Saran Wrap and the Perfect Prayer
Written by: Mark Spann
It is a summer morning and I am seven or eight years old, skinny as a sapling and as lithe as, well, a skinny seven or eight year old. Halfway up a silver maple tree in our front yard, I pause. The wind is coming up. It is a moment of grace, and I feel the arrival of a weather front like a secret just for me. I turn my face into the wind and close my eyes, and the cool air washes over me. The tree begins to creak and sway. It is exhilarating …..for a minute. Then the swaying becomes more violent. I know I ought to climb down, but that means letting go of branches and trying to keep my balance along the way. Instead I cling like Saran Wrap to that tree trunk and start praying—and shouting—for help.
Fast forward many years. It is a Sunday morning in early summer. I am at a Sunday service, with sunlight streaming through the windows and spilling over a cool wood floor. There is a small group of people with me at this Buddhist monastery, 20 or so others, all in our socks or bare feet. There is a sequence of group chants and responses that I cannot understand but can sound out, which somehow feels a little familiar. Then, an interesting talk by the abbot. Again, there is a comfortable feeling.
More chanting. We rise now from the floor and walk silently, in prayer or meditation, depending on our need. We move single-file in a silent line, out of the room on one side, down a hallway, and back into the room again. Ten times, 20 times, I don’t recall. This is the Walking Meditation.
I think of a similar walk as a young boy, up the narrow aisle toward the communion railing at Mass. I am just old enough that, as a very young boy, my first memories of the Mass were pre-Vatican II, watching as the priest intoned the lyrical Latin prayers with his back to us; kneeling at the rail for Holy Communion.
It hits me then, another moment of grace in the midst of that peaceful, renewing meditation at the Buddhist monastery—I wanted to go back to the Mass.
So why was I, a lifelong Catholic, at a Buddhist monastery? I’d always had, at best, a cautious relationship with my faith. I’d had lots of questions and not many satisfactory answers. Bouts of intense immersion and participation were punctuated by stretches of ambivalence that bordered at times on resentment.
When one of my best friends died, a guy I’d known since college, I went through a very dark time. Jim was a guy who lived the Gospel more than anyone I’ve known before or since. He was one of the most authentic Christians, one of the most focused and singly devoted Catholics I’ve ever met. And his life was too short; he didn’t achieve any of the goals he talked about for himself, and he had his heart broken more times than I would have thought possible. Continuously poor, he nevertheless had a loving family and extensive network of friends who continued to nurture him as an adult and helped him keep body and soul together. Jim had been a teacher for me, a kind of spiritual guide. Losing him, I stumbled. And God didn’t seem to be anywhere to pick me up after Jim died.
As I stumbled I fell away from the Church. I began to fall away from my family and friends. I struggled with my job. I began to fall away even from myself. For a long time I needed a reason, and Jim’s death seemed a good one. But, as I said, I had always had a cautious relationship with God. In desperation I reached for anything. Buddhism intrigued me, and there was a Buddhist monastery close by. So I read all I could, tried to meditate regularly, and eventually attended services at the monastery.
After several services, I was struck by two things: first, the comfort I took in the structure of the service and its communal, prayerful aspect; second, its similarities to the structure of the Mass–the movement, the community prayer, the homily, the walking meditation. I began to think more deeply about the Mass, and realized that framework was part of what I needed, the path on which I could begin my journey back to faith. Like that tree trunk so many years ago, I wanted—I needed—to cling like Saran Wrap to the Mass.
Clinging more tightly to my faith meant I had to re-engage with it, and for me that started with investing myself more spiritually and intellectually in the Mass. Understanding it, becoming part of it. I became a lector and found it more enriching and rewarding than I imagined.
You know the order of the Mass; you know the rhythms, the “what” of this central practice of our faith. Have you thought lately about the “why,” about the origins and significance of what we do during Mass? There are several fine sources for those who want to dig a little deeper, including The Lamb’s Supper—The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn; The Mass: The Glory, The Mystery, and The Tradition by Donald Wuerl; and The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by Fr. Michael Mueller. And if you are looking for a reason to seek a richer understanding of the Mass, Pope Paul VI may have put it best. “The Mass,” he wrote, “is the most perfect form of prayer.”