SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 6:25 AM: In the palest light, I follow footprints left in the season’s first frost, just a few minutes behind the regulars. The church’s glaring overhead lights are softened by the flame-glow of a few dozen candles—real wax, seven-day candles that burn a constant supplication—and by the shimmer of one gloriously large and eye-catching Icon of the Crucifixion scene. I wait to stand my candle as a slope-shouldered older man first places his own and then remains a few moments in wonder before all that beauty. He bows low; his eyes close and his hands press together in prayer, but imperfectly so. Form follows function, and these hands, roughly callused, with knuckles gnarled by age and decades of hard work, reveal the laborer who grounds the esthete.
6:36 AM: To the right of the altar, on a worn kneeler, another gray-haired man. He too has lit a candle—electric, this time—before an image of Saint Joseph, patron of husbands and fathers and workers; of immigrants and the whole church and a happy death. There is suppleness to the arc of the man’s body that suggests both comfortable familiarity and ardent longing. He cannot know that in this mid-twentieth century, minimalist building, he is the closest thing to a gothic arch thrusting heavenward, or that his unconscious affect works to similar effect, on some.
6:40 AM: Across from him, on the left, a stiff-kneed gardener brings his weekly gift to Mary—clippings from his own yard. Throughout the year he matches his seasonal snippings with the liturgical calendar and creates a cohesive narrative of shape and color. In the depths of winter, he brings promise with witch hazel and hellebore, and spring delivers the deep purple crocuses and irises so eloquent of repentance and sorrow; they are followed by graceful branches of deep yellow forsythias and then comes a riotous profusion of roses, day lilies, and coneflowers throughout the summer, before he quiets things down with the simple Montauk Daisies of September. Now, he is bringing the last of his storm-battered, rust-colored mums, intermingled with the few remaining pretty leaves and some acorns kept back from the squirrels. Soon he will bring the spear-sharp-tipped holly, marking Advent with a prophecy of Lent; the gifts continue.
6:42 AM: Behind me comes the rhythmic rattle of a rosary against wood, and I know that into the pew has slipped a cheerful small man who rarely does more than smile and nod because he does not like to admit his hearing loss, which reveals itself in his booming responses to the Mass.
The early Mass of a Sunday in this parish is the Mass of the Very Old Men, and the church is full of former altar boys who have kept the faith throughout the aging; their whispered prayers have risen from foxholes and scaffolds; from assembly lines and car pits and miles and miles of commuter rails. Their sweetness of their devotion belies their depths. If you look closely, you can still glimpse in their weathered faces the bright light of interest that came with learning to cast the thurible, the gravity of responsibility born of murmuring Latin responses over altar cards. There are a few ladies present of similar age, but this is a Mass for men who rise early and who like the opportunity for quiet prayer, the absence of music and the fluttery busyness of others. They prefer their own pacing and predictability; after Mass they will stop at the candy store to buy thick Sunday newspapers, and then at the bakery for soft, yeasty rolls and the hard, mildly sweet Italian cookies that dunk so well in coffee. And then, perhaps a walk, and a nap before the game, and an early supper.
6:53 AM: The middle-aged women arrive; a lector, two Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and several devoted daughters taking Dad to Mass, and a coffee and a bagel later.
6:57 AM: Comes tumbling in a young father with four children in tow, followed by his wife, carrying a cheerful, wide-awake three-month-old. They sit toward the back, where restless kids can easily be walked, but the two oldest boys, perhaps eight and six, head toward the front of the church. They pointedly bow before the tabernacle and then plunge quarters into a box; they light small candles before Saint Joseph and whip through their energetic prayers.
As they turn to head back, they encounter the sash-wearing deacon, another gray head working ceaselessly for the church in his retirement, and the priest, who is from India, of indeterminate age and regal bearing. Smiles are exchanged and the men wait while the boys walk quickly back to their father, the younger one propelling himself forward with a swinging arm that suggests a future in incense-spewing. A note of hope for the future, small but sassy.
Processing in from the side door for this surprisingly well-attended Mass full of men, the deacon and priest bow to the altar and climb the steps.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.