At a funeral Mass today I happened to be sitting next to an older lady who, when the time came for us to say “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” said, instead, the older version, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” just as I said the exact same version, and we glanced at each other and smiled, and after Mass we got to talking.
“Oh, I know the new words,” she said, “and I love them, and I understand the change—it’s from the Gospel of Matthew, you know—‘And Jesus saith to him: I will come and heal him. And the centurion, making answer, said: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.’ So it’s a good change, really—it reminds us of the Founder, whom we sometimes forget, soaked as we are in liturgy and tradition and ritual. It’s good to get back to the beginning. But I forget sometimes, I think because all my life I have been so riveted and moved by only say the word and I shall be healed. Isn’t that the most humble unadorned thing you can say about faith? Don’t you always say that with a shiver in your heart? The hair prickles on my head sometimes when I say that. I close my eyes and say it with my whole soul, or at least I try to. You can get too used to the Mass, you know, and that’s a mistake, in a way. I mean, I love the repetitive vibe of it, the comfortable call and response, the lines I know by heart, the way we all say them together, but I never want to get lulled by the Mass. I never want to take it for granted. I want to always remember that the deep thing of the Mass doesn’t make any sense by the measurement of the world. The body and blood of Christ! Only say the word and I shall be healed! Crazy stuff. Who believes in miracles, right here, right now? Because that’s what you say you believe when you go to Mass. Not everyone does believe the wild parts, I suppose. Many people come to Mass because it’s peaceful, it’s spiritual food, it’s water when you are thirsty. And that’s true for me, too, sure it is. I love going to Mass. It reminds me of so many things I love and have loved. But I don’t want to let it lose its wildness. I love going to Mass in places where I have never been to Mass. When I travel I love going to Mass. A Mass in a strange place is refreshing. There’s a lovely familiarity to it, yes, even in another language—you can hear the song you love, you can whisper the words in your own language and almost fit with everyone else in their language. But it’s still a little odd, and that’s a good thing. We should be reminded occasionally that the Mass is wild. I mean, I know it has an ancient history, I know scholars can explain it in meticulous detail, and quote Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, which was written even before the Gospels, but that’s all knowledge, and beneath knowledge there is the wild of the Mass. Isn’t that the whole point of faith, that it’s wild, that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s unreasonable and illogical? So when I say only say the word and I shall be healed, or only say the word and my soul shall be healed, I try to say it with humility. I do believe that I can be healed by the Word. I do believe that. ‘If it’s a symbol, the hell with it,’ said Flannery O’Connor about the Eucharist, and who would argue with Flannery O’Connor? Not me. I should be going. It was a pleasure to chat.”
And with that we stood, and shook hands, and parted company, but I think I will remember what she said for a long time.
Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.