This week saw the first Ash Wednesday for three years that I was able to attend Ash Wednesday Mass. The last two times, I found myself working in places where getting to Mass – especially during a work day, with limited vehicles and security restrictions – was simply not an option. Last year, I missed the Easter liturgies entirely due to a bomb blast at the airport hours before my flight back to the capital to be with my husband for the Easter Triduum. That was a really sad Easter, but the sympathy of my colleagues – mainly Muslim – and their efforts to celebrate with me, and my own private prayer, gave me some solace for sure.
I don’t say this to make it sound glamorous or heroic – I made a choice to take a job in a place where I wasn’t totally sure what kind of sacramental availability there would be. My experience everywhere else, however, had been that even in the most remote locations, Sunday Mass was never too far away – I’ll tell you, that’s one of those great experiences of the ‘universality’ of the Church, when you get to experience Mass in some tiny outpost in the boonies. Anyhow, I digress…
For the first few months, it wasn’t such a problem getting to Mass. It was a two hour drive and an early Sunday rise, but it gave me plenty of time to reflect and think. But as time went on, the changing socio-political situation and increasing violence meant more movement restrictions – especially on ‘non-work movements’. And the culmination, indeed, was missing the Easter liturgy altogether despite my dogged effort to arrange a trip to the capital. Looking back now, although I didn’t make the connection so strongly at the time, the fact that my husband and I resigned from our jobs on the Easter Monday with no other plan for the future was our hearts’ way of knowing that this was the only way out from what had become a very ‘un-sacramental’ environment. We were not being nourished sacramentally, and so our ability to gift ourselves to others was getting weaker by the day.
What do I mean by that? Just yesterday I was reading a great article from the Catholic World Report on sacramental social doctrine and what I realised was that my experience last Easter was a microcosm of what this article explained.
In the development and aid sector, there is a strong ‘secular’ flavour and faith-based organisations have to fight hard to be respected and not suspected of ‘proselytisation’. But behind all the clean-cut and well-branded mandates, policies and plans, there is a hunger to know God. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually met someone from a local community in which I’ve worked who doesn’t recognise how real the supernatural realm is, and how much we rely on Someone greater than ourselves. And yet, this goes systematically ignored by large organisations who think that the ‘religion’ button is just too hot and too hard – and irrelevant, anyway.
At one point soon after Easter last year, a wonderful Australian priest who had been a missionary for 30 years in the area where I was living, came back to visit from Rome. I had providentially only come to know about him through a small article in the NZ Catholic and, googling him, found that he was on his way to visit where I was located. Never more so have I felt like the ‘lost sheep’ stranded out on the peripheries as when he came to visit and say Mass at my house. His visit, and the Eucharist, was like an oasis in both a literal and spiritual desert, a sacramentally impoverished environment.
So it was with a sort of joyful sorrow (if that’s possible) that I headed off to Ash Wednesday Mass for the first time ever with my husband the other night. A sacramental sense of the world, and of social doctrine, must be fuelled by a sacramental life – it’s as clear cut as a scientific equation.