I don’t go to Catholic Mass all that much, not nearly as often as many of my Protestant friends think I do given my bromance with St. Ignatius of Loyola, so I was happy to have a surprise chance to drop in on a noon Mass one day this week with my good friend Greg and others down at St. Paul’s College in DC. We arrived five minutes fashionably late and I had to grab an empty chair that was of course up front near the altar and next to one of the presiding Fathers.
I’m not Catholic, though I love and appreciate my Catholic brothers and sisters. And I know a good bit about the Mass, though I don’t know the rhythms like a good Catholic. This means that when I go to Mass I have to bring my “A Game.” I have to work hard to listen and watch everything so that I’m not always the last one standing or sitting. I rarely make the sign of the cross in prayers or before the Gospel reading… my goal is not to pass myself off as a Catholic, but I do hope to worship and to at least not be a distraction for others.
In this particular noon Mass I was rocking along quite well when the wonderful old, probably retired, Father who was presiding over the Mass moved to deliver his homily. I had of course already noticed his quaking voice and shaking hands, a loss of muscle control I would usually associate with my own sweet grandmother’s Parkinsons Disease or other such aliments that afflict the mature among us. But he manfully strove with his body to grip the lectern and deliver the homily with a stronger voice and presence than he had previously shown us.
His text was from Daniel 3, the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their fiery trial. As he worked to bring his body under greater control and speak quite eloquently on the passage my personal empathy went through the roof with this dear old man. I know the feeling… when I am especially tired or excited I will often have to work over-time to keep my stuttering under control.
His obvious effort served to focus me on the passage and his words. And so I was unprepared for the power of the words in verse 18, “But even if God doesn’t save us…” It’s a familiar passage, and one I have happily preached many times myself. But caught in the furnace of age, not himself delivered from the ravages of a failing body, this old priest drove those words to the center of my soul. From the lips of the three young men so long ago, to the lips of this venerable priest, to my own often too-hard heart, the words rang as they seldom have for me. Forget the fickleness of my faith, the faith that follows on good days and coasts on the bad days! Forget my faith that only responds to the gifts of God. Forget my faith that only survives on answered prayer! O God, give me a faith that stares into the trial and carries on regardless.
Some detractors might label this kind of faith that moves regardless of immediate evidences of God as “blind faith.” And certainly there are times when I could simply pantomime my religion instead of being a thinking, “seeing” person and an accountable soul. But that is not what I see happening in the story from Daniel. That is not what is happening in the life of a old priest who musters his strength to worship God and to serve his friends at the altar. It is not a blind faith, but a decisive faith. A faith that has chosen and does not have to continue choosing again and again. It is not a blind faith, but a very self-possessed faith that knows itself.
Even as I type the words I find my inner voice crying out in prayer, “Lord, help me know myself! Help me be so decisive! Help me be so self-possessed of faith and you!” And as we prayed together in Mass this week, “Lord, hear our prayer” I continue to pray, “Lord, hear my prayer!” For if I can bet on anything, it’s really two sure things: 1) another trial is eventually headed my way, and 2) I can either have decided my course, or be caught unprepared for the heat.