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An Exquisite Charity

Posted by Theology of Home on
An Exquisite Charity

By Denise Trull 

In the heart of my busy city dwells an ancient, German-built Church which rises like a great ship sailing unperturbed through endless road construction, traffic, noise, and abandoned buildings. It is as anomalous in its surroundings as perhaps Noah’s great ark was in the desert. The gray stone, soaring arches and curved steps mysteriously beckon the curious explorer with an enticing promise of treasure within. What is this place?

You are told by the neighbors that it has fallen into disrepair over the years in tow with its depressed surroundings, a shadow of its former glory as the busy hub of active German immigrants in the mid 19th century. You also discover from that well-informed neighbor, that it has since been lovingly restored to its former glory by an order of priests: The Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. Their mission and vocation has a specific intent: to restore and protect old, historic churches and to fill them once again with fitting and beautiful liturgies of the Tridentine Roman Rite. “Curiouser and curiouser,” you might find yourself saying with Alice at this seemingly archaic wonderland. It is how I felt one morning when I had finally decided to climb the stairs, open the door, and enter at last. 

The immediate response to such a vocation in the practical American mind is more often than not: what about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, teaching children? Are not these vocations more worthy than renovating old Church buildings and worrying about rites and rubrics, Romish chants, old fashioned brocade vestments, candles, and seemingly out dated, irrelevant medieval trappings?

I had no real argument against these apparently legitimate objections until I pushed open that heavy oaken door one early morning and stepped inside. I was met with a dim silence and a soaring ceiling that irresistibly drew my eyes up to jeweled windows. I wandered to the front pew, a stranger in a strange but inviting land. No one else seemed to mind that I had entered with no credentials to my name in gaining admittance. They each gave consent to my presence with the compliment of ignoring me. They prayed quietly on.

I was free to look about. Mind you, it was an ordinary Tuesday in May in the world outside that door, but as I took in the altar, the gorgeous carpet on the floor, the glowing brass, the flickering candles and the snowy lace cloths gracing the altar carved with angels, it felt like anything but the “ordinary” was happening here. Rosy pink flowers cascaded behind the altar, gently breathing their perfume upon the lovingly burnished tabernacle. It was like I had opened a beautiful story book on an enchanted kingdom. The sanctuary, lit by the morning sun, seemed to reach out and embrace me with a golden beauty that whispered something wonderful was about to happen. Keep watch. 

I suddenly had my doubts. Had I mistakenly wandered into a special Mass for a visiting dignitary or maybe a visiting bishop or cardinal? No, there were no dignitaries here. Just a little Mexican lady praying humbly in her lace mantilla and espadrille sandals. Just a businessman in shiny shoes making his way to the confessional door. Just a tired, tired mom with a gaggle of children, who had courageously chosen this “better part” to begin her busy day. A college student with a backpack in tow. An elderly lady kissing the worn down beads of her rosary with tenderness. A Chinese mother with her daughter sitting so gently and quietly close to each other in front of me. All this ornate beauty seemed surprisingly destined only for us, the salt of the ordinary earth scattered in the pews. It was humbling and yet made me kneel taller. I wanted to be worthy of such a gift somehow.

Then the Mass began. The priest and the servers entered with a swaying of vestments embroidered with soft roses and other flowers: the sign that this was a Lady feast. Nowhere in our Nike obsessed world would you find those ancient vestments. But they held sway here. Everyone knew their part in this unfolding pageantry -- the bows, the genuflections, the weaving from one side to the other with lecterns and cruets. Tiny little altar servers with solemn faces knew their part. I marveled. All moved slowly, majestically, as one. I was mesmerized. There was no careless motion, no hurried response, no sense of time pressing in. We were out of time. I felt it.

