A Heathen Goes to Mass

CHRISTMAS may come but once a year, but in our family we are preparing for it from January to December. Christmas puddings must be nearly a year old to be ripe, and a Christmas cake is only begun when it is baked; months of careful tending are necessary to bring it to perfection. The foibles as well as the heart’s desire of friends and family are revealed at odd times throughout the year, to be exploited or fulfilled at Christmas. After Thanksgiving, the approaching holiday completely monopolizes us, and by Christmas week we are immersed in the eager excitement of the midwinter festival.

To savor the day to the full, a certain ritual must be observed, varying according to the temper of each family, but embodying the age-old traditions of the race. For, of all the festivals of the year, Christmas is perhaps the oldest, the most universal, and the richest in significance.

It answers a deep, primal need to express our faith in life, in our sure hope of success and happiness despite the short, dark days, the advancing cold, the mournful death of the white-shrouded year. It is man’s magnificent defiance to nature. With a long, bitter season before him, depleting his substance, threatening his very existence, what gayer challenge could man fling to the gods than a celebration of extravagant joy, of triumphant faith in his own survival? He and his fellows are banded together against a harsh environment, and the revelry of Christmas brings them closer to each other than they can be at any other season.

Our Christmas puddings and cake, like our gaudy tree, our holly wreaths and mistletoe, are part of the symbolism that unites us not only to our living fellows, but to all the human beings who have celebrated the winter solstice with feasting and mirth. To begin our holiday fittingly, we have for years gone on Christmas Eve to midnight Mass. To be among hundreds of people of all colors and races, of all walks of life, who are drawn together by a common emotion, a common faith, is to be at once in harmony with the Christmas mood.

The church itself, thronged and packed with people, is vibrant with joyful triumph, and the drama of its service is deeply satisfying. The ritual of Mass is impressive even to one ignorant of its symbolism; to anyone who has studied its significance, it embodies the whole range of mysticism, worship, and magic. The stimulation of the incense, never sufficient to be cloying, always leaving one desirous of more; the warmth of candlelight, stabbed with the vivid red of flowers; the monotonous chanting of ancient Latin, punctuated by the clear tinkle of the bell; the dear, familiar carols sung by childish voices steadied and enriched by the rolling echo of the organ — all merge into a true worship that sweeps the crowded church with its beauty. The service satisfies in us an emotional need, and fills us with gratitude and a profound respect for the wisdom that could devise so fine a ritual and execute it with such enthusiasm.

We have so long loved this impressive, joyous service that I was surprised to learn that some of our friends disapproved of our practice. ‘How,’ asked one woman, ‘can you. who are n’t even a Christian, be so moved by a Catholic service? You don’t accept their God, much less their Pope — why do you go there, and how can you approve of all that appeal to the senses?’

Perhaps, were I a professing Protestant, I should feel antagonized by the very beauty that now attracts me. In the many chapels to saints I should see only the polytheism that, not content with Jehovah, fills Heaven with lesser, more approachable deities. The rich robes, I might conclude, cost money that should be spent on relieving the poor; the music would seem too dramatic for a church; the Latin unnecessarily incomprehensible; the candles and incense a seduction of the senses, and the elevation of the Host an anachronistic piece of magic.

But, being allied to no official religion, my attitude is that of a foreigner visiting a strange land. I feel toward the Catholic Church as I do toward Holland. Some of my ancestors came from Holland, just as some of them must have been Catholics. But Holland is to me a strange country, one that I find most delightful, whose scenery charms me, whose people arouse my admiration and curiosity. I see much there that interests me and I am glad I can claim a distant kinship with the Dutch. But I cannot understand their language or even pronounce it; I should find their picturesque scenery monotonous after a while; and I have no desire to become a Dutch subject or even a Dutch resident. I am merely grateful to them for having so pleasant a country for me to visit, and I like to think I may have inherited a few of their virtues, which interest me more than their defects. It is a country with which my own land has never been at war, toward which I have inherited no bitterness, no fear, no strong emotions of any kind.

