Common Wisdom: Altar Ego

If anyone told me twenty-five years ago there would be women in the pulpit, I’d have been incredulous; if told I’d be one of them I’d have been aghast. Yet here I am, anno Domini 1990, completing ten years as parish lector.

My presence near the altar is more accommodation than conversion to the practice. I’m not totally comfortable about laity in the sanctuary because I regard Holy Orders as conferring unique privilege on its recipient, granting him alone the celebration of Mass. Altar boys complement the grown man and may be led to vocations. As a young girl, it never crossed my mind to covet the role, nor did I later desire it for my daughters. It was appropriate for my son who, nevertheless, missed any vocational call.

Taking my first walk into the sanctuary—space I consider the priest’s—was difficult. If tomorrow the Church reversed itself and said, “thanks very much, you can go now,” I would willingly surrender my lector’s cap. I never did become a eucharistic minister, although the opportunity was presented several times. I continue to believe that in ordinary circumstances communion should come from ordained hands, a prerogative bestowed on one who lives a dedicated life. In fact, if a eucharistic minister of either gender comes forward to distribute communion, I move discreetly to the line destined for the priest. This statement will alienate certain readers, so let me quickly add, some of my best friends are eucharistic ministers. Personally, I just see no reason or need for them during the course of a normal Sunday Mass. It hardly causes undue burden for us to wait in line. On the contrary, it might help us focus on what we are waiting for. Kneeling, of course, is the posture which most informs and is most conducive to humility and reverence (“kneeling itself is a sign of adoration,” Vatican II, Sacred Liturgy, Chapter II, 34b). But liturgical Cromwells long since removed that symbolic gesture.

My path to the lectern followed years of hearing too many lectors read Scripture as if it were the telephone directory. Surely it deserves better, although the English translation clearly was not produced by poets. The laity generously volunteered, but something more than generosity is required. Effort should be made to deliver the text in a manner that invites concentration and provokes in¬terest. Recognizing I had no fear of public speaking and had done a lot of it in secular circumstances, I decided I should go and do likewise for my Church.

I got off to a bumpy start. With experience, I would learn the sacristy is the scene of many scenes, depending on (a) personnel assigned to Mass and (b) the disposition of the celebrant. Before my “first” Mass, I mentioned to those assembled that lectors might wear robes, doing away with any distractions teen boys might have when teen girls read, and solving as well the problem of “What shall I wear?” An instant salvo was fired by a nun in our midst, who bristled that mine was a sexist concession. Why should girls have to oblige boys? Meanwhile, the conservative countered that wearing robes by women lectors opened a wedge to their ordination. Before I could rally, the priest told us to process. My first reading was thus accomplished with the unsettling realization I had managed to unify, in the sense that each was irritated, liberal and conservative brethren. An illustrious beginning.

I’ve always believed lectors ought to dress for Mass at least as well as if they had an appointment with the mayor. Most do. My own code prohibits slacks, although it would be infinitely easier if I abandoned this constraint. My closet bulges (I do not) with practical pants and dressy jumpsuits. There are far fewer skirts and dresses. I record with regret that the first slacks I saw at the lectern were on a nun. Two weeks later they hugged a capable lector who, however, should run not walk past any department store display of pants. With the return of the mini, it is arguable that pants are more modest than skirts. Call it my aesthetic quirk, but there is something too casual, too informal about women lectors in slacks. I know God will love us regardless of what we wear. But if this is the reasoning, why not put priests in jeans? Apparel doesn’t change the substance of Mass but it certainly conveys attitude. If I don’t dress as if this hour is special, it suggests indifference on my part, and it invites indifference in others.

Then there was the Mass when every lector’s nightmare happened to me. My partner carried the Lectionary to the pulpit and inadvertently opened to the wrong page. When I stepped up to do the first reading I confronted totally unfamiliar words. Predisposed to guilt, real or imagined, I assumed momentarily I’d prepared another Mass. But sanity weighed in and I realized the page, not I, was in error. I turned backwards and scanned verses. I turned forward. Nothing familiar. By now there was an unholy silence as the congregation perceived I was in some sort of jam. Usually one does not utter anything from the lectern not in the Lectionary, but I felt obliged to explain: “Sorry for the pause; I’m trying to find today’s reading.” This admission sufficiently startled my partner, who came up behind me, pulled another ribbon, and produced the correct text. It was months before I stopped carrying the paper missalette to the lectern, against the possibility of further public blunders.

If not having the right page is dread number one, the inability to read whatever is there runs a close second. This near disaster was mine when I reached for my glasses to follow lyrics for the entrance hymn and found they were the only item missing from the rather extensive inventory of my purse. Missalette print was impossible to discern. I anticipated impending doom at the lectern. What to do? I am amazed at the speed with which adrenalin floods the body. Within the shaky space of a few agonizing minutes I reckoned that my correction was relatively small and the Lectionary print substantially large. I would risk the possibility of having to hold the book at arms length, like a blurred restaurant menu. Somehow, I muddled through. But I must report the congregation suffered a very s-l-o-w reading, as an anxious lector forged her way as if each new word were a total surprise. An excellent argument for thorough preparation of the text.

After a decade, naturally, I can record a mike-less Mass. By nature compulsive, reopening mailbox slots to make sure the envelope really did drop down, I’m hard pressed to explain the oversight at Church. I often don’t trust the sacristy red light on a panel which indicates the lectern mike is live. I slip out to scratch it and hear the reassuring sound from the nave. But it came to pass I found myself in the pulpit, sans microphone. It isn’t that it wasn’t “on,” it wasn’t there. Summoning memories of Theater 101, about reaching audiences in the second balcony, I took a deep breath and loudly exhaled Holy Writ, first row parishioners wishing they had selected more distant pews. Apparently the skill of voice projection, like bicycling, does not disintegrate with disuse.

Among lectors in my parish there is a great spirit of cooperation. We switch assignments or substitute without expecting reciprocity. Only once have I refused to read. A nun attached to our community mailed a blatantly feminist prose poem to me, which I was to read in place of the second scriptural text. This was for Mother’s Day, and there was no reference to Mary, just a frank celebration of women. It was not only offensive, it was an irregularity. I distinctly remembered a prohibition in the documents of Vatican II against additions or deletions to the printed liturgy. I notified the pastor and the nun that in no way could I stand before the congregation and pronounce this paean. Someone else, whose antenna is evidently retracted, read for me.

Ten years. I’ve never gotten accustomed to being up there. I must say it is touching to see parish partners of husband and wife, parent and child. I feel enormously, undeservedly privileged when I cross into the sanctuary. Before I do, I borrow a prayer from my old missal, the Munda Cor Meum, silently said by the priest before the gospel:

Cleanse my mind and my lips, almighty God, Who cleansed the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a burning coal; in Your mercy graciously cleanse me also that I may proclaim worthily Your holy Gospel.

Purists will point out that I’m not proclaiming the gospel according to the evangelists. I will respond with the hope I never do. Those readings should always be reserved to the priest. Meanwhile, I am amazed, indeed overwhelmed, to hear the church filled with words of Holy Scripture, and realize the voice is mine.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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