Sunday, June 26, 2011

I am become ScienceGirl, Destroyer of Liturgies, Part the Second

The hot summer weather we are experiencing makes me flash back to my good old days as an altar girl in my small town church that had poor air conditioning.

Me being an altar girl -- or "acolyte" as I was called -- may have wrecked the liturgy, but it's a tough call.

The liturgy was broken on arrival, pre-wrecked by King Henry VIII, the late, of England.

Yes, I was a Catholic altar girl at the local Episcopal church. When I went to confirmation classes in college, I learned that this was all kinds of messed up, but back in my teenage years, I thought it was pretty great.

I was enlisted as acolyte by the lady in charge of all things liturgical at this tiny parish. I was one of the 9 kids over the age of 12, and since she wanted 3 altar servers at each Mass? Service? JESUS-TYPE THINGIE?, we were all signed up to help. I was a very bad Catholic at this time, and an even worse Episcopalian -- we only went because we thought it was basically the same as the Catholic church, only with a less boring priest. Each member of the tiny parish also took turns reading, or in most cases painfully mumbling, the readings. Looking back, I am surprised we were all trained by her instead of by the priest, but she did a pretty good job. I have no idea how to judge whether I was a good altar girl or not. I seem to recall playing with the rope belt a lot. That can't have been too helpful in creating an atmosphere of reverent prayer. I also could NOT MANAGE to snuff the candles after it was all over. I would put the snuffer on, then remove it. The flame would shoot up. On went the snuffer. Up flared the resilient flame. Snuffer. Flame. Snuffer. Flame. After the first JTT, I got fed up and just blew out the pesky flame, while pretending to snuff it by cleverly holding the snuffer near the candle. How I longed to be as brave as the altar boy who licked his fingers and reached right into the flame to snuff the wick. He did this way before Aragorn's candle-pinching scene in "Fellowship of the Ring," and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Each week, I would think "This is the week to put out a flame with my fingers," but each week, I chickened out.

The detailed rubrics combined with my equal and opposite penchants for daydreaming and mortification in the face of error made the JTT's at which I served rather nerve-wracking. But stressful though it was, I loved being an altar server, and was always a bit sad when it wasn't my turn on the schedule.

I liked it when it was my turn to ring the bell, though since I had only been trained once and had no written script, I was always worried I would ring it at the wrong times. If I was a candle-bearer, I would need to haul the candles around the church at different times, and what if I was 15 seconds behind noticing when the priest needed me and my sister had to nudge me? HUMILIATION!!! These were the beginnings of what I deem liturgi-phobia: irrational fear of Wrecking the Liturgy. 5 years later, I experience liturgi-phobia in my (Catholic) Confirmation Mass, when I Wrecked the Liturgy by starting to turn the wrong way after being anointed. My awe of the Holy Spirit had me in a bit of a daze, and it's a good thing for me that my Confirmation Sponsor was there to turn me around and set me back on course for my pew.

Anyway, I think I should tell you why I loved being an altar server so very much.

Tragically, it was not due to a deep love of the Eucharist (at the time I didn't know that Episcopalians don't necessarily have the Transubstantiation or believe in it). I did have a deep love of the Eucharist, and I hope God doesn't think it too idolatrous that I received the Episcopalian sacrament fully thinking it was the same Eucharist I'd learned about from the nice nuns in my First Communion prep.

Happily, it was not because I had any jealousy toward boys or desire to wreck their fun. I hadn't even known altar girls weren't de rigeur in even the Catholic church, and since I'd been enlisted by the sacristan, I thought it was just another job everyone needed to do and had always done from time immemorial.

No, my reason for loving serving at the altar was something much more simple and more worldly:

I was not sitting in a pew with my family.

Therefore, I was not sitting with my younger brother.

Therefore, I did not have to hold his hand at the Our Father or shake it at the Sign of Peace.

Therefore, I did not have to see him wipe his hand disgustedly afterward and glare at me for having sweaty palms.

Even when my brother and I were serving together, we didn't have to hold hands.

It made going to church so much nicer and less humiliating.

As a teenager, I generally felt humilitated most of the time when I was around other people, so I was happy with anything that decreased it. As an altar girl, I was actually sweatier because I had to wear the robe thingie over my clothes, but nobody could tell.

Look, it was really hot in that church, and I had all these adolescent hormones going.

Combined with the irregular periods typical for teenage girls, my numerous "hot flashes" caused by the 100+ degree weather made me fret that I probably had the medical condition called "Early Onset Menopause."

Early Onset Menopause was a condition that existed only in my brain.

You may wonder why I did not consult a doctor or my mom about my self-diagnosis.

I did not consult a doctor because I never really went to one unless I was horribly ill, what with our lack of health insurance and all.

I did not ask my mom because well, what would she know about the functioning of the uterus???

Also, I couldn't decide whether or not I dreaded or desired to confirm my EOM. On the one hand, BOO! No babies. On the other, HOORAY! No more period, ever.

My period always showed up eventually, so the thought of EOM gradually disappeared.

I stopped going to the Episcopal church, too.

My liturgical wreckage and attendance at that church may appall some nice Catholics out there, but it actually gave me a great benefit: I started praying again. The measly "Our Father" I would say after Communion in that church was for a time my only prayer for the whole week. Eventually, I got to thinking maybe I should pray more frequently. So I started saying the "Our Father" every night, and kept adding "Hail Mary's" until I ended up saying the Rosary. Actually, I started saying the Rosary as a way to fight insomnia, and my usual prayer was that I would fall asleep halfway through. I would feel so irritated if I got to the "Salve Regina" and was still wide awake! "Hey God, why are you not answering my prayer that I will not be able to finish my prayers to you???" As soon as I thought this, I realized I was being kind of dumb.

God worked a lot on me during those years.

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