In the past few weeks, I have found myself going to mass everyday, 6:30 in the morning when I’m lucky enough to find myself back home early the night before and therefore ready and fit enough to have a full night’s sleep and face the unnerving silence of the dawn.
Or at 6:30 in the evening, after a long day of reading, or talking to students, or pretending (as what usually happens half the time) that I am well on the way to writing a paper that is long overdue.
The church is two blocks away: near enough for a walk (either in faltering light or in the dark) so that all it really takes is a quick wake-up call of cold dawn water then I’m off and out of the apartment, and still far enough for me to imagine an escape, a micro- vacation, a hasty exit from the working world.
Although the walk is far from a grand pilgrimage of miracles—consisting most of the time of abandoned barbecue stalls, a guardhouse at the corner with sleepy (or sleeping) guards, and two dogs—this road to church has become an oddly sacred ritual of sorts for me. When I can afford to take the time, I allow myself to slow down to what I call the perfect rhythm of the body: one step at a time, one corner at a time, beat by beat. The days when I happen to miss going to mass, and therefore miss taking this walk, I find myself feeling off-kilter for days.
Growing up, I’ve always wondered about those people who went to mass daily. For most of us who grew up Catholic, Sunday masses, of course, are familiar affairs. The church becomes a huge conglomeration of families. Masses become necessary preludes to lunch or dinner. One attends, most of the time, out of duty and respect, rather than belief.
But of masses that happen within the week? The church becomes a totally different place. There are, of course, the occasional families who are celebrating a birthday, or death anniversary, or the passing of an extremely difficult exam by one of the children. (And you can tell that they are always surprised when there is no second reading.)
But on a regular basis, the church usually becomes a strange congregation of characters. There are the women in brown who belong to the Catholic Women’s League, and the old couples whose children you know have grown up and left. There are those who enter the church with severely troubled looks on their faces, and you know that they have come to ask for something from the Lord. There is the woman whose maid fans her when she kneels. The man who has just finished his morning jog. Two sisters in identical school uniforms give each other, and no one else, the sign of the peace.
And then there’s you. You who found yourself, for no particular reason, going out of the house, and walking two short blocks to the church on a day like all others. Without intention, or plea, or unheard prayer. Without heavy heart, sitting at the back, and looking at the cross. And thinking that this day, like all the days after this, will perhaps be the perfect day to be still, for an hour, to be free of commitment and choice, in the midst of strangers, to be briefly, and fully, oneself. ∎
Photo from SunStar Cebu, where this piece was originally published on September 22, 2007.