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The Low Mass
Two time travelers stumble upon a magic show, then wonder what the hell just happened
I’m cruising to the end of what has been a very strange week. In both the hyperreality of the web and in Meat World, events have seemingly conspired to keep me away from my writing and correspondences. I particularly apologize for the latter; so many kind and brilliant people have reached out to me within such a short window of time, it has frankly been a little overwhelming. But I promise to catch up with all of you as soon as I can.
In the meantime, I thought I’d offer some brief thoughts about an experience I had over the weekend. You can consider this more or less a journalistic account, with a few muddy, unripe thoughts attached. I don’t know precisely how this experience relates to my devil hunting series. I might still be too close to it, so outside perspectives would be appreciated.
This past weekend, a friend and I attended a service of the Roman Catholic Low Mass. He’d called me out of the blue with this idea the night before, and at first the notion struck me as bizarre; I’d never expressed any interest in the Low Mass, and am not a regular churchgoer of any kind. Then again, it had been quite the bizarre week for me up till then. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.
You can read all about the Low Mass on teh intarwebz, as my friend did. I decided to “go in blind”, so to speak. We all have our methods. When he pitched it to me, he described it as a “time travel experiment”; we would journey back into the Middle Ages of Europe — when and where the rite was born — and report our findings to one another afterward.
We arrived around fifteen minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. The church’s interior layout was the standard deal, though smaller and with significantly less adornment than other Catholic churches I’d visited in recent years. There were fewer stained glass windows, for example, and their designs were much simpler — which is not to say cruder — than I was accustomed to. The stations of the cross were beautifully and realistically rendered in oil. It had been a while since I’d seen them crafted in any medium apart from reliefs or mosaics, so this was a pleasant surprise. Apart from these, however, the walls of the nave were pale and bare. The same could be said of the sanctuary: plain, spare, absent the flourishes and baroque details one often finds. The altarpiece was relatively ornate by contrast, flanked by colorfully painted statues of the Holy Family.
When we entered, a member of the parish was leading the congregants in the rosary. The ones who joined him were mostly women, all of whom wore traditional head coverings (i.e. “veils”, though not the kind that obscure the face). If you’ve ever heard a full rosary circuit, the chanting voices eventually begin to sound like the working of a magical spell. The words untether from their literal meanings in their monotony, becoming something reminiscent of a sinusoidal resonance wave. The rosary being prayed in this church reminded me of that aspect of prayer, almost immediately as it entered my eardrums.
We took seats in the backmost pew (I would later joke that this was the same seat I always took in class, during my moody and drug-addled teenage years). My friend busied himself by studying the instruction manual, while I wondered at the sights and sounds. At the conclusion of the rosary’s final decade, the prayer leader led an invocation to St. Michael:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.
Mass began shortly after its completion. In the church services of my youth, the priest always entered in style. He would approach the sanctuary from the rear of the nave to the jubilant sounds of a pipe organ and hymnal song, flanked by a squadron of altar boys as he showered us with perfumed smoke. But from the very start of this mass, I knew I was in for a different experience entirely.
The priest and one lone altar boy emerged not from the rear of the church, but from a small door located just to the left of the sanctuary (I presumed it led to the sacristy, but I could be wrong). There was no pomp, no fanfare. No anything, really; the duo made their entrance in total silence. This modest entrance would mark my first fleeting glimpse of the priest’s facial features. If a crime had been committed, I imagine the police sketch artist would find me to be a rather frustrating interview. He turned almost immediately to the altar, which he would continually face from now up until he administered the Blessed Sacrament (i.e. near the conclusion of the mass itself).
What transpired was as perplexing as it was captivating.
I knew ahead of time that the service would be conducted in Latin. I don’t speak Latin, but even if I did I suspect this priest’s version of it would make my head spin. For one thing, his voice was barely audible, hardly above a whisper. But the most confounding aspect of his delivery was definitely its pace. It reminded me somewhat of an auctioneer’s patter, though faster and less comprehensible. When I was a kid, there was a commercial for a toy called “Micro Machines”, the mascot for which sounded like Robin Williams on even more cocaine. His delivery was like that: a blur of gibberish whizzing into my ears while he conducted unseen experiments upon the altar.
I say “experiments” purposely; I sometimes I had the feeling I was watching an alchemist at his laboratory bench, muttering to himself about his latest formulas and projections. Other times, it felt more like I was a deaf man watching a master musician’s performance. He played his hidden instruments with such a gentle and practiced precision, like a pianist playing an especially languid piece by Mendelssohn or Debussy. And if he was the musician, then his altar boy was the principal ballerino of the troop, performing a carefully choregraphed solo routine upon the stage.
