Aunt Thelma, Martin Luther, and Daily Mass

by Ross Decker Sr

I’m a simple guy. Not complex.  I’m easily trained. The same situation produces the same thoughts and memories in me. When my little Sophie was a bit more than a year old, I thought it would be funny to torture her mom. Each time I went through a doorway I would smack the doorframe and say “sorry, Sophie.” Now I often remember the time she beat me to it, slapping the frame and saying “sorry, Papa.” Everytime I brush my teeth I smile as I think of Lily, who brushes her teeth by holding the brush steady and moving her head from side to side.

Maxwell Maltz wrote a book in the late 60’s about how we can change our own perceptions about ourselves.  It was “Psycho-Cybernetics”. It was based on the assumption that are memories of events shape our present day responses to similar situations. One of the striking claims Maltz made in his book was that, if we came to a fork in the road, barring any memory we had of the last time we were there, we would always make the same decision about veering left or right. If we went right last time, we’re heading right again today. So, when I see something that strikes me, I think of the same thing I thought of last time. Sort of a mental Groundhog Day.It helped me a lot. And it helped the Atlanta Braves a little. The 1969 Braves read the book as a team and won the division championship. Then they got swept by the Mets in the playoffs.

I try to go to daily Mass. My schedule allows it and I enjoy it.  I’ve never once joined the communion line at Mass without thinking of my Aunt Thelma. She was the first in my family to convert from protestant to Catholic. She’d been raised in a protestant family. Her dad was a Lutheran minister. Her parents taught the faith. Still, as an adult she made the conversion. She did it for the most classic of reasons. She’d fallen in love with a Catholic. She and my future uncle were to be married. So she converted to Catholicism and promised to raise her children as Catholics. She kept that promise and, as often happens, she became a more devout follower than my uncle Joe was.

The thing I remember about her when I’m on the communion line is her contemplative silence after receiving the Eucharist. It was impressive devotion. I could see that it was real. The first time I saw that was when I’d slept over my cousins’ house on a Saturday night and went to Mass with them in the morning. When my aunt came back to the pew I asked her a question. My cousin Joey interceded. “You can’t talk to her after she’s received the host, ” he said. “She won’t speak.” This was great. I thought it would last all day. But, of course, it didn’t. By the time everyone was filing out of the door, she was greeting all her friends enthusiastically all the way to the parking lot. Her silence may have ended, but even a cynical guy like me could see that the devotion which inspired it had not.

Martin Luther is thought to have said “We need to hear the gospel everyday because we forget it every day.” Now there aren’t many Luther quotes I can get behind, but that one is one I agree with. For me, it’s the same problem I have with a diet. I may make an honest promise to myself to eat better in the morning but I’m likely to be snacking on peanut butter and jelly by the evening. Sometime during the day I forget how fat I am and I drop the diet. It’s the same story with those decisions I make at Mass. I hear the homily and I want to be kinder. I want to be nicer to people. That’s why I try to go to Mass every day. I need to hear the gospel every day. Because I, along with Luther, forget it every day.

And what do I hear at Mass/? Well, there’s a reading from the Old Testament. A responsorial psalm, and a reading from the New Testament. Generally, the readings are pretty clearly linked. Then the priest sums up the day’s readings with a homily that identifies what Jesus did and said. He usually says that we should go and do likewise.

We also hear a lot of things when we pray corporately. We always pray for the Church. We pray for those who are victims of violence. We always pray for an end to abortion and that God will be the helper of the helpless. And we are often reminded that God will use us to answer our prayers. We always pray for the poor in a practical way. “You pray for the poor,” says Pope Francis. “And then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

So, that’s the things I need to hear each day. Because, if I don’t I very well forget. I was fortunate to see my Aunt Thelma live out a devout Catholic life, She wasn’t perfect. We all knew that. You could surely get on her bad side. And that was never a place that was fun to be. But, more likely, she was the voice of reason around the table when we were visiting. She was the one who could see that someone did wrong but was still deserving of love.

Now, I’m not kicking myself for my failure to measure up. I’ve been on that “good Christian” treadmill many times before. It took a lot of work but I always wound up in the same place. So, I’m not getting back on. Not ever. Still, I do think it helps me to go to Mass as many days as I can. It makes me want to be a better person.  So, maybe one day I can start going a little easy on the peanut butter and jelly. And, maybe someday I will actually become that better person.  Maybe I will be a kinder guy. And maybe it will last even after I drive away in the car.

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