By the time we pull into the parking lot on Sunday morning, the sun is well on its way to turning a cool morning into another hot August afternoon. We take the last half-shady spot beneath a giant oak and start toward the red brick church, its spire pointing an entire Southern Illinois town toward Heaven. In the half-dozen years since we last stepped inside the scrolled-red doors of my husband’s boyhood church, the building seems to have morphed inward. We step into a glassed-off vestibule, and I’m startled into exclaiming, “But it’s so small! I don’t remember it being this small!”
I don’t remember it being this noisy, either. We’re used to a community of 700 who filter in, whispering, buzzing, getting children settled, but we’re not prepared for the noise that two hundred people can make.
A woman in white wheezes in to the church, and I’m tempted to rush forward and grab her by the elbow, she seems so close to collapse. It sounds almost, but not quite, like the noise my daughter makes, the one that sends us scurrying to the ER. But she perches on a stool just inside the doorway and greets the next five newcomers in a voice that could summon the dead, stopping every few words for a breath that sounds downright painful. “Where is your inhaler?” demands a round woman, putting her hands on her hips.
“In my purse,” she responds.
“Well, get it out!” They laugh; the breathing is settling down now.
We head into church to sit with our friends near the back (everything else is already full). Beneath the sun-streamed windows across the aisle, a man with a khaki sport coat and pointed gray beard leans over the pew behind him, dropping a line of wallet photos with pride for the benefit of someone in the next pew.
On the near side of the church, three men sit domino-style in the center of three pews. From front to back, their bald spots are a perfect match except that one tried to hide it with a comb-over, which now bisects it.
The four of us exchange bemusement; none of us have ever heard this much noise before Mass. I think of individuals in my home parish who would have a thing or two to say on the subject of disturbed prayer, and I can’t help laughing, for this is small town community at its finest.
The deacon comes forward and begins with prayer intentions by way of an introduction. They go on for fully three minutes: the sick, the dead, the government, the military, and so on, lists of names I don’t recognize. My eyes wander to a window depicting the fourth joyful mystery, the presentation in the temple. The vivid colors gleam in the sunlight, but I can only see the bottom half of Mary and a hint of the blankets in her arms, because the choir loft lops off the center of the window.
At last, the deacon concludes: “Please stand and greet one another.”
As if they needed any encouragement. Now the crowd noise vaults to stadium levels. Faintly, because I’m a musician and they’ve proven that musicians can pick individual sounds out of chaos when others can’t, I hear the muffled plink of the electric keyboard introducing “Gather Us In.” We try to sing, but considering the continuing din of conversation, it feels very strange. The passage of the priest, deacon, lector and servers mutes the din by about a third. For the first verse, we are a choir of four in the penultimate row, but by the time verse two begins, about 75 percent of the conversations have stopped, and people have begun to sing. Mass has replaced chat time at last.
And although many would fuss about the disruption of individual prayer, though some might suggest that this is an example of community usurping worship, I find my heart swelling with gratitude. Gratitude for a place where the community of believers is so strong that they can’t seem to stop reinforcing it. Gratitude for the reminder that underneath my acquired big-parish snobbery, I’m still a small-town girl at heart.