Terry’s last Monday class ended at two fifty-five. He was back in his dorm room by ten after three. The religious bulletin lay on the floor, slipped under the door in his absence by some drone on a work-study scholarship. The bulletin came out three times a week, and its contents seldom varied. Among the perennial favorites were unbelievable stories about young men and women who so respected each other’s bodies as temples of the Holy Ghost that they would wait cheerfully until marriage to “do it.” Terry assumed that these people were figments of the university chaplain’s imagination. There were also frequent exhortations to a muscular spirituality of weekly Confession and daily Communion that was deemed suitable for the all-male student body of a Catholic school with a serious football program. “Hit the box, hit the rail,” growled the students who were sufficiently brain-dead to take the promptings seriously. Reports of famine in northeastern India were another regular feature of the bulletin. The religious order that ran the university — the Servants of the Holy Spirit — maintained a network of mission stations there; the students were encouraged to contribute a few dollars from their own meager budgets to buy rice for the starving thousands. And of course the bulletin published schedules for Masses, Confessions, and the chaplain’s office hours.
The year before, when Terry was a freshman, students had carefully saved the bulletin. The text was in a typewriter font, and appeared only on the front side of each sheet of paper; the back side made for excellent scrap paper. But a new university chaplain had been appointed over the summer, and he introduced an offset-printed format that used both sides of each sheet of paper. Now the students either read the bulletin and threw it away, or simply threw it away.
Terry picked up the bulletin and sat down at his desk to to read it. Same old garbage. Here it was November, and though he’d gone to a couple of strained mixers featuring girls from the women’s college on the other side of town, he hadn’t had a date since classes started, let alone a chance to “do it.” Not that he was dying for a chance to “do it.” Among the general run of college sophomores, he was on the pious side, and because in his residence hall it was so easy to go to Mass every day, he went without special inspiration from the bulletin. And while he felt vaguely sorry for the starving people of northeastern India, he had very little money to send their way. In his mind, as he skimmed over the familiar topics, he had already begun to crumple the bulletin into a ball, stand, turn, jump, and shoot it like a basketball into the wastebasket across the room.
Then, at the bottom of the last page, a notice caught his eye. “Mass Servers Needed,” the headline read. According to the notice, the forty priests living in O’Connell Hall, the faculty residence next door to the university church, offered Mass every morning, between six and seven-thirty, at side altars in the crypt chapel beneath the university church. Each priest, the notice said, needed a server, in other words, a college-age altar boy. The notice called on students to volunteer to serve a Mass at those side altars one or more mornings a week. “If you are interested,” the notice said, “drop by the Campus Chaplain’s office and leave your name, along with the times and days you are willing to serve. If you want to serve but don’t know how, we’ll teach you. The Fathers at O’Connell Hall and, more important, Our Lord and His Blessed Mother will be grateful.”
Terry gagged at the last line, but decided against crumpling the bulletin and jump-shooting it into the wastebasket. He read the notice again, then he looked out the window behind his desk at the overcast November afternoon and the mostly leafless trees outside. Through their gnarled branches, Terry could see the lake that bordered the campus. Its waters were blue-black in the fading light. Terry thought that maybe he should sign up. He had been an altar boy in parochial school, at St. Matthew’s, had even served more Masses than any other altar boy for two years running (though his mother, as ironer of his surplices and his personal alarm clock, deserved most of the credit). He imagined what it would be like to serve early morning Mass at the university: the alarm going off, the shower before the rest of the dorm was stirring, an awareness (mixed with lingering drowsiness) that as he walked alone across the sleeping campus in the chill dawn he was undertaking a sacred mission. The prospect was appealing.
