Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Conversion Story part 2: the lure of the daily Mass

In 2009 I landed a position as the French teacher for an all-girls' independent Catholic school. Previously I had been teaching in a small public school in a rougher part of the greater Boston area, and was fighting an ever growing problem with depression.  The numerous dead-end interviews with other schools over the course of two years only added to my depreciating self-worth.  Landing this job was more than a career move; it gave me back my confidence as a teacher and dignity as a professional.

The details of my hiring were marked with odd coincidences.  In short, it was as if God was shining the spotlight on this "funny little school", as the dear chaplain fondly described it. I could not deny that God's hand had opened the doors wide open for me to enter.  Upon my first visit, I found the school quite charming, and the teachers and staff members full of class and grace, so unlike the sarcastic and oppressing negativity that pervaded the faculty morale at my old school.  I was asked to prepare and teach a lesson to a French 4 class, and the girls were simply a delight to teach.  They were engaged, eager, and demonstrated an intellectual curiosity that fuels a rigorous education.  Whereas I had been to other interviews with the feeling of something-just-didn't-go-quite-right, I left this little school doing a fist pump and chattering excitedly to my husband when I got home.

Nevertheless, I had some misgivings of this school, primarily because it had a strong Catholic ethos.  I was unsure and uncomfortable at how this would affect my role as an employee.  My denomination of faith had never come up in the hiring process, but my insecurities made me question if there would be an underlying prejudice among my colleagues if and when they found out I was not Catholic.

The first week of faculty orientation was both practical and inspirational.  Not only did we discuss helpful teaching strategies for the upcoming school year, but we also analyzed a Rembrandt painting and discussed Plato's Cave Allegory all in relation to teaching the student as a whole person. It was refreshing to be a part of these discussions, and I thanked God all the more for enabling me to be a part of the community.

There was, however, one small detail listed on the orientation schedule that made me feel downright uncomfortable: an optional daily Mass for those who wished to attend.  Do I refuse to go and reveal to my colleagues my non-Catholic convictions?  Do I go despite the major theological disagreements I have with Catholicism?   In the end I decided to go....I was not ready to reveal my identity as a Protestant, so I quietly ducked in the back of the chapel and tried to follow what the other attendees were doing.  I was so nervous.  Certainly my hesitancy to stand or kneel at the proper times would make it a dead giveaway that I did not know what I was doing.....

But no one seemed to notice, of course.  The half dozen people who had decided to attend focused only on the altar at the front of the chapel.  There was no music (which threw me off at first), and everyone knew the order of the Mass without the aid of a missalette (I clumsily leafed through one trying to find the prayers being recited).  At the end of Mass the lector read a prayer to St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.  I remember from my childhood days at Mass that people were itching to get out.  But not here.  People lingered.  It actually felt awkward that no one got up to leave right away.  And then I realized: everyone in the chapel was praying.  This was a completely new, and yet riveting discovery for me, especially coming from 6 years of teaching in the public schools, where even the mention of God and faith would cause raised eyebrows.

The peacefulness of sitting in that chapel after Mass quieted my anxiousness.  I may not have known when to sit or stand or kneel, but I knew how to pray.  The women in this chapel may have had very different opinions of theology than I, but I was struck at how seriously everyone took this prayer time.  It was exciting and energizing to know that I was part of such a faithful faculty.

Once the school year got underway, attending daily Mass became much less intimidating.  I realized that I had more in common with my Catholic colleagues than not.  Because I was so grateful to be working in a place that actually set aside 35 minutes of every workday to worship and pray to God, I attended out of my own volition.  Even if I did not agree with everything that happened, I could
sing to God,
pray to God,
listen to His Word being read,
and linger in His presence.

I knew I was not obligated to attend Mass, and there were certainly some days that I did not, but hearing the a cappella voices of all the girls and teachers one floor above my desk was a reminder that a sacred meeting was happening.  Correcting papers at my desk and "getting work done" seemed grossly irreverent.  And yet, I wanted to maintain my proud stance that I was NOT a Catholic.  One morning I told myself I would take the time out of my day to pray at my desk, instead of participating in Mass.  I read from the Bible, I prayed quietly....and I actually found it very isolating.  Instead of reaffirming my Protestant views, I felt my confidence in my theology waning.  It highlighted my lack of confidence in my own faith, and underlined an anger for Catholicism instead of a love for God.  The protest in my own heart was distracting me from the ultimate purpose of the Mass: getting closer to God.

And so I began attending as often as I could.  It started to become a peaceful break and respite to the bustling and busy teaching days.  There was something attractive in the daily Mass that I could not resist.  Even though I was not taking Communion, the power of prayer and His Physical Presence broke down the stony walls in my heart and completely disarmed the anger and defensiveness I had been harboring.

God was preparing the soil for the seed to be planted.

Stay tuned for part 3....

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