Throughout the mass, we watched and mimicked the movements of the congregation. Our own dance steps were much simpler, of course: stand, sit, kneel, make the sign of the cross. But there was always some degree of lag time between my movements and theirs, and unavoidably so. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as perfect unison anyway (not that can be observed and measured, at least). The thought occurred to me that someone must always be the first to rise, the first to sit, the first to kneel, each time the Latin prompt-word triggered it. I drifted into musings about flocking behaviors, ant colonies, egregores…
At some point I managed to regain my focus. But my focus on what? The words were alien to me. There wasn’t even a verbal call-and-response aspect to what was happening; the priest alone was speaking, and perhaps not to us. That’s when the concept of the event’s directionality struck me. The priest and his flock were all faced the same way. Towards the altar, the sacred tools, the Eucharist. Perhaps towards God Himself, in some manner of speaking.
That’s not to say I saw no human faces during this part of the ritual. The silent katas of the altar boy would occasionally reveal his features (though usually only in profile). And I, being the curious monkey that I am, could not help but steal a few furtive glances at the assembly.
Their faces expressed a vague solemnity, but were otherwise inscrutable. They reminded me of corporate managers preparing for some all-important meeting. The men were mostly dressed properly in suits, though there were a few in more casual attire (including one middle-aged fellow who wore a hooded sweatshirt). The women, as I mentioned, all wore veils, and were otherwise dressed modestly (only one of them wore pantlegs that I could see; in her case, a pair of jeans). As I look back on it now, I think: “What were you expecting, Mark? String bikinis?”
A brief digression:
Imagine if you will the entry of such a person into the sacred space I described, dressed more provocatively than if she wore nothing at all. She bursts through the doors of the narthex behind us, sinister dubstep music blaring from an iPhone on the end of her selfie stick. She’s streaming this sacrilege on Facebook Live, to a legion of OnlyFans subscribers and other sycophants. The look in her eyes is eerily hollow, her smile plastic and cartoonishly overwide, like the features of a psychotic child.
She prances down the center aisle on stiletto heels, T&A sloshing and joggling around like lewd Jell-O molds. When she reaches the foot of the sanctuary, something like a stripper routine commences, a mix between a Nicki Minaj video and the Dance of the Seven Veils. When it’s finished, she turns to face the altar and — in a grotesquely obvious parody of the flock — proceeds to twerk her naked derriere.
I am thankful I only imagined this event in retrospect, and not during the service itself. I’m even more thankful that I’ve never witnessed this (or something similar) take place. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, or that it won’t. In fact, I suspect we will witness such displays in the near future, and perhaps quite frequently.
But that’s not the point. What I’m wondering is how we would perceive such a person, inhabiting such a place? Now, as in the Middle Ages, I don’t think the congregation would see this gatecrasher as a mere time-travelling alien, strange in form but otherwise benign. I think they would see a demon, manifested in Earthly form.
Would I? I’m not sure. All I know for certain is that I would not be shocked. After all, the person I just described might well be the opening act for next year’s Grammys. And as I get older, it’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a sight that might shock me. I figure the same probably holds true for most people raised in the decaying wreckage of the postmodern West. But even absent any feeling of shock, would I still see her as literal demon? An “entity” puppeteering a human form? I believe some things must be experienced firsthand before you can build a proper model for speculation.
The latter sentiment would probably work as a summation of the service as a whole. It sped along in the manner described, the priest manipulating his secret tools and reagents while we stood, sat and kneeled in response. Occasionally there would be long stretches of silence. I noticed the heads of many parishioners were bowed during these interludes, and while I couldn’t see their eyes I would hazard to guess they were all shut. Mine were not; I wanted to see what the altar boy was doing with his body, what the priest was doing with his hands.
When it came time to receive Communion, both my friend and I sat quietly and watched. This was a familiar feeling for me; I can’t actually remember the last time I participated in this sacrament. It may have been at a service for a relative’s funeral, more than twenty years ago. Since then, on those rare occasions when I’ve attended mass, I sit and watch, the way my father and grandfather did when I was young. One was a rather vocal atheist, the other merely not a religious man. It seems like a strange twist of fate that they both fell in love with such ardently Catholic women. But perhaps it’s simpler than that, a mere fractal iteration of a daughter falling for a man like daddy, but also in some way managing to spite him. In any case, they did not refuse the Eucharist out of protest, but out of respect. Their wives thought it would be blasphemy for them to take part in it.
And so we respectfully watched the sacrament play out from the cheap seats. After the priest had finished his preparations, the altar boy set the stage for the final act, draping a long white cloth along the chancel rail. The congregants cued up in a somewhat looser formation than I expected. Those in the nearest pews formed the first row of kneelers, spaced out about a foot or so from shoulder to shoulder. The priest moved with graceful purpose along the line, the rhythm again reminding me of dancers, or factory workers, or anyone else whose profession required movement that was both repetitive and timed. After each congregant was served, his or her slot was filled almost immediately by the next on line. From my distant vantage point, it reminded me of the autonomous motion of a biological organ, like a fibrillating heart or the respiration of a lung.
