The Holy Day
Mom, Dad, Kirsten and I rode down a meandering LA 308, with Bayou Lafourche on the left and maturing stalks of sugar cane on the right. As we left Thibodaux behind, the countryside opened up. Shortly after crossing the line from Lafourche to Assumption Parish, we passed Madewood Plantation, with its plain white pediment and Athenian pillars, outside of Napoleonville. My mother once took watercolor lessons from Edgar Whitney there. Through our car’s backseat window, I must have contemplated the bucolic beauty along Highway 308 hundreds of times during my boyhood, as we went off to visit my grandparents about 25 miles up the bayou. It never grew old. I once counted over 100 Virgin Mary statues on the front yards along that highway. When we passed through Paincourtville, which is dominated by the Gothic façade of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, we crossed a bridge over the bayou, taking LA 1 for a few more miles. Then we turned left onto a little dirt road, lined with crepe myrtles, from which the white seashell driveway of my grandparents’ house branched off to the left, and my great aunt’s to the right. It was Sunday.
We always went in the house “through the back.” The screen door snapped sharply as the steel spring pulled it shut. When we entered the kitchen, it always smelled of an early afternoon Sunday dinner in the oven and on the stove. After the feast, my cousins and I passed the afternoon swimming or canoeing in the long narrow backyard pond, which paralleled a line of southern pines along the dirt road. Sometimes we’d gather nuts fallen from the enormous pecan trees in my grandparents’ backyard, some of which we’d eat, and most of which we’d crack open for some pecan pies to be made with molasses from the nearby Lula sugar factory. There was also the “bicycle built for two” that I’d ride down the dirt road with a cousin, usually with either Michael or Elizabeth. The road seemed to go on forever in a long straight line, through cane fields, over train tracks and into a swamp in the horizon, though we never went all the way. Where that road went is still a mystery to me. Otherwise, we played sundry games and occasionally got into a little mischief. I can still smell the sweet honeysuckle vines on the backyard fence and taste the fresh figs from the tree near the rotating clothesline, upon which we’d often merry-go-round. I can still feel the sting of fire ants on my bare feet and pickers in the grass. When we departed from “the country” after sundown, I recall lying down in the back seat of the car en route to Thibodaux, staring at the stars in the night sky. I felt sad when Sundays were over, knowing that the grind of Monday schoolwork would begin again. But the weeks passed quickly. On Sundays when we didn’t go to “the country,” sometimes my grandparents would come to our home in Thibodaux. After Mass, we made milk toddies: vanilla ice cream, brown sugar, vanilla extract, raw egg and bourbon, mixed in a blender and topped off with nutmeg. Mom prepared a lamb roast for dinner, because that was a favorite of my grandfather’s and mine.
Rarely, if ever, did I do homework on Sundays, save for on weekends before final exams in high school. It was an unwritten rule that teachers only gave weekend homework for a good reason, which was not often. And if they did, it was a lighter load than on weekdays. Perhaps it was an accommodation for farmers and for keeping Sundays sacred. Things were simple. Blessedly simple.
We did these things after attending a mid-morning Mass at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, which is, incidentally, one of the most elegant churches I’ve ever seen. In beauty, though not in size, it rivals the great churches of Europe. I suppose it was modeled off of St. Mary Major in Rome, adorned with baroque and Romanesque features, including a gold baldachin guarded by angels on the corners and an ornate cross on the top, beneath a skylight in an ornately gilded apse, supported by marble Corinthian-like pillars. On either side of the sanctuary are statues of King St. Louis of France (on the left) and St. Joan of Arc in silver armor (on the right), both clad in gently gilded royal blue. When we sat in the transept, I would often gaze at a gigantic, arched, stained glass window of the Resurrection on the opposite side. I recall once sitting in blessed wonder as the choir sublimely sang “O Sacrum Convivium” and, on another occasion, Sir Hubert Parry’s choral setting of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.” I also remember being moved by “I’ll Walk With God,” a hymn composed for the operetta “The Student Prince.” At the Christmas Midnight Mass, “Cantique de Noel” (Oh Holy Night) was always sung in French after Communion. Oh, the poetry of it all! Notwithstanding Blake’s verse, it was New France. But it’s now Old France to me.
At the heart of it all was something sacred: Sunday Mass and Holy Communion. Sacredness, simplicity and sublimity. And peace. These feelings composed the song of my boyhood Sundays. It was elevating and humanizing. It lifted my soul to God and brought it back down to earth. The world seemed at peace after a Sunday Mass and dinner with the family.
I assumed that life would always be this way. I was innocent of the fact that I was growing up for another world. It never occurred to me that this was unusual, or that it was becoming more and more unusual. Nowadays, while I do my best to stay in touch with the times, with technology, with life’s fast pace, with today’s hard questions, my heart keeps going back to the simplicity of my boyhood. Sometimes my heart aches for it, as if for a lost loved one. Regardless of how hard I try to keep up with the times, or how successful or unsuccessful I am at it, I have no point of reference for how life ought to be beyond the sentiments of my upbringing. Today, I often feel a sense of being left behind – a sense of inadequacy, you might say – in the face of today’s demands. I often ask myself, “Was I really there once?” “How did I get from there to here?” Nonetheless, I view trying to keep up with the world as a form of charity, like Christ joining us from heaven. But in all honesty, it often wears me out. By temperament, I am hopelessly slow in almost everything I do, and ultimately un-modern at heart. As go the lyrics of Don Williams’ nostalgic southern ballad “Good Ole Boys Like Me”: “When I was eighteen, Lord, I hit the road. But it really doesn’t matter how far you go. I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees.” On the other hand, as the title of Thomas Wolf’s novel says, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Nonetheless, I long for the genteel politeness of a life that was at once more formal and more casual. Perhaps Christ felt this way as He faced the Sanhedrin, longing for the peace of Nazareth. And yet, He looked ahead, “turning his Face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), bravely accepting his fate to suffer and then return to his Father’s House.
But for all that changes, some things stay the same – like grazing cattle and chanting monks. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). One thing remains, and two do I recall: The quiet simplicity of God’s presence in the Eucharist, and the Commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy. I didn’t make these up. They are not nostalgic remedies. They are God’s words, and they shall not pass away. They have been spoken by the Creator, and they are etched in Creation. I know that my assertions about attending Mass every Sunday and keeping that Day holy have rankled a few feathers. But if I have a good word to offer you – from personal experience – it’s that.
In honor of our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, I share this English translation of the Latin motet, “O Sacrum Convivium,” which once inspired me as a boy after receiving Holy Communion.
O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church
“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1323)