At the consecration, the graceful sweep of the priest’s hands raising Jesus on high seemed to hover mid air to wait patiently for my response before they consented to descend. My heart began to beat a bit slower. I felt peace flow out to me from the sanctuary. God had come. I was no longer on earth. I wandered awkwardly after the others and knelt like a child at the communion rail. I stared at the floor beyond bathed in morning light from the stained glass above and I suddenly just cried within my head, “This is the truth. The overwhelming truth. This is where I take refuge and this is where the strength for life lies. Holy ground. God is in this place. GOD is in this place.” I had an irresistible urge to cry “Sanctuary!” Like a medieval fugitive running from the judgement of the world -- from its pomps, and false promises and it’s slavery to sin. The priest made his slow and deliberate way down the communion rail stringing our souls together with the golden cord of God’s merciful love -- the Body of Christ -- whose members we were. I left that morning in a kind of daze. Outside the traffic was still loud, the workmen were yelling obscenities to one another, the buildings were still abandoned, the windows still broken. But I had been to Heaven. How odd this feeling of time travel.

The next day I returned. I thought surely it wouldn’t be the same. It was a fluke, all this pageantry and beauty -- a one day thing where all the stops had been pulled. But there it was again. The same beauty. The same quiet. The same careful unfolding of rubric and voice. All on an ordinary morning.

I have since gone to daily Mass there many months in a row, now. It has never changed. It ebbs and flows in its colors and its feasts. Sometimes the gorgeous carpet is gone and sometimes it returns. Sometimes the altar is on fire with hundreds of candles, sometimes there are only two. Sometimes there is a Christmas creche. Sometimes there is a bare altar. Water and salt are blessed. Sometimes the choir sings us to heaven on special first class feasts. We kiss crosses and relics on special days. But always, always it is beautiful and slow and majestic and the same Mass underneath. I soon discovered that I had fallen in love with the Tridentine Liturgy.

Surely we celebrate liturgy to honor God -- to show Him that we love and adore Him with all the best that is in us: art, music, movement. But our God is a God who will not be outdone in generosity. He wants us to know that the Mass is not only our gift to Him, but His gift to us. He breathes this love back to us through priests, choir directors, servers, artists, candlemakers, those who practice the fine art of embroidery. For isn’t beautiful liturgy a gift of love? Isn’t it the most exquisite charity a priest can bestow upon his flock? To give us the best of himself and his priestly heart. To bestow upon us all this beauty that we may praise aright and be consoled and comforted in this vale of tears? A worthy, beautiful liturgy, then is an act of the most exquisite charity each and every day. It delights us. It makes us focus on Heaven. It embraces us. It helps us to understand our worth as citizens of Heaven. That we are worthy of all this “bother” because we are princes and princesses and heirs to Heaven. And from the generosity of the priest a flame goes out and catches hold of those who sing, who play the organ, who paint, who sew a fine seam. His exquisite charity asks for theirs as well. And they give it. And all as one bestow the gift on us who come each day to kneel in the pews and to be fed.

This then seems a true vocation. Yes, of course the poor must be fed. But man does not live on bread alone. The world is starving for the presence of God. Through this beautiful liturgy, the Institute priests feed our hungry souls with the eternal beauty that is so lacking in a disposable world that is passing away. We learn what permanence is by their daily fidelity to tradition and to the rubrics of the liturgy. The Mass teaches us the doctrines of our faith if we study it and listen attentively to what is happening on the altar. This liturgy shelters the homeless, those who wander seeking truth in a restless world. It takes us in and embraces our souls with the certainty that here in this world we have no lasting city, but each morning it reveals to us the city in which we do belong. It takes us there with the promise that it will take us there again tomorrow. This vocation is a thing of exquisite charity. It indeed feeds the hungry, educates us, and gives Divine shelter in the storms of the world. I have felt its warmth and its care, and it has made me shed tears of gratitude sometimes that I am loved that much by God and by these priests through whom He works. 