Walter Lippmann, in his Preface to Morals, speaks of the ’acids of modernity’ which have dissolved our lives into many elements so that they are no longer combined in one harmonious whole. Our gainful occupation, our amusements, our friendships, and our religion are no longer a reflection of the dominant influence in our lives, but diverse and sometimes clashing interests, tangling our loyalties and making our pattern a kaleidoscope.

Yet I believe there have always been, among people with a need for religion, three types of individual, whose attitude toward life is distinctly and permanently colored by their belief—or else their personalities force them into a belief which is an expression of their individuality. In Europe and America, two of those types are called Catholic and Protestant. The third variety has no official name, and, being in the minority, any name given it by the other two has always been tinged with contempt or at least disapproval. Perhaps ‘heathen,’ in spite of its connotation, is as good a term as any to apply to all those independents who are not at home in any established religion.

The Catholic dwells in the mountains, the Protestant is a plainsman, while the heathen’s life is spent on the sea. The mountain contains much precious ore, mined with patient labor and with little reward to the miner. Few of the mountaineers have fully explored their territory; it shelters them, they love its winding trails and its heavy trees which clothe it in magnificence and shut out the view. Its swift little streams are of no navigable use, but occasionally they can be harnessed and develop an uncanny electrical power. Very few of the mountain dwellers ever climb to the summit of their peak — the trail is too long and difficult, and the air above the tree line is too rarefied for most mortals; but they all know there is a summit that affords a breath-taking view of the world, and they accept with little question the reports that reach them of the nobility and beauty they can have if they will face the bitter hardships of the climb.

The plainsman sees all around him a wide, rolling country covered with well-tended farms, watered by broad rivers, and dotted with little stands of timber which afford shelter and a grateful rest from the monotony of the scene. It is a thriving, industrious land, yielding a comfortable living for useful labor. It boasts no heights, but yet no terrifying abysses; it holds no precious metals buried deep in its soil, but the earth yields such necessary things as food and clothing, and of what use are rare metals and glittering gems? It is a land that accepts the dominance of man, that can be harnessed to his uses, and changed and subdued to his ends.

The mariner feels at home neit her in the mountains nor on the plains. His home is the seacoast, with the restless, illimitable soil forever knocking at his door, the sea that offers a constant challenge, that lures and mocks and fights him and gives no quarter. The mariner puts his faith in his man-made boat, and accepts the challenge thrown him by the indifference of the sea. Sometimes he wrests a bare and difficult living from its depths, sometimes he finds new lands; and, pitting his tiny skill against the trackless might of the ocean, he ever widens his circle of knowledge, bringing home odd, dangerous, and precious novelties. Unless he retires at last to the mountain or the plains, the sea claims him in the end, and usually he disappears without a sound, without a trace, only rarely leaving to his fellows a few precious charts, a bit of hard-earned knowledge of the sea, and perhaps a pearl.

The sailor does not feel at ease out of sight of the contemptuous sea. But occasionally he visits the mountain and the plains. The plains have for him the monotony of the sea without its challenge, the expanse without the stimulating peril. It is a world of prose, to be explored ploddingly, and with an eye to taming the land and making it useful. The mountain fascinates and yet repels him. A frozen wave, white-capped but static, with no crashing surf forever changing its contours, the mountain holds the same serenity of indifference, the same awful beauty as the sea, but it leads the mariner nowhere. It blocks his roving eye with its immensity, its placid permanence. Seldom does he try to reach its summit, from which he could view the sea and the plains in a vast panorama. His is not the calm, reflective spirit that communes with space. He wants to explore space, and a mountain top is to him only a landmark, a place from which to get his bearings.

So when, on Christmas Eve, we go to midnight Mass, we are paying our annual visit to the mountain. We do not become mountaineers, we do not even wish to; but we are grateful to the mountain for its massive beauty, its confident serenity. We love the glitter of its jewels, the music in its waterfalls, in its ancient, sighing trees, and the cosiness of its sheltered little villages. Refreshed and invigorated, we go down again to the restless, empty sea and set sail once more in our frail boats, leaving the mountain behind us as our landmark. We may return next year, or the sea may take us, but such a landmark is oddly comforting to the mariner. It will not welcome him, it will care nothing for his adventures and dangers, but he can recognize it from afar and use it to get his bearings, though it will never claim his loyalty, never hold him in its spell, and never keep him from the sea.