When I was in high school I would frequently travel 40 to 60 miles on Sundays to attend church services. Now, this wasn’t because services weren’t available close by. The parish church was only three or four blocks away and the pastor, Father Bernard Gottner, was a good man who did his best to care for his parishioners. He later left the ministry to marry. I imagine — and hope — that he found much happiness.
The reason I would travel at least once or twice a month was to experience traditional rituals. I would sometimes visit the Basilica of Saint John in Des Moines, Iowa where my childhood pastor had revived a flagging community and given it pride. Sunday Sung Mass in English with cantor and choir was a big deal there, and Monsignor Frank Chiodo always knew how to put on a show, with just enough flash and a heavy helping of sincere piety. It didn’t hurt that he was also a fine preacher.
I would also travel to a much humbler church in the rusty town of Ottumwa, Iowa where I learned the ancient Latin rituals from Father James Grubb. Once known as the Hippie Priest, he went through a personal journey that was an inspiration to me. Father Grubb got caught up in the wild experimentation of the late 1960s and 70s, but after the novelty wore off and the hippies decided it was better to work on Wall Street than sing Kumbaya in the park, he found himself lost spiritually. He returned to the rituals of his youth and passed along those rituals to me. Even though sometimes there were only a handful of people at his Tridentine Latin Mass, he performed the rituals with dignity and care worthy of any Roman archbasilica.
The rituals Father Grubb taught me had been largely abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church and were granted as a sort of concession for the sake of old-timers who couldn’t handle the modern changes in the liturgy. If Father Grubb hadn’t been around, it’s likely I would never have been able to tap into that inexhaustible wealth of symbol and ritual that was tossed on the dust heap of history.
My interest in the “old ways” was never fundamentally an issue of conservatism or a rejection of modernity. It was a matter of intuiting that the realm of symbol and ritual is essential for a meaningful life. The so-called Tridentine Mass was for me an entrance into a much bigger universe than even that rite could embody. Though I couldn’t understand it at the time, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to New York City to explore Buddhism, a tradition that has nourished me and complemented my years of Christian seminary training.
We all need to rediscover symbol and ritual — in places of worship, in places of government, in sports arenas, in classrooms, and among family.
June 15, 2016