The greatest confirmation of this vocation came to me one afternoon while I was listening to the music of William Byrd, a renaissance composer of sacred music who lived during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. He was a favorite of the queen and became one of her official court composers along with Thomas Tallis. Byrd composed countless madrigals and courtly dances. In 1559 the Act of Uniformity was established forbidding the celebration of the Catholic liturgy in England. William was in a quandary. He was, in fact, a very devout Catholic. His most beautiful music centered around the parts of the Mass -- music he had to write in secret or else run the risk of being beheaded, burnt alive, hanged, or drawn and quartered like many a devout Catholic of his time. William Byrd had many friends in the countryside far from London where he would visit. These were families who remained staunchly loyal to Rome.

In the countryside of Essex, there lived one Sir John Petre, who held secret Masses at his estate, Ingatestone Hall. He was famous for sheltering persecuted Catholics and priests on the run. Ingatestone had two secret rooms where priests could be hidden with all their liturgical “trappings” if and when the authorities came around. There was also a hidden chapel where his family and friends would gather for Mass. The famous Jesuit priest and martyr Robert Southwell found his way there with his fellow missionary Henry Garnet. He was charmed by the hospitality of Petre:

A congenial household and company … the gentleman was also a skilled musician and had an organ and other musical instruments and choristers, male and female, members of his household. During these days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted Octave of some great feast. Mr Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist, was among the company …”

- Robert Southwell

It is to John Petre we owe the many Masses and the book of Graduals written by his friend William Byrd. He became a loyal and staunch patron to the musician. It was such a shock for me to discover that Byrd’s Masses were never sung in his lifetime in any of the established Churches of that time. He would have been arrested and hung for treason for setting his Latin Mass popery to music. But he could not stop composing it in secret, even knowing as he did that it would never echo off the walls of English churches and find majestic resonance there.

Byrd had slowly discovered people, regular laymen like Petre, who were just as saddened as he and so hungry for beauty and consolation in their fears and troubles. Byrd began to write Masses for them -- for these laymen who could not live without the beauty of their Catholic Liturgy. They would run so many dangerous risks to have it offered secretly, in dark, hidden chapels dug out behind stone walls in their homes or underground beneath a kitchen.

Byrd would quietly visit their country estates and present his pieces to them -- pieces written with their particular voices in mind. Music they would be able to sing in all their willing, but amateurish, zeal. All Byrd’s genius was poured out for them -- perhaps a group of ten in a dirt-walled room covered with as much finery as they could muster. Byrd was the bringer of the greatest beauty -- the beauty they could not live without.

He dubbed the compositions his Masses for a Hidden Chapel. Their melodies were haunting, sweet and noble. Byrd’s inspiration was his desire to comfort their broken Catholic hearts with his 'melodies of peace.’ The grateful Sir John Petre and his friends commissioned piece after piece and found strength to persevere by singing William’s music. Byrd was to dedicate his book of graduals to Petre, writing that its contents had “mostly proceeded from your house, which is most friendly to me and mine” going on to say that “these little flowers are plucked as it were from your gardens and are most rightfully due to you as tithes.”

One would think that music was not necessary in times as dangerous as these. That the Mass should have been said simply, quickly and without the usual vestments and vessels. But these courageous men and women wanted and needed all of the ‘trappings’ to keep their courage and faith alive. Liturgy, with its sacred music and candles and vestments fed the hearts of these brave men and women with a beauty beyond all comprehension. A beauty they would risk their lives for in its celebration even as they hid in basements and behind kitchen walls. There is something so poignant and beautiful in imagining Byrd’s Mass for four voices being first sung by fathers, mothers and children gathered in their underground chapels to find strength in the exquisite charity that the brave priests and Byrd’s art showered upon them.

William Byrd’s story has only strengthened my conviction that beautiful liturgy matters. That to give the Church and her people the gift of restored and soaring spaces filled with music and incense and golden candlelight, processions and pageantry is a noble vocation indeed -- a vital necessity for souls hungry for Heaven. It is an exquisite charity poured upon the people of God. It is part of their heritage as sons and daughters of a King. And every so often, when the music of Byrd’s Mass for a Hidden Chapel still floats down to us from this choir loft, we may thank God for those whose vocation it is to keep our traditions alive and who love us enough to pass them on. This is an exquisite charity.  

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri. 

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