On the day I was to serve as an acolyte for the first time, I was nervous. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, the acolyte is essentially an altar server. But I was nervous because while I believe I have been given many gifts in life, hand and foot coordination has not traditionally been one of them; to this day small beads of sweat roll down my forehead whenever I’m at a wedding and the DJ busts out “The Electric Slide.” Granted, assisting the presiding priest during Mass is a little different from taking a step forward, taking a step back, wiggling your tush, and turning to the side… but from what I’ve seen from the pews, it’s not different by much.
Fortunately the priest who would be presiding that evening was very patient with me. So as I fumbled around with getting all of the “equipment” set up ahead of time, he took some time out to guide me through the process. He began by telling me, “You’ll need to get the Paten from this shelf; put some hosts in the Paten…”
“You mean the dish? Put the bread in the dish?”
The priest stared at me for a VERY long moment; he rightly intuited that I was going to be a bigger liturgical challenge than he had initially anticipated. Finally, he replied “Yes” and continued.
He went on to describe the need for the Corporal to be folded in a particular manner, the Purificator to be placed near the chalice… and as he went on I became increasingly confused. I was expecting a Purificator to be an android that might do battle with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the T-2000. It turns out to be a simple white cloth… NOT to be confused with ANOTHER white cloth called the Corporal: it’s relationship to Corporal Max Klinger on M.A.S.H. I have still yet to discover.
Intuiting my mounting confusion, the presiding priest started to simplify the process for me. “Basically, what you are doing is setting a table. So you do whatever you would do if you were setting any other table. You need a place mat… otherwise known as a Corporal. Then you need a dish, which we call a Paten. You need a Chalice (that I knew, but only because I had seen The Last Crusade). And of course you need a napkin, which is the Purificator. Finally, you need a towel.”
“Oh, what’s the towel called?”
“It’s called… ‘towel.'”
The training went well and I get into my robe… uh, I mean albe. It doesn’t feel as weird as I thought that it would. Next I spy one of the older priests and ask him if he has any advice for me. He says, “Stay towards the center, and when in doubt, genuflect.” The Novice Director walks in as I am receiving this advice and whispers to me that we don’t really genuflect here. Just before the procession begins, my Novice Master has an idea and whispers to me “I’ll give you five bucks every time you genuflect.”
A ha—a challenge. We walk down the aisle, hold the book open for the priest. As I put the book down, I get down on my knee; a little “Cha ching” goes off in my head. I start planning how I will make it to fifteen, no maybe twenty dollars. But, I have to focus at the task at hand, and open the experience of actually serving on the altar. I like both the serious nature of how I’m serving right now in addition to the fun of a “contest” – during the homily, I reflect on the term celebrating Mass and how the celebrating part so often gets lost in the shuffle in the name of keeping the ritual train moving. Still, after going to Mass all of my life, I am finding myself surprisingly moved by what’s going on. I “set” the table and seem to do everything right; I serve the wine during communion. After cleaning up the table, I clock in another genuflect (Cha-ching) but decide not to push it past that and take my seat. After we process out at the end of the service, I get a thumbs up from the presider.
As a couple of people do come up to me and mention that I did not need to genuflect, I smile to myself and think about my newfound riches. My Novice Director walks by and says that he forgot to mention that the money only went into effect after THREE genuflects; I tell him that I’ll be by the office to collect tomorrow. Everybody heads downstairs for the pre-dinner drink and I stay to clean up a few things. Before heading down, I walk into the chapel and sit down. I take a moment to thank God for being here. After that I realize that it’s the first time I have thanked God for anything in over six months.
The next day, a traffic ticket comes in the mail. “Somebody” had driven by one of those cameras a few weeks back in the tunnels of 395. After checking my calendar, it turns out that the one-hundred dollar ticket belongs to me. After confessing to the Novice Director that it was me, I let him know that it’s a good thing that the ticket came AFTER the service.