There had been a book at home, a religious book from the 1940s. It had belonged to Terry’s grandfather and had passed to Terry’s father after the grandfather’s death. Terry could not remember the book’s title, but Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, had written it. It was about a monk’s daily life, and one day when Terry was a high school junior, he had picked it up and looked through it. There had been a dozen pages of photos in the middle of the book; they showed monks at prayer and work, in France and Kentucky and Georgia. As Terry looked over the photos, he had seen himself as one of the cowled monks filing silently through darkened corridors in the dead of night, on his way to the monastery church for the Divine Office, had seen himself bowing and kneeling with the other monks in the candlelit church during the Office, had seen himself approaching the abbot in single file to receive Communion at Mass. He had even heard in his head the voices of the monks, silent the rest of the day, rising and falling in the Gregorian chant, echoing in the vast, vaulted church. Sometimes, as he read and reread parts of the Merton book, he thought he might like to become a monk.
Terry had never visited the crypt chapel below the university church, but from his own parish church and the church next door to his Jesuit high school, he could envision what serving Mass in the crypt would be like. The chapel would have its own sacristy, with sinks where the priests could wash their hands and the servers fill the water cruets, a refrigerator to cool the wine cruets, a massive, many-drawered vesting case of polished wood with the drawers coded by vestment color — white for joy and green for hope and purple for penance and black for the dead and red for the blood of martyrs. In the crypt itself, shallow side altars would stand against the walls of the main crypt chapel and covered with white linen cloths, brass candlesticks at each end, a low table off to the right for the cruets. Terry saw himself kneeling, responding to the priest on behalf of the entire Mystical Body of Christ; hearing the words of consecration as the priest crouched over the bread and wine; tasting the thin, dry, papery wafer of unleavened bread at Communion; almost sensing the presence of God.
Terry pushed his chair back from the desk and stood up. No dates since the summer at home, no close friends at school (though the record would show that he was friendly with lots of his classmates), the excitement of his first college courses long gone, the dreary weather that was not likely to improve until April — he could use something to make him feel good about himself. Why not give this Mass serving a try? What did he have to lose?
* * *
The chaplain’s office was in Sullivan Hall. A sign on the door said, “Walk In,” and Terry did. A young woman about his own age, a girl really, looked up from a typewriter and smiled. A nameplate at the front of the desk said “Sharon Delong.” She had wholesome good looks, and she wore a white turtleneck sweater that stretched tight across her breasts. Terry was taken aback. He had expected the chaplain’s secretary to look like one of his plainer aunts. He forced himself to smile in return. “Hi,” the girl said. “What can I do for you?”
“Saw something in the bulletin, about serving Mass,” Terry stammered. A wave of embarrassment swept over him. The girl would think he was a creep, a religious fanatic. He felt himself blushing.
“Oh yes,” the girl said. “In the crypt. You’re the third person to sign up. The bulletin’s only been out for an hour. Great response.” Terry’s embarrassment began to recede. The girl swiveled away from the typrewriter to an adjacent desk. She opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of hand-ruled charts with vertical axes for altars and horizontal axes for Mass times.
Terry realized he was staring at the girl’s breasts. He tried to avert his eyes but failed. The breasts were large, but not grotesquely so, not so large that he could not cover one with his hand. He wondered what would it be like to reach down and cup one of those breasts? He imagined a cluster of sensations: the soft fabric of the turtleneck, the alternately smooth and seamed surface of the bra under it, and beneath the clothing the breast itself, palpably warm, soft and firm at the same time, substantial but still light, the nipple hardening under his reverent touch.
Terry blinked. What was he thinking of? The girl was talking. “You’re so early, you can pretty much pick your own times and days.”
Terry said, “How about six-thirty?” He looked at the girl’s left hand. She was not wearing a ring.
“That’s fine. What days? Every day?”
“No,” Terry said quickly. He wanted to please this young woman, but not enough to commit himself to getting up at six o’clock every morning. “Let me take it slow at first. How about just Wednesday, to begin with?”
“Oh,” the girl said. “O.K.” Her smile began to fade. She picked up a pencil. “Your name?”
Terry told her, hoping she would like the sound of it. She didn’t react, one way or the other.
She took a chart and printed Terry’s name in a box near the top. “This is the Wednesday chart,” she said. “You start the day after tomorrow. Our Lady of Fatima altar, at six-thirty.” She was all business now.
Terry said, “How will I know which altar it is?”
“The crypt isn’t that big. Look around. Ask somebody. You’ll find it. It will have a sign with the name on it.”
