See introduction to Mass Tourism series here for the motivation behind these essays.
The customary vacation to the OBX brings with it the lack of enthusiasm in going to Mass outside my own parish on a day of obligation. Why? Because going to Mass at either of the two parishes on this protracted island (Redeemer by the Sea in Kitty Hawk and Our Lady of the Seas in Buxton) is a lot like going to a Protestant church, by the sea or elsewhere, in many respects. Other than the recognition that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ—a deciding factor—-just about everything else co-opts the purest in bankrupt Protestant culture and form.
Architecturally, Redeemer looks like a corporate or municipal facility. Other than a sign that indicates its function, there is nothing outside that signifies it is a sacred place of any make or model. In the strictest of terms it is stark and created for efficient function with frugal economic consideration to boot. It lacks all three of the essential element of classic Catholic Church architecture: 1) Permanence. It could be defended that anything on OBX will be swept into the ocean but still I have been in beach houses of higher quality. 2) Verticality. No doubt the Wright Brothers Memorial wins the loftiness prize hereabouts but it’s not too much to ask that the edifice face the rising sun in some awe-inspiring way especially when you have “by the sea” in your name (which is a misnomer since it is on the west side of the coastal highway “by the muffler shop” but that’s not as spiritual). 3) Iconography. A crude, unhewn wood cross draped with white linen was all that presented on the front; stations of the cross were seen high up on the back wall far out of sight. That’s it. No corpus, no crucifix, no tabernacle, no graven images, and absolutely artless in the extreme. Even the pews had a coarse functionality—thick wood benches made of scratched planking. This edifice was designed for one thing: a large throng of Tommy Bahamas to show up alongside regular parishioners during the on season.
Our Lady in Buxton is considerably better with a Rosary Garden, outdoor stations of the Cross, unique Italian woodcarving of Our Lady by the Sea, and an interior wooden architecture with small flying buttresses on the outside (a peculiar idea since the pointed arches of the interior are not about to collapse under tons of stone). Unlike Redeemer, this building is actually by a body of water, the sound, which shows nicely as a sharp line through the large clear windows behind the altar. Sadly, the altar—the most central element of the Mass and Catholic Church building—is the biggest piece of kitsch I’ve ever seen in a sacred space: a rectangular white slab atop a turquoise cresting wave carrying way too far the beachy-by-the-sea theme. There is a tabernacle nailed to the wall off to the side albeit one designed by IKEA and void of symbolism.
This vacation I visited Redeemer whcih, liturgically, was more like a non-denominational Bible Church than a Catholic Mass. The solemn, silent sentiment conducive of prayer and preparation as one knelled in the sanctuary after entering was replaced with social marketplace clamor bordering on mayhem. We opened by greeting one another and introducing ourselves under the priest’s directive. I went beyond the call of duty to ask the guy behind me where he was from, testing the idea that most people in attendance were from out of town like me. Alas, no, the poor man lived on the other side of the bridge and this was his parish church, week after insufferable week.
But there is always the Novus Ordo to rely on, right? I held the laminated card ready to respond in English the long pieces I know better in Latin. Interestingly, some of the printed responses had the Latin heading. But the laminated card was unnecessary. The Confiteor was replaced with a silent private reflection; the Gloria was sung in the kindergarten style that I dread; the Credo was replaced with a renewal of baptismal vows which I’d never heard was an option; we held hands during the Our Father; we remained standing throughout communion; we lifted our hands Pentacostal like toward all the mothers being blessed on this Mother’s Day; the Mass ended without the prayer to St. Michael. And the marketplace clamor that started the service resumed on the last note of the recessional.
This and similar experiences correlate with significant spiritual changes afoot in the household. Since the beginning of the year Kimberly has been attending services and adult education classes at Holy Transfiguration, Greek Catholic Melkite church in McLean. Through several intersections, we had had encounters with HT that sustained more than a mild interest over the years. Considering that Melkites total 1.5 million people worldwide in comparison to 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, these encounters may be more than fortuitous.
And during this time, on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday I awoke early in the morning in excruciating pain. Before the day was over I was on pain killers, anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers and prednisone. An MRI on Fat Tuesday showed disc deterioration and severe nerve impact to my left arm and hand which had lost function. I was unable to drive myself to work or Mass or anywhere. I had to cancel a much-anticipated trip with my daughter to Reykjavik. Navigating the medical options was bewildering but after some weeks and second opinions came to a hard decision. One month after the initial episode I was undergoing surgery for anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) followed by recovery. Along the way, a so-called blizzard in an otherwise tame winter delayed getting a second opinion; a Leyland cypress fell in the yard; my dog started bleeding from the anus; the clothes dryer died; the outlet receptacle was wrong; my car needed a new fuel pump even though I wasn’t driving Brother Jerome anywhere. For the entirety of Lent I was homebound and my only spiritual outlet was HT through Kimberly. Why my own parish would not or could not come to provide communion or moral support is both a mystery and another story.
In any case, I have been exposed more and more to Orthodox teaching (just finishing Timothy Ware’s Orthodox Church) which in many ways lumps the experience of Western Christianity be it Roman Catholic or Protestant into one pot of common history, never mind that there were once at each other’s throats. But the problem that I often see, and the Orthodox point out, is the taint of Protestantism in the Roman Catholic Church as is evident in many parishes like Redeemer by the Sea. It’s astounding how many Catholics I encounter who act Protestant in every manner, or, if they indeed ascribe to all magisterial teaching, have no idea what or why. And from my own Mass tourism, Catholic Parishes have less regard for the sacred, the tradition, or the patrimony of their own Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers seem to have made an indelible mark in modern Catholic architecture, theology, liturgy, art and thought.
Such things have not occurred in the vein of the Orthodox which developed their own history after schism in 1054. Their teaching highly coheres with Roman Catholicism with many of the differences favoring the Orthodox in my humble estimation. Whereas Roman Catholicism as evolved to be monarchical and juridical, the Orthodox have evolved to be collegial and liturgical.
I suppose I have been lucky to have been introduced to an orthodox form of Roman Catholicism which, as it turns out, is rare. It may be a fait accompli that I will cross the Mediterranean and become Melkite; Kimberly has already decided and will be chrismated next month and will be entering the Catholic Church through the eastern door. I could not be happier and I can’t help see that clearly God’s hand has been in this more than my own. During a radio interview with Peter Kreeft, a man like myself called in to ask about his wife who had not followed the caller into the catholic church from a Protestant tradition. Kreeft deftly responded: “You are introducing your wife to the true Church, she is introducing you to the true faith; be patient.”
I am not exactly sure what Kreeft meant but it I think it applies to me. Stay tuned.