Roman Catholic mass can be a stolid exercise, perhaps even more so during Midday Mass at Conception Abbey in rural Nodaway County, Missouri. Walking up the steps of the basilica I’m braced by the cold — there’s a foot of snow on the ground and the wind is whipping. I enter the building through great wooden doors to the sanctuary. Cast in subdued light, I’m hit with the warmth of the room. The smell of incense is immediate; the sacred space a menagerie of images.
Built in 1883, the abbey church is a basilica, a status granted only to churches of major importance in the regional life of Catholicism. There are paintings on every surface, and statues or columns in every sight-line. The Beuronese murals which line the top of each wall tell the story of God. Dipping my fingers in the basin at the back of the church, I cross myself and bow to the altar. There are several dozen people already seated, scattered about. While the organist quietly plays a prelude we kneel and pray, awaiting the procession.
As I look around the room, I’m reminded that this place was once the scene of terrible violence. In 2002 a man named Lloyd Robert Jeffress entered carrying a pair of rifles and began shooting people. He walked through the halls of the monastery killing two and wounding others, then returned to the basilica and killed himself. The next day the bells of the abbey sounded once for every year the two slain monks were a part of the order — a total of eighty-three times — today they ring us back to mass and to sing the psalms throughout the day. That these peaceful monks suffered such heartache yet remain vulnerably open to visitors is not only a testament to their hospitality but also their commitment to the rule of St. Benedict, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” I have much to learn from them.
The mass begins. The liturgy of the word includes several call-and-response sections which I pretend to know, but no one would notice if I remained silent. One of the younger monks reads from the lectern. It is the same monk who read at morning prayers — his turn I suppose — Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospel for which we all stand. The priest reads the passage, and then we sit to listen to the Homily delivered peacefully.
When he is finished we sit in silence for a long time. Contemplation is assumed. The basilica is capacious, but so is the liturgy; room to think, room to pray, room to simply be. Every cough, sneeze or rattle reverberates throughout this place.
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