Sometimes, when Netflix isn’t doing it for me, I watch Latin Mass on Youtube. I look for the old ones from the 1950s, before Vatican II. I am not a traditionalist, nor am I a theologian or a historian. Just a cradle Catholic muddling along in my flawed faith. My church is midcentury modern where the priest talks about Jesus, and the parishioners — including myself — stand at the pulpit and testify like a bunch of Protestants.
The Catholic Church never stopped Latin Mass, but I’ve never been to one. I have no desire to go back to a more severe time when the Catholic universe was marked off from the secular one, where we had our schools and nuns and uniforms and banned books, where we were forbidden from reading the Bible without a priest’s guidance. Where the number one spiritual work of mercy was to admonish the sinner. When I watch these old masses it is for a fleeting something that no one can see. It’s not the brocaded vestments or frilly collars, the cassocks and clouds of incense, the Gregorian chant, the rigid rituals, the ranking and tallying of sins. I am looking for the most primal human desire: that when you want to be something, to take on its characteristics, there’s part of you that wants to possess it. And one way to possess something, however temporarily, is to eat it. So that it becomes part of you. Your saliva and stomach juices break it down, your bloodstream absorbs it, it travels to your scalp and nail beds. To eat it is to become it.
In this old timey religion, the one that doesn’t pretend to connect with the regular Joe in the pews, the savagery of sacrifice, of eating flesh and drinking blood, is front and center. This mass does not obfuscate the weirdness or soften it; it doesn’t speak your language, it doesn’t face you, it doesn’t invite you to join in or hold hands. Its weirdness is out and proud. Heightened. That is what’s on display, and that’s what I want.
I still want more, so I read these Catholic authors from around mid 20th century. Not the converts like Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. I want the ones born into it and who give off that weirdness, even when they disavow it. Brian Moore, J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Francois Mauriac tried to hide their weirdness with piety or violence or detachment and wryness but I recognize it. In my mind I can see them blush when they blaspheme or write about concupiscence. I can sense them hedge, worrying that their fiction may glamourize sin. And when they repudiate the faith, they do so with a vehemence that an atheist would find excessive.
In Lines of Life by Francois Mauriac, Elisabeth, a widow, loves a young man, Bob, from afar. Elisabeth seems to be competent, controlled, pious; Bob,a young, handsome jackass. Elisabeth has “feelings” for Bob, but here Mauriac holds back. He doesn’t say that she loves him or wants him. However, when Bob dies in a car crash, Elisabeth imagines crawling into Bob’s grave with him. Not stretching out on the grass that covered his grave, not entering some mausoleum or crypt that had a door or a gate or a little bench to sit on. She wants to be in the ground, in the box. He’s buried in one of those French cemeteries where people would come and pull weeds out of their family plot after mass and gossip. She gets a little jolt of happiness when she approaches his grave and has to pretend that she’s totally bored. Her daydreams take place inside a tomb. That’s a bit stronger than having “feelings.”
This tension between piety and desire is what marks Mauriac as a Catholic. So is the characterization of a person’s love for someone she’s only seen and heard. She loves something fleeting. Something, I’d argue, that she wants for herself. Something she wants to be. In her grief she secretly goes to his house, visiting Bob’s bereaved fiancee and repeating a gesture she’d surreptitiously watched Bob perform, caressing his fiancee in “the space of her inner arm between wrist and forearm.” Elisabeth, pretending to comfort the fiancee, traces, with her lips, the space on her arm that Bob touched, right there in her Victorian sitting room.
Elisabeth didn’t love Bob. She had no sense of him. She ignored his loucheness, his immaturity, his stupid name. But she would eat him if she could. A sensible woman, she would be content with a strand of hair or a flake of skin. Then she could take on the characteristics she found so attractive. When he died, she had no access to that thing, that fleeting thing. She searched for it, tried to touch it, tried to retrace it. Eventually it left her entirely.
In the Catholic faith the Eucharist is so central that if a faithful person is deprived of it we believe he will suffer spiritual death. Catholics throughout history who attended mass in secret on pain of death knew this. The faithful will put up with all kinds of persecution, corruption, criminality and ridiculousness to get to the Eucharist so that they can eat.
Jen Mediano is a writer and digital content strategist. She lives in Virginia.
featured image via Pixabay.