A Catholic friend and I often have conversations about her faith and my lack. Neither one seeks or even wants to convert the other, but the space between us is an accepting one and she knows she can air out her doubts without condemnation for or against from me. Our most common reply to each other in these moments has been “And how does that make you feel?”
In a moment of complete lack of mental brakes, she asked me for my opinion on Mass, and I let slip the inconsiderate answer of “It’s a magic ritual.”
The silence that followed felt like bricks falling on my head.
So I did. I explained what Mass looks like to a complete outsider (which I am), especially if you remove any references to Christianity. “Just because the old man in the white robes sez magic is a no-no, doesn’t mean magic isn’t happening. Magic doesn’t have to be announced as magic to be magic.”
Then I went further and compared the procedures and actions in Mass with what would be regarded as a “full blown magic ritual” by outsiders today, and then tied it back to known magical practices and reconstructed secret society practices in the Roman Empire. “Now I know I’m talking out my ass here, but there is a lot of comparative work to be found to back up what I’m saying, it just takes slogging through a lot of very dry academic works to find it. I just happen to come across enough summaries for it to make this kind of sense to me.”
She sat quiet for a few more minutes. The bricks crumbled into sand.
“Magic is a… no-no… like you said.” She smiled as she said “no-no”. “But you have a point about determining what is magic. I was taught that anything that didn’t have help from the saints or wasn’t brought about by prayer or the will of God was magic, and that all magic was of the Devil. But now that you describe it without the labels I’m used to… it does look different. And by different, I mean the same.”
We sat in dusty settling silence for another minute.
“And how does that make you feel?” Our voices jumped in unison. The laughter that followed was in harmony.
“Some would say you’re telling me a blasphemy.”
“Some would say I am a blasphemy.”
“Does that mean Mass is wrong?”
“That means Mass is something I want to experience.”
She stared at me so fiercely, the room was swept clean. “Stop hoarding words!”
“Mass is not wrong. For one thing, I am not the arbiter of that decision. What you experience as Mass has evolved over literally millennia. It is a set of rituals accepted by both those performing them and those being performed on. It is a key tenet of your faith, and I will be the first person to defend your right and desire to partake in it.” I sighed and stared at the ground. “The magical portion of Mass will literally go right over my head. My apostasy is an insulation and a barrier. I don’t want to go for that. I want to go for the community. For the feeling of being part of something with other people. To be just another person in the crowd. I didn’t get that at the churches I used to go to. Because reasons. I’d like to experience that, but I don’t know the ritual. I don’t know what to do or when to do it and even if I looked up on the internet what to do, I don’t think I have the gumption to go alone. Sometimes a flaming sword is hella overkill when human nature does the job for free.”
The space seemed emptier somehow after I spoke. I remained staring at the ground because I was afraid I would start crying in front of her. I have a reputation to uphold!
“I’m going to Mass, tonight.” Her tone wasn’t just stating a fact.
“And we live too far apart, and your family does not know me, and there would be too many other discomforting questions that I would not be comfortable answering.”
She nodded. Our time ended and we both went back to work.
The next day she met with me again.
“I went to Mass last night. And I tried to see everything from your point of view, even starting from getting out of the car. And it was like seeing it new all over again! I never noticed the art on the ceiling! Or how tall the windows look from inside! Or the way all the voices of the crowd seem to go away when you step in! Or how brilliant the altar is!”
She kept going on about all the things she was noticing for the first time despite having gone to Mass in this particular building for a decade. She described looking at people’s faces as they walked in with worry written over their faces, and how those faces relaxed and melted as the service soothed them. She described her sorrow that I wasn’t there to share the experience, and that now she understood why I would feel like an outsider even with her beside me. She described her recognition that Mass was a magic ritual with the words and the droning and the actions and the responses, and her realization that there was a lot more to the idea of magic than scary demons and evil books along with the realization that the religion she has faith in is a lot more “magical” and living than she realized.
She said she left Mass with a stronger faith than what she went in, because she understood the contract between her and God a little better now.
And she was okay with that.
She finally looked up at me, and asked if I was okay because I was silently crying.
“Yea. I’m fine. Watching your face as you relived last night made me happy in ways I lack the words to describe. Thank you for sharing your experience with me.”
“You’re not upset that you managed to make my faith stronger, Apóstata?”
“Why the hell would I be upset about my friend being more at peace with herself?”
“… Well, when you put it that way…”
And how does that make me feel? Conflicted as hell.
Or as I told my reflection: “I’m being called back in a different way, a different manner. I don’t understand it.”
Circles and spirals. Turning in, turning out.