Of course there would be a sign. Terry tried to recover lost ground. “If I want to come back and sign up for more Masses, I can always do that, can’t I?”
The girl looked at Terry. “Sure you can. But you don’t sound real confident. You better see if you can handle this first. The last time Father advertised for servers, lots of students signed up, but then they never showed. This is a commitment. You’re supposed to be there.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there.”
“I hope so.”
On the way back to the dorm, Terry tried not to think about the girl’s wholesome face and equally wholesome breasts. He had just signed up to serve Mass. He should be thinking of Thomas Merton or something.
* * *
On Tuesday night, Terry went to bed at ten, and set his alarm for five-forty-five. He was glad that he did not have a roommate this year. That would have really complicated this Mass-serving business. Though he had not completely forgotten Sharon Delong’s large breasts, his memory of her skepticism had faded. He was looking forward to the morning. He locked his door to keep out any prowling night owls, and shut the transom to mute the pounding of a stereo system down the hall. If he could help it, he would get a good night’s sleep. In bed, with the lights out, he closed his eyes and tried to envision long, white-cowled lines of Trappists filing silently down cool, shadowy monastery corridors.
Terry woke before his alarm went off. The luminous dial on his watch said it was four-thirty. He felt alert, keyed up, on edge, the way he used to feel on football game days in high school. He tried to go back to sleep, turning to one side, then the other, but it was no use. When the alarm finally began to beep, he was relieved.
Only the night lights were burning as Terry walked down the hall to the shower. He thought again of Thomas Merton’s monastery. The bright lights in the shower room dazzled his eyes. He stood with his head under the hot water for a long time; he wanted his mind clear. After he had dressed and brushed his teeth, he checked his watch again. Five after six. The university church was a five-minute walk away; if he went there now, he might be drafted to serve some priest who had come late for his own six o’clock Mass. If that happened, Terry would not be able to serve the six-thirty Mass at the Our Lady of Fatima altar, and Sharon Delong would think that he was just another no-show. He decided to wait, sitting on the edge of his unmade bed with folded hands. The hot water had not done the job; he was still half-asleep. Time passed slowly; by six-fifteen, he had had enough. A moment later, he was out of the dorm and on his way through the darkness across campus.
A fringe of gray light showed at the bottom of the eastern sky. The spire of the university church loomed above the surrounding buildings, black against the dark blue of the near-night sky. The morning was cold, too cold to savor the walk. Terry hurried towards the church, shoulders hunched, head down, nose and ears tingling in the frigid air. He might have been on a sacred mission while the rest of the campus slept, but he was still eager to get out of the cold.
The entrance to the crypt was at the rear of the university church, off the driveway that ran behind the church. A bare lightbulb shone over a door at the bottom of a short flight of stone steps. The door was slightly ajar, and Terry pushed through it. A spiral staircase led further downward . At the foot of the stairs, Terry found himself at the back of a large, brightly-lit room, with twenty-odd pews on each side of a center aisle and a large altar at one end. The main crypt chapel, Terry thought, but he saw no side altars. A priest in black vestments was saying Mass at the altar, and a young man knelt behind him, to his right. Neither reacted to Terry’s presence. Behind the altar, through a doorway that opened into another well-lit room, Terry saw movement. Terry circled around the altar to the doorway as unobtrusively as he could.
The next room was nearly as large as the main crypt chapel itself, and was set up much as Terry had imagined the main chapel would be set up. Cubicles lined each side of the room, and each cubicle had its own altar. The front and back of the room were given over to closets and cabinets of dark wood, a pair of sinks, and a refrigerator. Most of the cubicles were empty; in a few, Mass was in progress; and in a couple of others, priests were removing their vestments.