I reckon the pews were hardly a third of the way full that morning, so the whole process took less than five minutes. It’s worth noting that Communion marked my second sighting of the priest’s face. I realize now that I should remember details of it, but I mostly can’t. I think I was too wrapped up in the observation of the gestalt-organism and its seemingly effortless movement.
It was also my chance to see the faces of the faithful: these twenty-first century beings drawn to sixteenth century rites. One thing that surprised me was the number of young people I saw. Yes, there were many elderly men and women, but also quite a few people who seemed to be my age or younger. There were no small children in attendance, however, and no teenagers that I can recall.
On returning to their pews, no set of eyes challenged our presence. Not directly, at least; there was one fellow, roughly my age, who may have squinted slightly in our direction, but that was all. Perhaps such alien invasions were commonplace: tourists, curiosity seekers, university students, long-lapsed Catholics on the hunt for a way back inside the tent. Perhaps they’d even been visited by alethiologists before (a concept first introduced to me by John Carter, and which I’ve been warming to as a self-descriptor).
Once all had returned, the priest led us in the final invocation. It marked both the only time he spoke in English and the only time we were compelled to reply. The priest did not seem to be looking at the congregants as we prayed. Instead his gaze was locked on some fixed point in the middle distance, as if studying an object that he alone could see. Once more, it was the prayer to St. Michael, the demon smiter. The jumbled cloud of voices rendered these words almost as unintelligible as the Latin. But I heard the name “Satan” loud and clear.
When it was done, the priest and the altar boy then left as quietly as they arrived, exiting though the same unmarked door they’d emerged from. The circle was complete.
The disassembly process to follow reminded me of the crowd at the end of a film that was either too bland or too heartbreaking to warrant applause. The majority filed out briskly and wordlessly, but some lingered on to watch the credits scroll, or to catch one of those “after credit sequences” that are all the rage these days. Some even went back to praying the rosary, as if to emphasize the circularity of it all. My friend and I stayed for another minute or two, reverting back to our pre-game activities of manual reading and art appreciation. Then we quietly left as well.
On our way out of the parking lot, we saw a smiling woman waving goodbye to the attendees. I don’t know whether this was an official position or not — at some point she seemed to be directing traffic, though there was precious little of that. When our turn came, we smiled and waved at her. A mildly perplexed look crossed her brow, but she still smiled and waved back.
In our initial conversation about our experiences, I drew upon the analogy of stage magic. As with those performances, the seating was arranged in such a way that would conceal certain angles from the audience. This careful arrangement was intended as much to protect the audience’s suspension of disbelief as the illusionist’s secret methods. Any flashing of cards or other mistakes would endanger both, thereby ruining the purpose of the show (and perhaps the magician’s career as well).
In this model, the priest is the magician, with his altar boy playing the part of an assistant who supplies additional misdirection to the crowd. But unlike a typical performance, their illusion contains no frontend content with which to mystify us, nothing of substance to believe or disbelieve. Apart from the occasional ringing of a bell, the elements of the “trick” are hidden entirely from view. We could certainly read all about the magician’s backend workflow, learn the names of all his tools and the order in which they are applied. The question is this: could we actually perform his trick as intended? Could we even grasp the intent?
My second observation returned to the imagery of the alchemist at his workbench. Knowing a bit about the history of alchemy, the analogy seems particularly apt when applied to the Catholic tradition. From this perspective, the Low Mass is not an illusion at all, but rather the working of a magical spell. I theorized that the priest’s rapid, sotto voce delivery is actually an innovation on the rite as originally practiced.
During the period in which the Low Mass was developed, it’s likely that most (if not all) of the congregants in attendance didn’t understand a lick of Latin; the tongue was as mysterious to them as it was to me. Ours is not an age that favors mysteries, though. With the advent of widespread literacy and high speed information networks, it is possible for someone to learn Latin even without formal training. But could we understand it at the speed and volume this priest was speaking it? Perhaps mysterious sound is a core component of the spell, putting us in the right frame of mind to assist with it. We allow the words to exist as mere waves washing over us, and the movements of the priest to evoke secret labors, known only to him and to God.
Sadly, my friend reminded me of the instruction manual he was flipping through, the pages of which contained both the Latin words and their opposite-page English translations. Even if the priest’s patter was a strategic ploy, it was swiftly undone by some intern’s HP LaserJet in the back office. Nihil sacrum?
Still, I can’t help but think I was on the right track. I did not read the manual, and I suspect others in regular attendance haven’t done so either. I noted among them many immigrant faces: Slavic jawlines, Pinoy hues, the lips of colonial Spain and snouts of Greater Macedon. And even among those presumably native English speakers, I suspect they gave the translations no more than a cursory glance. After all, it was the Latin cues they needed to remember, in order to know when to kneel or rise.
