I have been a priest for more than twenty years and one of the great privileges of that has been the opportunity to say mass daily. At that daily mass (Eucharist, if you prefer the more contemporary term) I have met an interesting variety of persons. I say ‘variety’ because there is not just one type of person who comes to daily mass.
Who does come to daily mass? In my experience no single category does justice here. On the surface at least, it appears that there is little common among those who attend daily mass. It is a most strange mixture of people: some nuns, some unemployed people, a lot of retired women, some retired men, a few young persons, some housewives, and a motley collection of nurses, businessmen, secretaries, and other such professionals on their lunch break.
There is no similarity in character among them, but there is something among them (and I am speaking here only of those who truly have the habit of attending daily mass) that is held in common, namely, in the end, they are all there for the same reason. What is that reason? It is something that is deeper and less obvious than is immediately evident. Simply put, people who go to mass daily are there in order to stay alive. They go to mass because they know that, without mass, they would fall apart, inflate, become depressed, and be unable to handle their own lives.
That’s quite a mouthful! People go to daily mass in order to stay alive! I doubt that most people who attend mass daily would tell you that. More likely they would tell you something to the effect that they go to mass to pray to God, or to be nurtured and sustained by God, or to touch God and to receive God’s blessing upon their day, or because they feel it is only right that they should offer some of their day back to God. On the surface, those are their reasons. But for anyone who sustains the habit of daily mass for a long period of time there is a deeper reason, always. Daily mass is a ritual, a deep powerful one that sustains a person in the same way that the habit of attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sustains a man or a woman seeking sobriety.
I understood that parallel when an alcoholic friend explained to me why he goes regularly to AA meetings. He told me: “I know, and know for sure, that if I don’t go to meetings regularly, I’ll begin to drink again. It’s funny, the meetings are always the same, the same things get said over and over again. I know everything that will be said. Everyone coming there knows that. And I don’t go to those meetings to be a nice person. I go there to stay alive. I go there because, if I don’t, I will eventually destroy myself!”
What is true about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is also true for daily Eucharist. Granted, it is a prayer, it is a our primary coming together as Christians, it is Christ’s prayer, the perfect prayer that Jesus left us, and it is the place on this earth where God touches us physically. Eucharist is these things. But it is more: it is also a ritual, a container, a sustainer, a coming together which keeps us from falling apart.
And we are always falling apart, failing in most everything: we fight, divorce, have relationships go sour, fill with resentment, lie, slander others, fall from grace, betray our friends and convictions, and only have pleasures which are never whole because they are never fully shared. We go to daily mass not to escape these things so as to fly off into some kind of immortality and freedom. No. The ritual of daily mass reminds us precisely of the fact that we are unfree, that we are sinners, and that we must die – just as an AA meeting reminds those there of the same thing. One approaches the Eucharist table daily precisely to keep oneself aware of the fact that “My name is Ron .. and I’m a sinner!”
Interesting too is the fact that there is a something else held in common among those who attend daily mass, they don’t want a service that is too long or too creative. They want a clear ritual, a predictable one, and a short one. Because of this they are often at the mercy of critics who look at this and, simplistically, see nothing other than empty ritual, rote prayer, people going through the mechanics of worship without heart. Nothing could be further from the truth and this type of accusation betrays the misunderstanding of an outsider.
Daily mass is not meant to be an experience of high energy and creativity. It’s a ritual act, simple, clear, profound. It’s a touching of Someone so as not to fall apart and die.