Small wooden plaques on the walls of the cubicles identified the altars they contained. The Our Lady of Fatima cubicle was in semi-darkness. Terry threw a wall switch, bathing the cubicle in fluorescent light. A set of black vestments was laid out on a vesting case beside the altar, and a chalice, veiled in black, stood beside the vestments. The 6:30 Mass would be a Mass for the dead. Terry took a box of matches from a low table next to the altar and lit two candles. He found an empty cruet on the table, and filled it with cold water at one of the sinks in the large room. On the way, he looked in the refrigerator. It contained two dozen cruets, each filled with a dark purplish fluid that had to be altar wine. Back in the Fatima cubicle, Terry checked his watch; six twenty-four. He lifted the veil on the chalice, took two thin, flat, white Communion wafers out of a jar on the vesting case and put them on the paten, the shallow, gold-lined plate that sat atop the chalice, a large wafer for the priest and a small one for Terry. He knew how to do these things; he had been an altar boy. In the room outside the cubicle, priests and servers were coming and going. Terry sat on a straight-backed chair and waited.
With all the movement, the opening and closing of doors and the refrigerator, the water running in the sinks, the atmosphere was scarcely monastic, but Terry did not mind. He thought of the closeness of the server to the Mass. He thought of those hundreds of Masses he had served in parochial school, each time in a freshly ironed surplice, and how he had not really understood what was going on. Maybe his mother had. Maybe that was why she had ironed all those surplices.
At six twenty-eight, a priest swept into the cubicle. He was a tall man, with a long, craggy face and slicked-back, iron-gray hair, and he smelled of stale tobacco. He was wearing a black cloak over his cassock, and in his right hand he held two cruets of wine. Terry stood up, but the priest ignored him. He put the cruets on the low table beside the altar, threw off his cloak, and began to don his vestments.
With each vestment, the priest glanced at a white plastic prayer card above the vesting case and muttered the prayer associated with the vestment. When he reached the long white linen alb, he bunched it up from the bottom, lifted it over his head, extended his arms into the sleeves, and let it drop down over his head and shoulders. As the hem of the garment fell to the priest’s shoetops, Terry took the cincture — a doubled length of tasseled white cord — from the vesting case and held it behind the priest, waist-high. The older man shrugged himself fully into the alb, then put his hands behind his back, palms out. Terry laid the cincture across the priest’s fingers. The priest grunted an acknowledgment.
After the priest had put on the remaining vestments, the chasuble last of all, he picked up the veiled chalice, made a small, stiff bow to the crucifix on the wall above the vesting case, and without a word to Terry turned to the altar. He placed the chalice on the altar, then stepped back, his right hand already lifted to his forehead for the sign of the cross. “In nomine Patris, et Filii, . . . ,” he said hoarsely. Terry hurriedly knelt on the linoleum floor next to him.
Alternate verses of Psalm 42 poured out of the priest’s mouth in a mumbled stream of unintelligible Latin. Terry knew when to respond only because the priest paused for breath. The older man jumped on Terry’s responses before they were completed, moving on to the next set of verses. Terry sighed silently in relief when the psalm was over and the priest stepped up to the altar again.
The priest read through the Mass of the Catechumens in the same way that he had said the opening prayers, muttering hymns and Psalms and orations and New Testament readings alike in a low, steady drone, no single Latin word ever separately audible, the drone rising and falling only when the priest slowed to gulp air through a corner of his mouth. Terry had not brought his missal to the Mass. It was just as well. The priest was moving too fast for anyone to follow him.
Terry almost missed the priest’s hand signal to transfer the Mass book from the right side of the altar to the left for the Gospel. Most priests paused at the
center of the altar while the book was being moved, to give the server time. This priest was waiting impatiently for Terry to arrive. Terry tried to respond to the brief prayers that preceded the Gospel, but the priest resumed his droning and drowned him out.
When the Gospel ended, Terry went to the table next to the altar. The priest had uncovered the chalice and was lifting the paten with the hosts on it, hoarsely pronouncing the first of the Offertory prayers. “Suscipe, sancte Pater, omnipotens, aeterne Deus, hanc immaculatam hostiam . . . .” Terry arranged the cruets in his hands, wine in the right, water in the left, handles towards the priest. He turned and stood beside the altar, holding the cruets chest-high in front of him, the way Father Mahoney had once taught him and thirty-five other fifth-grade boys at St. Matthew’s.
