This general memory popped back into my head as I headed into the Gesu Church Wednesday night for their Ash Wednesday Mass. I had missed the earlier Masses, and so now I was catching the last one of the day, at 10pm. Even that one had me only making it at the last minute, as I looked up at the clock after a while and found that it was time to go, go, go! And so I came through the doors and up the steps just before the opening hymn.
The place was packed. The Gesu is a very large church, and – in traditional Catholic fashion – the only remaining seats were in the front two rows of pews. Over the course of the Mass, and particularly during the penance service and administration of the ashes on the forehead, symbolizing penance, I found myself quite aware of the size and character of the crowd. It was mostly a crowd of university students, probably about 1300 of them, given what little seating remained. None of them were there because they were required to be, whether by parents or by the university itself. None of them were there because this was a particularly happy occasion. The beginning of the discipline of Lent is a moment of a spirituality that is almost diametrically opposite of what "spirituality" is usually sold as on the television: not one of personal well-being and self-satisfaction, but of a consciousness of limitation, of flaw, and of personal responsibility. It is a moment of honesty without spin: a public admission of spiritual need. And yet, for all that, it isn't a horrifically awful experience. The communal admission of sin and inadequacy also offers a sense of hope and of connection, a "we're all in this together" realization, as church spin-offs like 12-step programs have long since realized and capitalized upon.
Watching the processions move past me, both during the penance service and during the Eucharistic celebration, I was also struck by the youth and beauty of the crowd. I pass all these students every day, but there was something here about this gathering that left them half-transformed in my sight: a sort of glow of seeing them entering into the prime of their physical lives that somehow stood as both contrast to, and parallel with, the admission of their struggle with sin. This was the opposite of the picture of the Church always presented to me on the television: young, vibrant, numerous, and willing to confront their own inadequacies and hypocrisies. So here I remembered the conversation on jadedness I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, wondering how much of that had perhaps seeped back into my perspective. And of course jadedness is just that old demon Pride, dressing itself up in new clothes, but still absorbed in Self, with self-congratulation ultimately behind that knowing and world-weary pose.
I had no illusions about how many of these students here, or at any of the other half-dozen Masses earlier in the day were fully-formed Catholics: I've taught too many of them for that. But they were here. They participated. They prayed. They let themselves move into a spirituality that offered a way to wholeness only through a piercing self-awareness in an encounter with the Living God, instead of an easy way out through simple self- or mutual-affirmation. There was a cost to participating at all this day, and at some level, everyone here was willing to pay it, or to at least entertain the idea. I saw it on campus through the day, in those marked with ashes. I saw it through the city of Milwaukee: people on the bus, at the Metro Market when I was buying groceries, on the hipness of Brady Street: people marked. And in that open-ended willingness to explore reality – from the hidden flaws within the Self, to the offer of grace from a God intimately woven into all human and cosmic affairs – in that I saw something beyond my own cultural or personal pessimisms. And it was good.