Returning and remembering
I can still remember the first time I returned to Church after a long absence.
I had recently moved to a new area and I found myself, one Saturday afternoon, on what seemed like a random impulse googling my local church’s Mass times. I discovered that there was a Vigil Mass in just a few hours’ time and I remember announcing to my then boyfriend (now, husband) that I was going to go to Mass later that day. I remember his bemused expression; I had generally considered myself an atheist at that point in my life but, laidback as ever, he merely shrugged and asked when I would be home.
I hadn’t, at that point, other than on a few rare occasions (weddings and such), been inside a church since my early teens and I remember that, as I approached the church, I was suddenly filled with doubts. Where would I sit? Would I remember what to say? I still wasn’t even sure why I was going there at all! I remember taking a hymn book, but – alas! – not a Mass card, and finding a seat at the back (I still remembered some Catholic traditions).
As the service began, I felt this strange mixture of the familiar and the new. So much was as I had remembered, yet there were differences too. I found myself beginning to say responses and then belatedly realising some had now changed (I should have picked up that Mass card!) I found myself struggling to know when to sit or stand; I felt, at times, out of step and yet, yet… there was a part of me that felt so comfortable. There was familiarity and a sense of belonging.
I didn’t go back to church for a long time after that day. and it took me longer to return fully to faith. but I never quite forgot that first ‘welcome back’ I felt.
Last Saturday, I once again found myself in a church after a long absence – this one counted in months, not years – and I found I felt each of those months more acutely than the whole of my decade-long absence before.
For the first time since the start of lockdown, I was able to attend Mass! Walking up the drive to our church last weekend, I was reminded of my first return to Mass all those years ago, and I’ve been pondering why that memory should have come back to me so strongly, just then, for most of this week.
It may have been something to do with the emotions I was feeling. Once again I was feeling that strange mixture of the familiar and the new, and that feeling of uncertainty was back. I was, again, wondering where I would sit and whether I would remember to do the right thing at the right time. I have walked up the path to our Church thousands of times, and it felt so familiar to do it again, yet things were – are – different. With social distancing measures still in place, I had known many things would be different. From where we sat (2m distancing places), to the wearing of face masks and changes in the liturgy.
As I arrived at Church last Saturday though, and found my seat at the back (not everything has changed), I felt that anxiety melt away. Yes, some things are different, but like so much of our experience in recent months, you find that you adapt and adjust and, as the Mass began, I felt such a strong sense of being back where I belonged, gathered once more in person with other members of my faith community.
I talk about ‘coming back’ to Church, but in some ways we have never really been away. Our Church is made of living stones; we are the Church, after all.
Jesus – and our faith, of course – does transcend Church walls and lockdown restrictions but, as Catholics, we do believe that we encounter Christ in very special way through the sacraments and for months we have been unable to receive those sacraments. I, like so many of you, I know, have felt that loss very deeply.
Last Saturday I was able to receive Holy Communion once more and if I had felt welcomed back already, it really was nothing compared to the welcome I received from the Lord, as I was once again able to encounter his presence in the Eucharist.
Despite the uniqueness of our present circumstances, I left Mass last week filled with joy and looking forward, already, to the next time I could return home.
“Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! Zechariah (9:9-10)