Did I dare stand in a congregation of one?

by Brian Harper

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Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, the Midwest Jesuits offer a Mass for staff at their office. My attendance varies depending on how much sleep I got the night before, the duration of my commute, and the fluctuating state of my willpower. Whenever I make it, though, I am glad I did; the brisk, 20-minute service is a brief but beautiful way to begin the day, not to mention a fitting reminder of why I work where I do.

Several weeks ago, I arrived at Thursday morning Mass to find one of the Jesuit priests who works in our office alone in the chapel. More regular worshipers were occupied with other tasks and could not attend. I told the Jesuit I understood if he would rather not preside with an empty crowd, but he assured me he would say Mass whether anyone came or not.

It seemed God was putting me to the test: did I, in fact, know all the Mass responses? Could my oft-wandering mind focus when the room's only other set of eyes would naturally fall on me? Did I dare stand in a congregation of one?

I accepted God's challenge, along with the missal the priest offered; the Midwest Jesuits' Masses are participatory, and as the only participant besides the priest and the Holy Spirit, it fell to me to serve as lector. Despite the chapel being almost vacant, I was nervous and prayed my baritone might be conducive to our collective adoration. While I stumbled a bit on the psalm, I not-so-humbly judged my take on the first reading to be as golden as the calf it condemned.

The priest's homily was both gentle and thought-provoking. He reflected on the word "remember" in the context of Moses' efforts to remind God of His covenant with the Israelites. The stakes were high; Moses' success would prevent God from destroying his people. Moses also had the unenviable task of reminding his stubborn brethren of all God had already done on their behalf, as well as calling them to repentance.

Though we typically think of the word "remember" in terms of reminiscing over past events or information, the priest pointed out that the term could also evoke bringing the disparate people or factions of a community together again, as in "re-membering" God and the Israelites. This perspective also applies to "re-calling" and "re-minding": We "re-call" everyone back to a common place; we "re-mind" our thoughts and interior lives back to an outlook rooted in faith.

It is natural that members of a community should occasionally wander from each other. The Book of Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger, and the Byrds all tell us there is a time for every season. This includes a time for crowds, and a time to be alone; a time for packed pubs, and a time for listening to Nick Drake in a studio apartment; a time for turning water into wine at a wedding, and a time for praying in the garden while your friends sleep.

In short, every life involves moments of isolation. Sometimes, we are shut out because of our sins. Sometimes, we are detached because of others. Often, we find ourselves cast away without any clear reason as to why.

I did not walk into that Mass feeling particularly isolated from my community. To be honest, I enjoyed the intimacy of the unusually small service. On the other hand, experiencing a Mass without a full community ironically helped me to better appreciate the importance of that community in a way a full church had never done.

It is good to disconnect from time to time, to step away from our networks and sit in quiet prayer or meditation by ourselves. That said, solitary spiritual contemplation about our connection to a higher power does not mean much if it does not also call to mind our connection to others. When we do find ourselves alone -- whether against our will, by choice, or because no one else showed up at Mass -- my prayer is that the experience provides growth and insight that will allow us to re-member and re-join our communities with deeper joy and love.

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. His writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the National Catholic Reporter, and various other publications. You can find his work at brianharper.net.]

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