Sunlight pours through stained-glass windows. Incense rises from a smoking thurible. Chant echoes throughout the sacred space. Every Sunday I attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Traditional Latin Rite of the Catholic Church; every Sunday, I find myself immersed in the beautiful traditions of my Faith. When I attended the Traditional Latin Mass for the first time. It changed my life. This event was more then just than a passing experience. Week after week, I return to participate in this transcendent mystery. I watch with awe as it unfolds before my very eyes, always different yet always the same. Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, truly present under the sacramental species, is shown the utmost reverence. Scenes from Revelation flash by, forming as it were one complete image. Change is held at bay. Time is suspended. Stability, reverence, and tradition are drawn together in an indissoluble union. The Latin Mass was the culmination of everything I loved and cherished. It was as if my entire life had prepared me for this moment.
My childhood was a continual story of change. Since my father was in the military, I grew up moving almost every two years, going from one place to the next. I would occasionally make friends, but they would always move on. Nothing was permanent. If anything was predictable, it was that change was inevitable. Time moved on without respite. I began to ponder this somewhat unconsciously. I needed stability, an anchor, if you will. I needed a point of solid reference to make the world more intelligible. Time continued to rush past, sweeping me into the next chapter of life, and as it did so, I found myself drawn closer to my family. They were my only constant in a fluid and unending sea of change. It was to them whom I instinctively turned.
My family became my life, and this proved a great blessing. Through them, I discovered the Holy Mass. I began serving daily Mass when I was 9 years old, and when we moved to West Point, NY, a year later, I continued to assist in the Holy Sacrifice. My spiritual life became more intense as I grew older, and my love for the Blessed Sacrament increased. Yet at the same time, something was lacking. Every parish I attended seemed to have lost or forgotten the ancient traditions of the Church. Looking back, Hilaire Belloc captures my sentiments perfectly in his essay entitled “A Remaining Christmas,” where he observes: “modern men who lack such things lack sustenance” (4). In other words, those who lack the sacred traditions of the Church are missing an essential part of their existence, for these practices make tolerable and normal an otherwise disheartening and abnormal thing – the mortal state of immortal men (Belloc 4). The post-Vatican II “modernized” form of the Catholic Mass seemed impoverished, although I knew not why at the time. This deficiency enkindled a longing within me, compelling me to explore the depths of my faith more.
For three years while at West Point, my father taught at the United States Military Academy, and during our time there, the institution made a deep impression on me. To borrow the words of Belloc, a reverence for tradition seemed “knit into the very stuff of the place” (2). “Duty, Honor, and Country” were its foundation. The “Honor Code” was its standard. Tradition held it all together. Our family would frequently watch the military parades on “the plain,” a wide grassy stretch of lawn flanked by century-old, stone buildings, hewn of solid granite. The march may have been Straus or sometimes Souza, but the picture was the same every time. Columns of men would march by in perfect formation. Their bearing was always immaculate, their uniform impeccable, and their choreography flawless. Thousands of plumes rose above the mass of soldiers, each one shimmering in the morning sun. It was as if they were one body, one entity, united in the undying tradition of the institution. They were part of something beyond themselves, something that stretched back through all ages of United States military history. Those years deepened my love of military precision, order, and discipline. The dedication the cadets had for the Honor Code and military tradition made a lasting impression on me. This permeated my growing love for the Holy Mass. West Point gave me a sense for the honor and reverence due to our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.
We left the United States Military Academy in the fall of 2015, and I was halfway through my 14th year when we moved out of state and settled into an old country farmhouse. My family immediately started looking for a parish, and it was not long afterward that we made an hour-long drive to my first-ever Latin Mass. Ever since that first day, now just over five years ago, my family and I have continued to make that same trip every Sunday. I still remember the morning I experienced the Traditional Latin Mass for the first time. It keeps coming back like a dream – so real and so vivid.
