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Morning mass in Alabama

by davesandel on June 1st, 2021

Tuesday, June 1, 2021                        (today’s lectionary)

Memorial of Saint Justin, Martyr

Morning mass in Alabama

I, Tobit, went into my courtyard wall. My face was uncovered because of the heat. Birds perched on the wall above me, and their warm droppings settled in my eyes.

Teaching the novices at Gethsemani, Thomas Merton praised the writing of William Faulkner. “This guy can write!” Merton exclaimed. “And what’s even better is that he writes American!” English might be a dead language, but like Mark Twain, Faulkner resurrected the old dead tongue as American. “We need more writers like that in America,” Merton told his listeners.

Well, I have found one, James Agee, who lived a short writer’s life. Educated (and bullied a bit) in a woodsy Tennessee Catholic boarding school near Knoxville, his neuropathways must have been saturated with the morals, stories and poetry of the Bible. Agee’s sentences (which are endless like Faulkner’s), paragraphs and pages, stories and poetry are wrung completely through with subtle theological reflections.

My wife Anna was given a young goat for the table. On entering my house, the goat began to bleat. I called to my wife. “Where did this goat come from?”

So yesterday, intending to watch Memorial Day war movies but caught up short by a Spectrum internet outage, then planning to listen to a baseball game and take a walk, instead Agee captured me. Listening to a reader who knows how to speak this kind of stuff (Lloyd James, in this case) and reading the words alongside him, I couldn’t get away.

Remember last week’s text, Sirach 44:1, Now will I praise these godly men.

Agee, quoting Ecclesiasticus but playing on Sirach, titled his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Assigned in 1936 by a New York magazine to find three white cotton-farming sharecropping families and their landlords in Alabama, he and photographer Walker Evans made their masterpiece. In Mr. Agee alongside Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, America’s awful Great Depression found its voice.

Agee’s sweet mix of self-effacement and quiet confidence earned the affection of the three families the two poet-photographer-journalists lived with. But he knew he was missing more than he was getting:

Our five or twenty known human senses are crudely woven, so that swarms of immediacy slide through these nets at best, assisted though they be by dream, by reason, and by those strictures of diamond glass and light whereby we punch steep holes in the bowels of the gliding heavens, taste out the salt small of the earth, and step measurements upon the grand estate of being.

His sarcasm sometimes overcomes me, but mostly I think the same way. We are enslaved and intoxicated by what we think we know, and take credit, but we don’t know nothin.

I would not believe my wife Anna, and we both became very angry. She retorted, “Where are your charitable deeds now? Where are your virtuous acts? See? Your true character is finally showing itself!”

At his Tennessee mountain boarding school, Agee cherished his experiences of Mass in the morning.

I used as a child in the innocence of faith to bring myself out of bed through the cold lucid water of the Cumberland morning and to serve at the altar at earliest lonely Mass, whose words were thrilling brooks of music and whose motions, a grave dance: and there between spread hands the body and the blood of Christ was created among words and lifted before God in a threshing of triplicate bells. And from the rear of the empty church stole forward a serene widow and a savage epileptic, softly blind, they knelt, and on the palms of their hands and at their mouths they took their strength and, blind, retired.

Then in a fit of genius, Agee saw this whole sacred morning Mass moment again at the scarred smoothed wooden kitchen table, laden with the required “iron violence of their breakfasts” before all the day’s hot and lonely work out in the fields.

And it is no beauty less that the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted, the kindling is laid in the grate and the lids replaced, a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt. The coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water, more wood laid in, the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven.

All these things with set motions, progressions, routines and retracings, of bare feet and sticklike arms, stick hands, contractions of the sharp body, and the meat sliced, sliding, spitting in the black skillet, and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned, and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center. And the eggs are turned, the seething coffee set aside, the meat reheated, the biscuits looked at … her straight black hair saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins, the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

And they come in, masked with the chill of the water that holds them together and silent with sleep, and the animals raise themselves out of the floor and establish themselves beneath the table, lifting open heads: and breakfast … is too serious a meal for speaking.

This is enough words, I think, for one day. Sometimes Mr. Agee wrote all night, or most of it, after spending his day working alongside his hosts in the fields. And then, I imagine, fell straight asleep the next night, when dinner was over and the last bells rung.

Jesus looked straight at them, and then he said, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

(Tobit 2, Psalm 112, Ephesians 1, Mark 12)


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