The sounds of Mass … the plunk and clunk of kneelers as they hit the floor, and the creak and clank as they are flipped back into position after Communion … the lovely ragged opening of the chorus as the congregation works its way into the Our Father … the plink and ring of guitars and piano before Mass as the musicians stretch and tune up and tease each other with snippets of songs they will never play during Mass … the occasional screech and shriek of the sound system when Father’s shirt microphone flips out for a moment … the thump of bumblebees against the stained-glass windows, and why is it that they seem to stumble headlong into St. James the Lesser, and not Sts. Ambrose or Abigail or Dominic or Benedict, all of whom have bees and honey trailing through the legends they left behind?
The rustle and burble and bustle and murmur of congregants as they enter the church and find their seats and page through the bulletin and greet their neighbors and pore over the hymnal … the patter and thunder and sprint of children outside racing up and down the steps … the drone and hum of a confused wasp way up against the skylight … the gentle sound of wicker collection baskets passed hand to hand from one row to another, and no, you cannot tell if people are dropping quarters or half-dollars or ones or five or tens or twenties into the basket just from the sound of the contribution, although some children I know very well indeed have spent years trying to train their ears to discern exactly this infinitesimal sound … the polite demure courteous shy dry sound of the lector clearing her throat ever so slightly before she begins to read from the Prophet Isaiah, and the ever so slight boom in her voice when later she reads from Paul’s letters to apparently everyone in the blessed world at the time, did the man never eat or sleep, did he spend all day every day scratching out letters furiously and rushing them personally through Athens to the mail-boat so as to arrive in timely fashion in Corinth and Thessalonica and Rome?
The collective sound of the congregation standing and sitting, generally in time with each other, with a few stragglers late to rise or last to please be seated … the serviceable creak of the walker of the woman in front of you on the Communion line … the quiet firm way that Father says the Body of Christ! to you and you alone as he holds that exact miracle up before your eyes, and the quiet firm way you say Amen! in reply and agreement and mutual astonishment … the way one musician, once in a while, is a half beat behind his fellows as the band leans into the medley of songs during Communion, and has to catch up hurriedly … the way the congregation applauds its beaming new members at Easter, and applauds its wailing new member after a baptism, and applauds visitors after they stand and shyly announce where they are from and why they have come … .
The chant and cadence and rhythm and tide of the Mass, the swing of it, the song of it; for it is a song, when you think about it, it is a sea of sound, a swirl of voices and music shaped and sculpted to its occasion so deftly and gracefully that we take it a little for granted; but next time you are in Mass, close your eyes and listen to the rise and fall of voices, the melodies and harmonies of the hour, the way that sounds are clues to actions, the way that even the faint clonk of a startled bumblebee hitting St. James right in the neck for the fifth time this year is both funny and holy — if a little rough on the bee.
The writer is editor of Portland magazine and an author.