As I enter the doors of the church, I am filled with awe. My eyes are drawn past the long isle, lined with oaken pews, to the amber sanctuary lamp hanging above the high altar. Golden chains from a large oak beam suspend the precious object. Below this beam is an altar rail, separating the faithful from the sanctuary. The rail is made of a pure white marble, and it extends from one side of the church to the other, complemented by a bronze double gate in the center and two smaller gates leading to each of the side altars. The main altar, elevated three steps higher than the rest of the floor, is perfectly centered. It too appears to be marble, and on it a golden tabernacle, partially veiled from view, is flanked by six towering candles. A large, golden crucifix rests above the tabernacle, and on each side, flowers of all kinds cover the altar’s upper regions. The delicate petals and soft, natural colors surround the tabernacle with a living aurora. The fresh-cut blossoms contrast brilliantly with the age-old stone and precious metals, infusing the ancient relics with the new life always present in God’s creation. Costly linens cover the main altar stone, and the chalice is hidden beneath an ornate piece of fabric which corresponds with the colors of the liturgical season. At my pew, I genuflect reverently and take my place. Then, the Mass begins.
It all comes back to me in a rush of emotion. The words are Latin, the ancient language of the Church. Melodic chants and polyphonic harmony, also in this same language, drift down from the choir loft. Latin is both sacred and mysterious. In a sense, the words themselves are veiled, and the effect is all the more powerful because of it. The reverence and precision of the rubrics give the sanctuary a military-like atmosphere, and the bearing of the servers show their commitment to God, forming a worthy guard of honor for His majesty. These boys are knights of the altar; they are soldiers of their Eucharistic King. The sweet smell of incense surrounds me, engaging yet another one of my senses and turning my mind back to the priest’s actions upon the altar. Smoke from the censor slowly fills the church, and beams of sunlight penetrate through the haze.
Tradition radiates from the ancient chants, the prayers, and the liturgy itself. The low melodic chant, exhilarating tinkle of the bells, and soft clinks of the thurible harmonize with my own thoughts: Our faith is not something invented yesterday and gone tomorrow. It is ancient. It is unchanging. It is immutable. The words of St. Theresa of Avila come to mind as the Mass continues: “Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. Everything passes. God never changes. Patience obtains all. Whoever has God wants for nothing. God alone is enough.” Everything seems to echo the same message: the truth never changes – God never changes. The sacred vessels used in the Holy Sacrifice are on the altar, hidden from view by a veil. The priest raises the host for consecration. The bells penetrate my soul. I am no longer aware of those around me. Tears come to my eyes. I am lost in wonder and adoration.
I had been to Mass many times, but never like this. The essence of the Mass is the same, but here the traditional form of the liturgy seems to transport me back in time. I see the heavenly scenes from the Apocalypse with my own eyes. Everything is there. Before me, the golden candlesticks, censor, and chalice all reflect the sunlight with a supernatural brilliance (Douay Rheims Bible, Rev. 1:12, 8:3, 5:8). The Sacred Book rests upon a golden stand, its pages worn with age (Rev. 5:4). The altar of sacrifice holds the “Lamb of God” Himself, slain to redeem fallen man (Rev. 6:9). Behind me the choir chants the Sanctus, while the prayers of the Saints are born upon clouds of incense (Rev. 4:8, 8:4). The angelic chorus Saint John witnessed seems to fill the air: “Benediction, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, honor, and power, and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 7:12). Holy Scripture is opened before me, and I witness the entire story of salvation history from beginning to end. It is a glimpse of heaven.
In the Traditional Latin Rite, the Mass is celebrated in all its glory. It is not limited by time and space; it is a direct link with Heaven – an intimate connection to God. I was filled with what felt like inextinguishable love. Perhaps my life was not changed as much as it was fulfilled. Everything up to that point had pointed towards the traditional liturgy. It was constant; it did not change. In a world of unceasing motion, here was something that remained immovable. My soul was drawn in by its military precision, honor, and reverence. It was as if I was looking through a window into all the sunsets of the past blended together in one unfathomable panorama. The Latin Mass was beauty in its fullest sense. My love for tradition and the Holy Mass were united. My longing was satisfied. In a sense my search was over, but really it had just begun.
Belloc, Hilaire. “A Remaining Christmas.” Jonathan Cape, 1928. Penguin Classics, 1958.
The Bible. Douay Rheims Bible, 1582. Saint Benedicts Press, 1899.