked past the mid point of the width of the abbey they stopped, turned away from their audience and bowed… seemingly at the table they were setting up on. A monk then sung something that I’m sure the rest of the audience could decipher into the chalice and periodically lifted it over his head at which point the abbey bells would ring three times. Without being called, the entire congregation formed two orderly queues in front of two monks who offered a wafer and wine (wine! at 9:30am!) to everyone except the apparently gluten intolerant person who had been sat to my right. The gluten intolerant person, who I shall call Helga, told me that if I wanted a blessing from the monk, then I should cross my arms in front of myself after I have received communion. I thanked Helga for this information, stood up to let her and Sandra up to go to communion, then returned to my seat (getting puzzled looks from more than one person).
If you are not a Catholic (and even if you are) I urge you to watch mass and observe the pomp and ceremony, the dance and spectacle, as indifferently as you can. I’m not making any theological point here, it is just a strange and weird environment and I want you to share my amusement and befuddlement.