I need to start by telling you that today I reread with great enjoyment (and with many peals of long loud laughter) The Thurber Carnival, which is one of the books that David Webb's sister let me take home from her brother's extensive book collection when she and her husband and the Heys were finishing the Sisyphean task of cleaning out David's apartment last week. David is a fellow choir member who died January 7th.
I apologize about the rapid shift among the topics of laughter to death and back to comedy here, but I'm am leaving out the wonderful funeral that people chipped in and arranged for David last week, because I need to skip to to another topic, which is the funny thing that happened to me in the confessional box last Sunday.
In case you don't know, James Thurber wrote hilarious stories for the New Yorker, many about misadventures in his family. I wonder what kind of a comic masterpiece Thurber might have been able to make of this little misadventure of mine that I'm about to relate.
My mishap occurred when I went to sing last Sunday at Five Wounds Portuguese National Church a few minutes from my house in San Jose. Canon Fragelli, who is our current rector at the Oratory of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Santa Clara, had arranged to say a special Mass at Five Wounds at 7:00 p.m., in honor of the feast of St. Francis de Sales, who is the patron of Fr. Fragelli's order, the Institute of Christ the King.
We were happy to be back at Five Wounds, because the former pastor, Fr. Donald Morgan, had allowed us to celebrate a sung Traditional Latin High Mass there every Sunday for a year, and we miss the church now that we are back at the little Oratory.
The Oratory used to be a German Protestant worship space, and the proportions are wrong for Catholic liturgy to my eye. Besides, the Oratory doesn't have the space needed for the children of the large families that attend traditional Latin Masses to run around and not enough room for their parents and singles to socialize after Mass.
Five Wounds is a unique and strikingly beautiful church built early in the 20th century with a marble high altar, mahogany altar rails, and a saint's statue in every nook and cranny. My friend, Rita Hey, told me that many of the architectural elements were brought down on wagons along the Camino Real from San Francisco from the Portuguese Pavilion after the Panama-Pacific Exposition closed at the end of 1915.
I think that grand building is perfect for the reverent celebration of the extraordinary form of the Mass. When the Mass started last Sunday, Fr. Morgan processed in with the long line of altar servers ahead of the celebrant, Fr. Fragelli. Fr. Morgan was not vested in a chasuble, but instead he was dressed in an alb. After a while, Fr. Morgan left the altar for the confessional.
That ornate mahogany confessional is of the traditional-style, which was designed to allow the identity of the person confessing to be hidden. The priest sits behind a door facing towards the church, and the penitent kneels facing the side of the priest in a separate compartment behind a heavy burgundy velvet curtain.
Fr. Morgan pulled back the sliding door across the screen between us while I was still trying to lower myself onto the kneeler. I have trouble getting down onto my knees these days. The original kneeler must have been removed at some point in time, and unbeknownst to me, the movable kneeler now in the confessional was tucked in at an awkward angle so that I wasn't able to get my knees onto it on my first attempt. I had to stop partway down, hoist myself up again, move the kneeler, and gingerly lower myself again. All while Father waited for me to settle down and begin.
Meanwhile the Mass was going on and a number of other people had started lining up for confession.
My whole kneeling and hoisting myself up and kneeling back down again exercise was complicated by the fact that I was trying to hold the heavy velvet curtain against the door frame at the same time. In retrospect I realize that all these shifts in position may be partly to blame for the extreme wardrobe malfunction that occurred later, but I'm jumping ahead.
So it came about that before I even got to say, "Bless me Father for I have sinned," I had to say, "Father, the curtain won't close." The curtain was partly unhooked at the top, and even though I held the curtain shut as best I could, a shaft of bright light shone into the confessional through the gap above where my left hand was holding the curtain, like a spotlight right into Fr. Morgan's face. Fr. Morgan is a small man around 60, with neatly trimmed grey hair and a florid, mild, intelligent face. He is a former Christian brother, who became a diocesan priest about five years ago. He is diffident, but you can sense a stiff backbone behind the quiet demeanor.
I started my confession. When I was finished, he gave me a penance and prayed the prayer of absolution. I said the act of contrition, then I hoisted myself back up off the kneeler so I could get up to the choir. When I let go of the curtain, I could see some people kneeling in the nearby pews. To my surprise, Fr. Morgan got up too, I think he was going to try to fix the curtain. That's about the time when my skirt fell down.
I told this "most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me story" to friends at the Oratory at the weekly potluck held after the 10 a.m. Thursday Mass this week. Although Fr. Morgan usually celebrates the Tuesday Mass as a visiting priest, he had been filling in for our usual Thursday priest and had eaten with us at the potluck, but he had already left when I started talking with the others about what had happened. One friend tried to be helpful. "Maybe he doesn't know it was you. Maybe he didn't see your face?"
Not likely, I thought. "Yeah," I said sarcastically, "Maybe he had been focusing on my skirt down around my ankles." Then the friend got thoughtful, "Maybe that's why Father's face was red today when he was eating with us. Did you notice how red his face was?" No, I hadn't. Father had been asking for details about the recipe for the simmered Chinese chicken I had brought to the potluck, and I didn't see anything unusual in his looks or actions.
"What did you do next?" somebody asked. "I pulled my skirt up and left. … Come to think of it, there was a woman in one of the pews who was looking at me funny, so maybe she saw what happened too. Oh no. Maybe others saw too." My friends had to agree that I was probably right. How dismaying a thought that one is! What thoughts must have run through those people's minds, after the kinds of scandals that have been blared all over the headlines? "What's that woman doing in the confessional with her skirt down around her ankles?"
Actually, if you take it literally, that's a good question.
Some have asked me how my skirt could fall off. To this I reply that with my current shape, trying to get a waistband to stay in one place without slipping down is similar to what it must be like to try to securely cinch a string around the middle of a beach ball. Spend a few seconds imagining trying to perform that task. Maybe you could get it cinched, but once the beach ball started being moved around, the odds are that the string would quickly slip to a part of the ball with a smaller dimension, and just as quickly fall off.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that this is not the first time I've had a skirt fall off.
My friend, Rita Hey, when she heard about this latest and most shocking occurrence told me firmly that I have to get suspenders.
At the thought of wearing suspenders, I hesitated, fashion slave that I am, and I offered, "Maybe I'd wait until they come into style." "No," Rita said, "do it now. Wear them inside your other clothes." Maybe that's what I'll have to do. I'm seriously thinking about it. In the meantime, tonight when I dressed for the First Friday Mass where we also had our throats blessed on the Feast of St. Blaise, I put on a dress.
About the end of the year of Traditional Latin Masses at Five Wounds in September 2010
How the building materials for Five Wounds were brought from San Francisco