I accidentally went to mass yesterday. I’m going to pause for a moment and let you re-read and marvel at that sentence; I accidentally went to mass yesterday. (Sidenote: Carolyn says that since I didn’t stay for communion, I didn’t really go to mass. Read on for the details.)
I was taking my dad on a tour of Altoona. We went to Lowes and Advance Auto, but also to the Wopsy Trail and the Horseshoe Curve. One of the sites in Altoona is the large Catholic cathedral downtown. After watching the 4:20 Amtrak whiz along the curve up over the hill towards Pittsburgh (it was only about 12 minutes late), we went to see the cathedral. I was interested to note as we approached that an elderly couple was also on their way up the stairs to “visit” it as well, and there were a few more folks around, but all in casual clothing, so I really thought nothing of it.
I felt particularly heretical as we went up the capital-C Catholic stairs. I don’t believe in God, and my dad, while a devout Christian, doesn’t believe in the Pope. It didn’t really occur to me that we were approaching just like anyone else making their way to 5:00 PM service on Saturday, until we went in the open doors and found the place…not full, but certainly well occupied. I was ready to peak at the architecture and get out before Father So’n’so made his way to the back of the church as he was shaking hands and welcoming people. I was surprised when my dad dipped his finger in the vat of “holy” water, crossed himself upon entry and went 5-6 pews in and plopped himself down. I thought at best (worst?) he’d have a few moments of silent reflection/Jesus praising, get back up and we’d be on our way. But Father So’n’so made his way through and past me, an opening procession started. Some singing, etc. So, I went up and sat next to him to ask if he was planning to stay for the entire mass. Like so many direct questions asked this weekend, I got some answer that was either unintelligible, unrelated or non-committal, or some combination thereof.
So, I sat down next to him and followed along. We sang more (sort of). We listened to readings from old and new testaments, and finally we got to the sermon. I thought that this at least would be good. Here’s the cornerstone of the Catholic faith in Altoona — a city rife (maybe even ripe) with churches, many with witty or provocative sayings on their church signs. Here would be a moving, spiritual call to action for the faithful. The anthropologist in me (a small fellow, to be sure) was fascinated by this opportunity to study the not-very-elusive Altoid. The new testament reading had been on the loaves and the fishes. What a badass this Jesus dude was ’cause he managed to have his disciples feed 5000 men (not including women and children) from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and still have like a dozen wicker baskets of left-overs. Not that I’d really be wanting a wicker-basket full of left-over fish in days before refrigeration, but still, a pretty wicked accomplishment.
The gist of the sermon was that Jesus performed big, showy miracles like the fish and the loaves to get us to think about the little tiny miracles that we would otherwise take for granted. Is not the corn we eat grown through the bounty of God from a teeny kernel? Isn’t that like feeding a huge number of people from just a couple fish? He also used a car analogy; God didn’t make your car, but he made the steel that made your car and he made the gasoline that powers your car. I thought that a very interesting point to make while we’re making war on a predominately Muslim oil producing country and only an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. I mean either the steel workers are getting no love or they’re the part of God that made the steel for my car. I’m not sure which. But the basic idea was that God made the stuff from which everything good was made.
This pretty much brought up two different reactions for me. The first was, OK, then who made the stuff from which heroin and crack cocaine were made? If we praise God for making the stuff we can make cars from, what do we say about the stuff damaging, addicting substances are made from? I have a predicted answer: “God moves in mysterious ways.” Whatever.
But the real subtext that kind of got to me was — however far back in the development process you actually understand, whatever the step before that was, that was God. So, if you understand that crops grow not just by the force of will of some omnipotent being, but instead by a process of energy absorbed through sunlight and a process of photosynthesis with water and minerals drawn up from the soil, then well, God put the nutrients in the soil and the sun in the sky. And if you happen to actually be a rare enough individual to understand that the heavy metals in the soil were actually spewed from the nuclear processes of long-dead stars, as is our sun itself, then well, God put all the star dust there in the first place. And if you understand that since everything is moving away from each other, it must have been closer together earlier, and blown outward in some kind of biggish bang thingie, then well, God was there just before time to make the big bang. At some point, knowledge will fail, and there will be God. It’s just a shame that for so many Altoids, it fails right before “Chrysler”. God handed raw materials to Chrysler and then they made your towncar.
My dad permitted our departure (we ducked out) just before they came around for the collection.