Some weeks ago I was at a Novus Ordo Mass in a well-known London neighbourhood, and an oldish woman started with the readings.
She probably had heard too much about they “joy” filling the heart of every Catholic, because she started reading with such a diverted tone you would have thought she was telling a joke. “Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin sit near each other in an aeroplane….”. Exactly that tone, only it was the Old Testament she was reading.
I was not the only one noticing the incongruence, because looking around I saw some ironic smirking. The good woman was doing her best, no doubt; and as for her feeling oh so very special, she was certainly not worse than every other indulging in such post-V II exercises.
Still, I thought this was another reason to leave something as important as the Mass as far as possible in the hands of the professionals. Involuntary comedy is still rather too comedic for something as serious as the Mass.
I was praying my Rosary waiting for the Mass to begin. I wasn’t at the Oratory and was therefore resigned to witness some, let us say, strange things.
But this, I had not expected.
A lady goes on the pulpit. She seems to review the reading of the day, but doesn’t talk. A silent rehearsal, so to speak. I barely notice it, and sink into my rosary again.
After the decade, she is still there.
I begin to notice now, and wonder what she might be doing. She is pretty far away, but I can see that she is, in a way, still rehearsing. “Strange” – I think – “she probably reads every Sunday; perhaps it’s the first time?”. I sink into my rosary again.
Another decades ends, and she is still there, on the pulpit. This time, I observe. She is rehearsing, but she is also clearly enjoying. So much so, that she seems unable to leave the place, though she must, she must have become aware of the questionable taste of putting oneself in the pulpit and staying there for, what, seven minutes?
I can’t avoid thinking how a man – let alone a woman – would have been seen in past times if he had installed himself on the pulpit for such a long time. Even in a man, I reflect, this would have been considered something inappropriate unless the man has been invited to preach – which used to happen in the past; think of St. Philip Neri, who was an extremely popular lay pracher before taking Holy Orders. In a woman, this would have been considered, methinks, even worse, the “I want to be a priest” attitude becoming nothing less than obscenely subversive.
Some time passes still, and the lady decides that every good thing must have an end, and finally abandons the fort. But wait. She is not the sanctimonious, “look at how I smell of incense”-type of lady. She looks intelligent, and gives the idea of being very attentive at what she does. She reminds one of a mathematics teacher, or rather she reminds me of my old Greek and Latin teacher with the openly admitted Fascist sympathies, but extremely well-prepared. This here is probably no Fascist, but she surely looks like she is well-prepared. Her lack of sugary look-at-me attitude (rather, she has an “obey me”-attitude; but not in a wrong way; like my old teacher, by the way) makes the insisted pulpit behaviour the more striking; I become curious to listen to the delivery and to see whether the soppy “I try so hard to be like Mother Theresa”-feeling (in my experience, the most common trait of the female Mass reader) becomes apparent.
The delivery comes and it is, I must say, excellent. Nothing of that sentimentality so often heard from the aging representatives of the emotional sex, and which lets you thank God in a very special way that they will never, ever be able to be Catholic priests. No sanctimoniousness, and no self-extolling “If my mother could look at me now”-sense of self-importance. The lady delivers with the ruthless efficiency of a heart surgeon. The voice loud and firm, the pronunciation extremely clear, no uncertainty and no repetition whatsoever. This lady knows what she does, and does it properly. I become more and more curious to hear the next reading, (invariably) delivered by another woman and really, it’s like comparing Mussolini with Berlusconi (my apologies to the lady, if she reads me. The one I compared to Berlusconi, I mean).
What has happened, then? Was the “pulpit” lady so good because she had remained standing on the pulpit for the time a priest needs to deliver an average homily? Or was she good because she is conscientious, and has rehearsed – at home, probably, and for a long time – the proper way of reading in public?
More importantly, what does this episode tell us about human nature?
What it tells me – feel free to disagree; you weren’t there, anyway… – is that pride threatens us in the most subtle of ways; that particularly in these, after all, half-innocent manifestations of human frailty we can observe the way our human nature finds a way to sneak into our habits, to take control of our better instincts for a short time.
Who knows what was going on? Perhaps was the lady asserting her new role in front of other ladies who had tried to put obstacles on her path and was, so to speak, marking her territory? Was there some special message she was trying to send? Why on the pulpit, but without saying a word? Why for so long? Why in such a public, unmistakable, frankly embarrassing, “The Office”-kind of way*?
And if we are honest with ourselves, isn’t this what happens, dear reader, to the best of us? To you, even, let alone to me? Aren’t we all in constant danger of climbing our own pulpit, and to stay there until it becomes an embarrassment to all those around us? Yes of course we must, so to speak, deliver our reading. It is even our duty – according to our abilities – to do so. But isn’t it a wonderful thing to observe – in the others, surely; less in ourselves – how subtly the mechanism works?
There should be no lay readers at Mass. It is, I am sure, difficult enough for a priest to resist the pride. For laymen, this becomes an impossibility.
As shown even by the lady with the excellently clear delivery.
A prayer for her, by the way. This was the first lay reader I liked, and that’s no mean feat.
*Not a UK resident? Sorry, old chap….