Friday, August 12, 2011

The Priest as Actor - or Show Biz where It Don't Belong

Now, the life of a working actor is crazy, but the reason we do this isn’t. The reason we do this is the most sane thing in the world. Or out of the world.

And to illustrate this, I’m going to talk about the Holy Mass.

But first.

Last week was hell week. In a moment of insane weakness I had agreed to co-produce and perform in Chesterton’s full-length legit play Magic at the American Chesterton Society conference in St. Louis, with a maximum three days of rehearsal, and lights, sound, costumes and set provided by Theater of the Word Incorporated – all out of the goodness of my heart (meaning we weren’t getting paid for it).

Then, the day following that performance, I had to drive three hours one way down to Paducah, Kentucky with my actress Andrea to perform Who Wants to Murder a Millionaire at – of all things – a wedding reception. This got me home at 12:30 am, a quick five hours of sleep, and up by 5:30 for a 6:00 am departure to Wichita with Kaiser Johnson, who had forgotten his lines in The Call, our show on vocations, in which he plays the lead, and which we were to perform at 3:00 pm at the Mid West Catholic Family Conference to an audience of three hundred teen agers. At noon I woke him up in the car and coached him on his lines while I was driving. With coaching, he was able to recall most of them (we had only performed the play once and only rehearsed it twice, three months prior); we got to Wichita at 1:30, had a quick sound check, ran lines with Maria and Dave, and then the four of us did the show (this being the third show Maria and Dave had done that weekend, and the third I had done that weekend, six performances of six different scripts between us). To our surprise, The Call went off without a hitch and was received by a thunderous standing ovation from the three hundred middle school and high school kids in the audience – a real triumph.

Then I had to go to Mass.

I was working or driving during the Vigil Mass times on Saturday and from 6:00 am on Sunday. It was now 5:00 pm and I was running out of options for a Sunday Mass. I drove to the church in Wichita where I was told there was a 5:15 Sunday Mass, but the Church was empty. indicated a 7:00 pm Mass at the Newman Center in Wichita, but the Newman Center’s website said they were on the summer schedule, so I wasn’t sure 7:00 pm would be on, either. I then found on my phone a church nearby that supposedly had a 5:00 pm Sunday Mass. I’d be late, but I could still make it.

My GPS (whom we call “Gwen”) directed me to the church, a modern monstrosity a few miles away in a residential neighborhood. The church was packed. I walked in and could find no holy water or tabernacle, only two huge jumbo-trons and an all-black choir gettin’ down to some rock and roll spiritual. “I’m in the black church!” I thought – and sure enough, I was the only white guy there. Then I saw the banner, “Salem Methodist Church welcomes you.” I asked somebody where the Catholic church was, and was directed to the other end of the block.

The Catholic church was also packed. I struggled to find an open space in a pew. I had no idea how late I was, as the music minister (a guy my age only round and squat, built like most middle-aged music ministers, wearing glasses and bopping his head to the not-good-enough-to-be-in-Godspell-or-Jesus-Christ-Superstar hymn he was playing and which paled in comparison to the tune the African American Methodist Gospel Choir were no doubt still singing a block away) droned on an on. The lyrics seemed to be, “It’s all about meeeee, Lord! It’s all about me! It’s all about meeee, Lord! It’s all about me!” I gritted my teeth and tried to figure out where I was in Mass. “This sure doesn’t sound like the Psalm,” I said to myself.

No, it was the Offertory, and presently there stood before us all a figure in glowing and brilliant green. Good God, it was Stanford Nutting! Only better looking, more self-assured, much more effeminate, and tremendously proud to be “on stage”. This was, it seems, the priest.

Every movement was showmanship. Every gesture exquisite. Every other word ad-libbed. I kept praying that the consecration, at least, would be word for word, but it went something like this …

“After supper with his closest and dearest friends, who meant so much to him, he took the cup, gave the cup to his disciples, in a true spirit of sharing and fellowship, and with understanding and compassion said, ‘This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for absolutely all of you, every single one, regardless of your faith tradition, you who mean so very much to one another, so that sins may be forgiven and judgmentalism will end. Do this in memory of me.'”

Thus was Mass. Or maybe it wasn’t Mass. It was really hard to tell.

And I thought of Father Joseph Fessio, our benefactor, who had been at the Mid-West Catholic Family Conference with us, and who has for years been fighting for the reform of the Liturgy, and who celebrates ad orientem, facing liturgical east, facing the tabernacle, facing the same direction we face, offering for us on our behalf, the eternal sacrifice.

“It’s all about You, Lord. It’s all about You.”

I used to think the argument over the direction the priest faces a meaningless one. I used to think the bad art and architecture, the bad homilies, the horrendous music, did more to weaken the faith than the physical position of the priest.

But now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m sure I was wrong.

If the priest faces the people (contrary to the way he’s supposed to face per the General Instruction of the Roman Missal), he’s performing a show – or at least that’s the temptation.

And while we actors must face the audience when we’re on stage performing a show, our inner attitude must be facing not the audience, not even our other actors, but instead must be facing the One to Whom we point and for Whom we are in this crazy business to begin with.

Then I went back to the bar at the Mid West Catholic Family Conference, and continued in the great tradition not only of the Catholic Church but of Drinking Actors such as Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. The cast party (such as it was) had begun. Kaiser Johnson was performing Eddie Izzard routines, Erik Pratt and I were discussing Shatner and the original Star Trek episodes, Dave was laughing and Maria was snorting as we ate and drank and thanked God for The Call He had given us.

And may we all turn ourselves around.

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