The fliers have this Medieval-looking script that says “The Fool’s Mass.” It’s put on by a theater company whose name I can’t pronounce.
I’m intrigued. So I show up for the Fool’s Mass at this beautiful little Eastern Orthodox Chapel – stonework, arches, icons, candlelight.
The actors are there outside to greet you before you enter. And they’re already in character and usher you into their world. They are dressed like medieval peasants: ragged tunics and floppy caps. As you enter, they treat you like an honored guest – they are so thankful you’ve come to celebrate Mass and they invite you to come into the chapel. They’re excited and they’re earnest and they’re buzzing around from person in this kind of chaotic way. And quickly you see that they are each this utterly unique personality with some aspect that we’d call some kind of cognitive disability or mental illness.
As a matter of fact, I learned, the theater troupe regularly volunteers at adult homes for folks with cognitive disabilities. They do theater games with these folks and stage plays with them. So these characters come from that experience. They are each rich multi-dimensional characters that are rendered with compassion. And over the course of the time you share together you to know each of them as a full person.
As an “audience” member, from the start, you are interacting with these personalities who are reaching out to interact with you.
Soon enough we’re all seated in this beautiful chapel. Based on how our hosts are talking you know we’re waiting for the priest to come. It’s clear they adore this priest. You gather that the priest has taken them all in, as his children, and given them jobs around the church and tasks during the mass. He’s saved them from being on the street as the Medieval “town fool.”
One gentleman seems to act as a leader in this group. When we’ve been waiting for the priest for some time, he goes off to see what’s going on. Everyone gets restless and anxious. And he comes back with this horrible look on his face and says that the priest has died.
The chapel erupts. Crying, wailing, weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s terrible.
After a time the leader gets himself together and says to everyone, Look, it’s time for Mass. Our dear Father would want us to carry on with the Mass. We have our visitors here. We must do Mass. That’s what he would want.
But how do you do Mass without a priest? That’s what we have stumbled into, with this “Fool’s Mass”.
There’s some arguing and anxiety, but when our makeshift liturgists finally get themselves together for the opening processional, everything settles. A great peace dawn in the sanctuary. They process in with the Bible aloft. And they open their mouths and what comes out is the most beautiful Gregorian chant.
The very stones sing praises to God, in whose image we are all made.
And then, when they reach the chancel, things fall apart again.
What follows for this holy time is them hashing out how to do Mass together, step by step – remembering, misremembering, arguing and improvising with all their ticks and miscues and sacrilegious eruptions and strokes of genius. And we as the congregation are totally a part of it. We have to help out here and there, as best we can.
At one point one of the makeshift liturgists plays a kind of trick on us. So the question comes home, Who’s really the fool here and who somehow isn’t? Who has the pretense to judge when we’re all just stumbling along as best we can in this play of the sacred?
It was one of the most powerful religious services I’ve ever experienced.
It made grace real. The Spirit of Grace was there, in this pure-hearted, totally messy, sometimes transcendent, all-too-human effort to express our devotion to a Great Mystery beyond our understanding.
That’s all any of us can ever hope to do.
Perfection is not for us.
Sometimes our mistakes are silly. Sometimes our mistakes are disastrous. But what will bring us through is our sincerity, our sincere devotion to a God before whose love we can honestly be who we actually are. So we can come to this sanctuary leaving behind our fronts, leaving behind our frills – free of comparison, free of judgment. We can come as we actually are, strange and splotched and extraordinary refractions of the image of God, who has created us as we are and who loves us as we are.
And for that, I say, Thanks be to God.
Readings: Jesus said, “Do not judge and you will not be judged. For, just as you judge others, you will yourselves be judged, and the standard that you use will be used for you.” – Matthew 7:1-2
“Humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God. It takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be the person that God intended you to be.” – Thomas Merton
Pied Beauty Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) Glory be to God for dappled things— For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.
(Delivered May 28, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)