My friend and I did not discuss the invocation to Saint Michael all that much, which in our case served as bookends for the rite. He claimed this is the norm at Catholic services lately (and especially during weekday masses, where it seems to have caught on as the default prayer).
I am well acquainted with the story of Michael: immortal patron saint of warriors, filling the void left by Athena, Tyr, Bahrān and many others whose names were forgotten long ago. Or perhaps these names describe the “evil spirits” he was tasked to defeat and hurl from Heaven. After all, his invocation is essentially a battle cry against the devil and his legions.
No matter which way you cut it, I don’t think this poem’s sudden surge in popularity is accidental.
I’ll conclude by revisiting the “demonic” intruder of my vision. Feel free to sketch additional details as you see fit. Dye her hair some exotic color, found only in candy factories and Anime art. Vandalize her skin with tattoos and piercings, the way so many members of my own lost generation did when we were young.
Perhaps in your version, she even calls herself a he, and comes equipped with a rotting, ersatz phallus, scooped and molded from the flesh of her inner thigh. Surgically install horns into her skull, if you must, and tint her eyes blood red. Transform her into an amalgam of all the demonic fiends the artists have shown us over the decades and centuries. Don’t hold back. These folks didn’t.
Now imagine such a supposedly “frightening” pair of individuals invading the ceremony I have described, in an attempt to soil it beyond repair.
In the movie version, the scene would swiftly devolve into chaos. Perhaps the congregation would spring into action, like the heroes of a Christian-themed Kung Fu epic. Or — given the state of cinema these days — perhaps it would only be the women who fought, while the men curled up in the fetal position and cried for mommy.
Or maybe everyone would do that: weep and wail whilst the righteous demons mock their ancient ideas and regressive ways. The priest keels over dead from a bout of the vapors, undone by his own cowardice and hypocrisy. His altar boy, meanwhile, strips off his cassock to join in on the devilish fun, his ritual dance devolving into an underaged burlesque show. “Hilarity” ensues.
That sounds more like the kind of Hollywood script our current zeitgeist would generate, approved almost by default. But permit me one rewrite before we go into production:
Instead of the Low Mass being shattered and ruined by their arrival, imagine that all of the gathered faithful have been rendered immune to such players and tactics. Imagine that they — like the rest of us — are no longer affected by these kinds of ugly displays, having been brewed in the same petri dish of postmodern sludge as our enemies. Consider the possibility they can no longer be shocked by anything the devil or his servants have to offer. Of what use are Satan’s shock troopers. if our snipers can see them coming from miles away?
Assuming that, what if the satanic twerker neither disrupts nor intensifies what is happening in this church, but instead finds herself totally ignored? The priest and altar boy continue the ritual with businesslike precision, the gathered flock continues to respond to their cues on time. Even the invader’s vulgar music is ignored — or, better yet, subsumed into the rhythms of the mass until it practically disappears, like the sound of crickets in the wee hours of the morning.
Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps sound alone is enough to shatter a spell in motion. But consider this possibility:
What if our invader is denied entry entirely? Not by means of physical ejection, via some hulking bouncer named Vito who guards the front doors. In fact, both she and her cameraman/ boyfriend/ pimp enter the church’s vestibule completely unchallenged. There they proceed to make the final preparations for her starring role in the ultimate edgelord meme.
But before they can get started, something goes horribly wrong. All of the sudden, our heroine doesn’t feel well. Not well at all. She’s sweating profusely, and can feel the early rumblings of a blinding headache coming on. Worse, the slime of her breakfast begins to roil her gut, and she fears she won’t be able to contain it at either end. Her heart beats faster and faster in her chest, like the onset of a panic attack. She looks to her friend, who appears to be suffering from the same symptoms. The tattoed skin of his neck is breaking out in a rash, and she notices the same rash creeping up her arm. Her breaths become short and agonized, as though she’s being strangled by invisible hands. Within a span of thirty seconds, every neuron in her brain is screaming the same command:
Before they know it they’re back in the car, sparking up a joint and shaking their poor, disfigured, transhuman heads.
“What the fuck happened back there?” asks the cameraman. “It was gonna be beautiful.”
“Drive, man. Just drive.”
A smiling woman in a veil waves to them as they peel out of the lot.
Might we call such an outcome the successful working of a spell? Asking for a friend.
That’s all I’ve got for now. My wife and I are going on a short vacation, so I’m not sure how much writing I’ll be doing the rest of the week, or how responsive I can be. I will definitely be back next week, and eagerly reading your comments and substacks in the meantime.
Till then: rock on, spirit warriors. May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.
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