The priest carried the chalice to where Terry was standing. Without looking at Terry, the priest held out his hand for the wine cruet. Terry gave it to him, then shifted the water cruet to his right hand, and held out his left hand for the wine cruet. The priest emptied the wine cruet into the chalice. He gave it back to Terry, who extended the water cruet. The priest turned his head and glared at Terry. “Not that one,” he said, waving off the water cruet, “that one,” and he pointed a tobacco-stained finger at the second full wine cruet on the low table. Terry had never seen anything like this before. Two full cruets of wine at six-thirty in the morning? Wow! He gave the other wine cruet to the priest, who emptied it too into the chalice. The cup was almost full, with purplish liquid lapping at its rim. Now the priest took the water cruet and painstakingly added a single drop of water to the wine.
The priest returned to the center of the altar and raised the chalice to eye-level. “Offerimus tibi, Domine, calicem salutaris . . . .” In seconds he was back with Terry at the side of the altar, perfunctorily washing his fingers, running the words of Psalm 25 together in a long rasping whisper: ” . . . neperdascumimpiis-Deusanimammeam . . . .” Back at the center of the altar, with Terry kneeling behind him, he rushed ahead again, making only a half-turn away from the altar at the Orate Fratres instead of the full turn the rubrics prescribed. The Secret Prayer, the Preface, the Sanctus, the beginning of the Canon, all streamed past in one swift Latin mumble. The priest lingered briefly over the words of Consecration themselves. “Hoc est enim . . .,” but when he had replaced the chalice on the altar at the end of the Consecration he moved swiftly forward again, through the rest of the Canon, the Lord’s Prayer, the Agnus Dei.
Finally, at the Communion, the priest slackened his pace. He broke the large wafer into two, semi-circular fragments. He blessed himself with the two halves, then carefully pushed them into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed them, and then he bent over the chalice, speaking slowly and distinctly: ” . . . Calicem salutaris accipiam, and nomen Domini invocabo . . . .” He picked up the brimming chalice, made a cramped sign of the cross with it, and began to drink, holding a triple-folded, white linen cloth — the Church called it a “purificator” — under his lips, against his chin, as a napkin. He paused twice for breath in his drinking. Inexorably, the base of the chalice moved upwards; the priest’s head tilted backwards. A thin reddish trickle ran out of the corner of his mouth and down his chin. The chalice was nearly upside down, drained. The priest put it back on the altar and shuddered. He wiped the corner of his mouth with the purificator; the cloth came away with a purplish stain. The priest placed both hands on the altar and gasped for breath.
Terry was afraid that the priest had forgotten him, but no, he turned and gave Terry Communion. Terry brought the water cruet to the priest, who used its contents to rinse the chalice and wash his own fingers. As Terry bore the now empty cruet away, the priest droned unintelligibly through the remaining prayers of the Mass. When he turned for the Last Blessing, his eyes had a faraway look in them, as though he were looking out over the congregation in some vast cathedral. He read the Last Gospel to himself. Terry failed to give the customary response of “Deo gratias” at the end of Mass because he could not tell that the Mass had ended.
Back at the vesting case, the priest bowed again to the crucifix, then turned
to Terry. The older man’s craggy face was flushed; his pale blue eyes were large and watery. He nodded to Terry. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely. The sour-sweet smell of the wine on his breath was heavy in the air.
The priest tore off his vestments, throwing them onto the vesting case. He snatched up his cloak, flung it over his shoulders, and swept wordlessly out of the cubicle, much as he had entered it. Terry sighed with relief; he was glad it was over. He checked his watch. Six forty-four. The priest had come and gone in sixteen minutes. It had seemed longer.
Terry dutifully rearranged the vestments on top of the case — for the next Mass, whenever it might be. As he laid out the vestments, he thought of Thomas Merton and wondered if the Trappist consumed two large cruets of red wine at his morning Mass. He thought of the priest with the craggy face and the watery eyes and wondered if the priest would drink his way through the rest of the day. He thought of Sharon Delong and wondered if she had a boyfriend.