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Another great thing about being an altar boy was getting to the church early, before everyone except the ostentatiously devotional railbirds who actually competed to see who could be there first kneeling at the rail fingering their rosaries and pretending to be lost in meditative reverence but actually counting coup on their competitors; but I, being on staff, as it were, a member of the troupe, an actor in the play, was the only soul allowed past the rail, on the altar, puttering in the wings; and I relished the status, yes I did, I savored it, I spent a minute too long out there, straightening the altar cloth, checking the cruets for the twelfth time, making triply sure the tiny tabernacle key was by the tabernacle where Father could see it easily without his spectacles, which he did not like to wear during Mass, for reasons of his own, though he could hardly see without them, and more than once I had to gently take him by the elbow to lead him to his chair after Communion.

For all the pleasures of the Mass itself, that deft and momentous passion play, and the workmanlike camaraderie in the sacristy before and after Mass, and the subtle pleasures of the uniform and tools and implements and incantations and bells and chants and song and smoke, it was the silent time before the Mass that I relished most. There was an air of anticipation, a hint of trepidation, a shiver of pleasurable nerves; the stage not yet fully lit, the audience not yet fixed in intent ranks and rows, the bread and wine not yet consecrated, the inexplicable miracle not yet burst suddenly upon us all, causing every head to bow and many a knee to touch the ancient linoleum; and I savored this delicious puttering about, the few moments I was free to wander and wonder on that august carpeted stage, noticing new flowers in the old copper vases, shreds of cobweb behind the pillar banners, a tiny chip in Saint Joseph’s hand that I had never noticed before; had he been carpentering at night when no one watched, could he not resist the chance to hammer and saw and plane and polish, surrounded as he was by so much old oak and pine?

Of course there was a mental checklist I ran through, from cruets to clean carpet, patens to chalice, a sufficient number of hosts based on the day and time of Mass, and what sort of Mass, and even, without ever telling Father, by which priest was the celebrant; and then finally the candles are lit, one by one, with a formal sense of ceremony, for by now all eight or thirty or hundred congregants are murmuring and rustling in the pews, the railbirds forced back among their fellows by the looming proximity of the Mass; I would pause sometimes, just before popping back into the sacristy, to watch the railbirds reluctantly peel away one by one, each with eyes demurely downcast in reverence, each with a small smile of triumph, that so many eyes were upon them, noticing their ornate veils, their filmy mantillas, the flash and gleam of the herculean glass rosaries braided so artfully artlessly among their fingers.

In the sacristy Father was waiting impatiently, and very often the instant I was through the sacristy door in one direction I was back through it the other way, cross held high, with Father striding imperiously behind me; and all rose, and Mass began. In the Name of the Father, and of The Son, and of The Holy Spirit, boomed Father, in his startling orotund baritone, his voice so piercing that even the ushers lurking in the back could hear him crisp and clear, sure it’s a wonder why the windows don’t rattle when that man is on his game, as one once said. And then away we went into the play, Father and me, teammates really, though the audience saw a wizard and a wizard’s boy; and then after Mass one last patrol across the altar to be sure all was well and in its place; and then away home, after a surreptitious check of Joseph’s hands again, on the off-chance that there were more miracles to be savored than anyone knew; which there are, as I have discovered endlessly since I was the wizard’s boy, entranced and cautious, enthralled and amused, delighted and confused, open to the impossible possible, to this day, to this very day.

Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.

More on: Catholicism

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