This post on kneeling at Mass over at Fr. Z along with Br. Matt's lovely reflection on the act itself have conspired to bring up a memory for me this morning. It's not all the fault of the posts; every year around Christmas some of my attention turns with gratitude and wonder to these same days in 1995, when I was dismissed from my first experience of religious life.
Right after college, not even baptized two years, I went off in my zealous first fervor and joined the formation program of another mainstream Franciscan community. I had a fine and growthful postulancy, but trouble came in the novitiate. I wasn't ready; I lacked spiritual roots and maturity in prayer. Worst of all, I did not understand or realize that I had these deficits. The novitiate didn't work out, and I was dismissed from the program. God bless my novice master and his assistant. It must have been hard for them, but it was some of the best pastoral care I ever received. I left on Christmas morning (after having said my breviary, of course.) It was a deeply destablizing and confusing experience, but in my prayer in those days it became the occasion for a new and much stronger spiritual foundation and attitude. The blessings and new spiritual beginnings given to me in the stark wilderness of those days became the spiritual foundation on which I stand even now.
Today, thanks to Fr. Z's post, I'm thinking of one the particularly difficult, but ultimately formative, moments in those days. On one of the days following Christmas I went to Mass. Perhaps it was St. Stephen or Holy Innocents. One of my parish priests stopped to talk to me, and asked me why I wasn't in my habit. I had to tell him of my dismissal. He didn't even stop to say anything about it, but immediately invited me to become an altar server. This parish was a little on the traditional side with regard to liturgy, and only used older adolescents or grown men as servers. Someone who had spent some time in religious life was an asset to the parish in this regard, Father explained.
Still very confused about my religious life not working out, I was very grateful for the invitation to serve Mass at the parish. It was something, at least, that I could do for God. So, on what must have been the feast of the Holy Family, I showed up in the sacristy before Mass and put on alb and cincture. I was assigned as cross-bearer. I was nervous but happy. But in the end it didn't go well. During the consecration I got a strong tap on the shoulder from the lector behind me. "Young man, kneel," she commanded with some aggravation in her whisper. After a year and a half in religious life, I had forgotten about kneeling at Mass. We never did. Why I wasn't reminded by seeing the assembly I don't know.
After the Mass, Father had a word with me. Didn't I know how to serve Mass? How could someone who lived in a novitiate not know when he was supposed to kneel? The invitation to serve Mass was rescinded. Father didn't say it, but it was clear to me that he was wondering if my inability to go to Mass properly had something to do with my dismissal from the novitiate. It didn't, of course, but the idea still hurt.
My experience on that Holy Family morning further added to my confusion. Over the years and as I have grown up as a friar, my experience that day has become emblematic for me of an abiding tension in my religious life. I have had a wonderful and blessed experience as a religious. I have met and lived with saints and characters. I have had the blessing of real friendship. The trust of the brothers and the generosity of our benefactors have allowed me to give the majority of my religious life thus far to the leisure of obtaining a theological education. I have lived in wonderful communities and spent two summers in Central America. Most of all, I have found among the brothers a place where God can work on me through my obedience to the fraternity to bring out some of my gifts for the sake of the Church. For all of these blessings I am exceedingly grateful to God and to the friars who accept me each day as a brother. But within all of this, in the area of divine worship, I have often found religious life to be confused and confusing, deformed and deforming. I rant about such things often enough, as readers know, and I don't want this post to be another rant. It's just to say that within the intense goodness of God and the tremendous blessings of my religious life, this one aspect has been confusing to me, and the sweet old lector having to hit me during the consecration has become a symbol of all of it for me.
The priest in the story has moved on to some other ministry, though from his Facebook profile I can't figure out exactly what it is. The lector has gone to her reward. Her funeral was the day after Thanksgiving. Requiescat in pace.