Memory melds mind, body and soul into humble acts of praise and supplication

As a young altar server at St. Polycarp Church in Orange County, I had many opportunities to serve for the sacrifice of the Mass. This was not the deciding factor in why I aspired to be a priest at a young age. I am fairly certain that it was the other way around. I wanted to be an altar server because it was the most logical steppingstone to fulfilling my hope to someday be a parish priest.

My availability to serve on a number of occasions — Sunday Mass, daily Mass, funerals, weddings, Lenten and Holy Week rituals — was enabled by the frequency with which my parents brought my siblings and me to church. Home and church were weaved in and out of one another to make a single fabric of faith.

One particular family custom that provided many opportunities to serve at the altar was my father’s zealous devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As a consequence, we went to Wednesday night Sacred Heart devotions every week. When, as a young boy, I began to grasp the notion of the novena meaning a series of nine tasks or prayers, I pondered how many multiples of nine novenas my brothers and I had completed under our father’s direction, then how much celestial currency we had accumulated as a result. Although my father was an electrical engineer, it was never a matter of numbers. We were never finished with the novena.

Every Wednesday night, devotion concluded with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and benediction. I became something of an expert on serving at benediction just because I had served more often than most. The ceremony itself was rather simple, but it involved incense, a monstrance, a humeral veil, more candles than usual, and close coordination between the priest and the servers.

This childlike fascination with rituals and ceremony points to the reason — I believe — my parents let me become an altar server: It gave me something to do. It was not any innocent piety or early devotional inclinations, but rather an attraction to be part of the ritual action unfolding in the sanctuary. While I was serving on the altar, my parents were relieved from having to monitor my often-flimsy pew manners. 

When I was just beginning though, there were the usual worries about whether I had the necessary mojo to be an altar server. Years later, my mother confessed to accompanying my every move on the altar with fervent prayers to the Blessed Mother and all the saints hoping nothing went wrong.

I began serving at the altar in the years of the liturgical renewal following the Second Vatican Council. My pastor was slow to bring about the reforms, needing more than a nudge from the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles. Fortuitously, this gave me the opportunity to learn many parts of the Mass in Latin. As we were learning to serve, the first part of each class involved practicing how to properly pronounce and then memorize all the Latin responses which corresponded to the altar servers. 

One of the rituals of the Mass before the changes in the liturgy also required some muscular fitness for the ministry. While the priest bowed in prayer at the center of the altar, the server reverently approached the altar, lifted the missal stand holding the Roman Missal from the Epistle (right) side of the altar, carried the book down three steps to the floor of the sanctuary, genuflected, and then re-ascended the steps to place both the stand and Missal on the Gospel (left) side of the altar so that the priest could continue the recitation of the Mass. While I was serving, this was one of those stressful, prayerful moments for my mother. 

The missal stand upon which the heavy Roman Missal rested was made of brass. This added to the weight. I started serving when I was in the fifth grade. At that time, being small in stature, my eyesight was level with the altar. To carry out the assigned ritual movement meant standing on my toes and lifting my arms over my head so that I could grasp the stand with the Missal. I dragged it to the side of the altar, then dropped it on my stomach. Clutching these sacred instruments, I slowly walked down the steps, pivoted to the altar, genuflected, rose to my feet again, climbed the three steps, then with youthful exertion lifted the weighty burden so that I could slide it into place on the Gospel side of the altar. Sometimes I startled the priest with the bang of the stand and Missal on the marble surface of the altar. Mission accomplished.

Over the years, the rituals changed, but the reverential awe for the ancient mysteries they contained seeped into the memory of my body and soul. Memory is often considered a mental exercise. In part, this is true and necessary for any good student. The heart and body also have their memory function. The fingers of a good musician know the keys without the mind’s attention. The limbs of the good golfer know when to twist and swing without any mental meddling.   

This becomes true for the believing worshiper as well: signing oneself with the cross, reaching for the holy water to renew the baptismal grace, genuflecting to the Most Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, standing, kneeling, folding one’s hands in prayer and eagerly extending them to receive the Lord in holy Communion. It is most salutary when one is intentional about these and other pious gestures but the habitual manner with which they are exercised is also a saving grace. Memory melds mind, body and soul into humble acts of praise and supplication before the powerful mysteries of our salvation. 

Hopefully these embodied habits of religious memory overflow into one’s daily life. Gentle courtesies offered to others, hands extended in greeting, smiles given to others even when the mind harbors distractions, pausing for prayer before meals, patient listening during contentious conversations and steadfast companionship for the lost and lonely. These, too, are rituals that bear the sacred memories of Christ’s saving mysteries into the world.

The many exercises of religious memory should not be forgotten for fear of forgetting who we are and where we stand, always under God’s mighty and merciful gaze. Moses’ admonishment to his people is worthy of our attention now: “Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”  (Dt 6:6-9)  



Catholic Herald Issue