When You Can’t Go to Mass

by Caryll Houselander

What do you do when Mass has been cancelled—indefinitely? Many, perhaps most of you, have suffered that deprivation recently. Perhaps by the time you get this paper, you will still be suffering it. Even if you are not, you won’t regret reading this article written when London was being bombed—and when Mass online or TV obviously did not exist.

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To those who are used to daily Mass, there is no privation more terrible than that of having to do without it.

This is not because of any spiritual consolation that they have known, for usually those who go to Mass daily suffer torturing distractions and a kind of numbness of spirit which makes it a hard act of will to concentrate, not always successfully, on the prayers at all.

If spiritual sweetness were the object of the soul, and daily distress through aridity its actual portion, surely the sudden ceasing of Mass would be a relief?

The proof that the Blessed Sacrament is in very truth our food and strength is that, no matter how little sensible consolation we have in it, no matter how little we realize what it does for us, let it be taken away and we immediately feel our weakness, we have a true famine of the soul, which nothing else can satisfy.

It is really like ordinary bread; we don’t realize what bread is to us until we have to do without it, but then we know well enough that it is indeed life to us.

There are many people today who are in fact having to do without daily Mass. War service often imposes this on them, and they accept it because their war service is in itself their Christianity now, and it is the fruit of many Masses.

The time may come and come soon, when for an indefinite time, war conditions make it more and more difficult for any of us to hear Mass at all, even on Sundays.

Then we shall all understand why our forefathers in the days of persecution were willing to give up everything—property, honors, freedom, even life itself—for the glory of being present even at one Mass.

Suppose such conditions do come, is there any way in which we can prepare for them and make it easier for us to suffer them? There is; and if after making this preparation, we are spared the necessity of using it, we can be sure that all the same our lives will be richer as a result of it.

The first part of this preparation is to make ourselves more and more deeply aware of what the Mass is.

It is a sacrifice which is always being offered and in which we can always take part anytime and anywhere.

It is not a sacrifice offered by a priest in which our part is merely that of a devout audience. It is a sacrifice which gathers every circumstance of our life to itself and is the very core of our being.

We need not fear that because we might not be able to be actually present at Mass, Mass is no longer celebrated. Mass will always be celebrated while the world lasts. It is the sacrifice foretold by the prophets which must always be offered from sunrise to sunset, a promise to us which cannot and will not be broken.

To keep this promise of God’s, his saints have given their lives over and over again, and Mass has been celebrated in many strange and secret places, beginning in the borrowed room where Christ instituted the Sacrament of his Body, and afterwards in the catacombs, where the early Christians were forced as we are forced today, to tunnel under the ground for safety.

Wherever the Church has been persecuted, Mass has again been offered in the borrowed rooms of friends of Christ.

Many an English home has been hallowed by it, and in the latter years it has been offered in more and more unlikely places—in the desert of the lonely and heroic Charles de Foucauld  and in the forests of Siberia by the Russian prisoners, for example.

It will continue. There will always be those who will offer Mass, and Christ will always, with his divine ingenuity and lowliness, find a place to come to for us. This being so, we can always, though possibly from a distance, unite ourselves with the Mass that is being offered.

There is never a moment when the Host is not being offered up for us, never a moment when we cannot lift ourselves up with Christ crucified.

To do this, to unite ourselves with the Mass, which, though unseen, is really happening, we need to be very familiar with what happens at Mass. Just the broad essentials.

First there is great sorrow for sin, confessing that we are sinners, asking God’s pardon for the world, and no one should begin to think of joining in the Mass without this sorrow and this humility.

Next there is the statement of faith, the Gospels, the Creed. And our faith is the one thing that we can take pride in; it is our sword and our light.

Then there is the Offertory, the offering of bread and wine to God, to be changed into the Host. Then the Consecration when the miracle has happened, and Christ is there on the Cross, adoring for us, atoning for us, pleading for us.

And afterwards the Communion, when he is united with us in a oneness for which we have no parallel in any human love, though it includes them all.

Keeping these elementary facts of the Mass in mind, we can join in any Mass going on, and be really present to Christ on some secret altar. And such a habit can weave itself all through our life and absorb all our life into itself.

First the Confiteor: we can start our spiritual Mass by recalling the great burden of sin laid upon us all.

And though we may be in a crowd or at some duty, we can bow our minds and humble our hearts by inwardly accepting from God all our personal grief and hardship caused by the war as our just due for our share in the world’s sin. We can check our passing rebellion and recall our littleness and bow down before God.

We can join in the Gospel and the Creed by recalling the mysteries of our Faith and professing them to God. We need to remind ourselves of them constantly and to take wonderful comfort in them—for example, the Communion of Saints and the Resurrection of the Body.

Every Catholic knows the Creed, and everyone can repeat it in his or her own mind and heart and lips and pray, as we do at Mass, to have our tongues touched with fire in order to be able to speak of our Faith well.

Then the Offertory. We can now offer to God all that we are and all that we are enduring and even all the joys we have or must forego: our life, literally, our bodies and souls, our thoughts and work, everything we have.

We have got to suffer anyway, and this offertory can make our suffering what the fire is to the Host, something that sifts and purifies us and makes us ready to ask Our Lord to change us into himself.

When we have made our offertory, we come to the Consecration; and now we can lift the Christ crucified in our own lives in union with the Host now being elevated, to adore God, to plead for everyone, to atone for everything.

And finally, we can make our spiritual communion.

Briefly, using all our circumstances and all our will, this would be the order of such a spiritual Mass (and we shall really be united to all the Masses being celebrated on earth):

1) Sorrow for sin: I accept all as just. I offer all in atonement. I acknowledge that I am not fit to approach God. I ask his pardon.

2) Offering: I offer myself and all I am to God.

3) Consecration: God accepts my offering and changes it into Christ.

4) Communion: I gave myself to God; now in Christ he gives himself back to me.

All this can be done without any words at all, but it will still help more to know and to say in one’s own head, at least the principle prayers of the Mass, because they are full of strength and beauty and would keep alive in us the love and understanding of the Mass during even very long privation.

For as long as we cherish the Mass in our hearts, the flame of faith will burn brightly in us.

Each time we join in the Mass, though not bodily present, we shall receive the illimitable grace of the Mass and shall have the power of Christ to adore and to atone, and all that we have to suffer and to offer, all that we are, will be changed into him and we will be one with the redeeming sacrifice of his triumphant love.

—Excerpted from This War is the Passion by Caryll Houselander (Sheed and Ward), 1941, pp. 96 – 102, out of print