N.B. All my life I thought the woman’s vocal on “Gimme Shelter” was Grace Slick. Didn’t think to double check until after publishing because why would you, right? It turns out it was a woman named Merry Clayton, roused before slumber late one night, pregnant and in curlers, pressed into service to sing backup for the Rolling Stones. We live and learn.
There’s chatter, you know, about when or whether or how we will be allowed to return to Mass. In a year? In a few months? Shall congregations be limited to 50 by government order, when the parish used to serve between 3,000 and 3,500 at eight Masses each weekend, plus about 150 each weekday morning? Shall tickets to Mass, so to speak, then be offered by lottery? Will the elderly get pride of place? It seems right. Will large families get pride of place, or big donors, or long-established veterans? It seems fair, especially if some families tick all three boxes.
There is chatter, too, and more productive it is, about a new (or a recovered) understanding of what Mass is. It should not be the spiritual McDonald’s where you go to meet friends, and whoop appreciation for the Youth Jazz Ensemble, because whatever the Spirit prompts you to do is right and loved by God. Certainly it should not be the place where Father does some stuff and then you go up and he gives you the little white thing and you sing a song that makes you feel happy about belonging. Where you have a burger, in short. Some people are even pointing out that for centuries before the 20th century (no, it’s not all the fault of Vatican II), Holy Communion was not something people received at every Mass. I seem to recall old historical novels about the Tudors in which the English Catholic nation, remorselessly dragged to Nan Bullen’s Protestantism, protest that they want the old way of Holy Communion only once a year. Apart from that, they wanted it reserved to the priest behind the rood screen, to be watched in awe each time. Cue King Henry VIII’s pulling down the rood screens. And, when the faithful did receive more often, it was (strangely enough) outside Mass, so that the idea of the consecrated Hosts being always alive, so to speak, the Body and Blood of Christ outside time, thrilled more in their own blood than we can possibly thrill to the experience of the Mass as some sort of “meal” where the little white thing is made holy of course, there, but is only ever to be received there. Like a burger at McDonald’s. If you don’t get a burger at McD’s then why go, and if you go to McD’s and don’t get a burger, were you really there?
All of this is fruitful spiritually. Can it be that Christ is really alive right now, and that if I cannot receive Him in Holy Communion above once a year — maybe not ever again for some years, for many years — can it be that I may actually grow to miss and love Him more? Extraordinary. And can He still be waiting for me and patient with me anyway? Extraordinary.
Then again. It is possible that this entire sad fiasco of panic-pandemic will turn out to be, for most of us, not cataclysmic but dopey. And to our sheepish embarrassment (a tautology?), life may quite go back to being exactly what it used to be.
Right down to the godforsaken music at Mass. And the choir processing, with grandly humble pride, to Communion first, because they are the most important. It must be a sign of normal spring life when the strongest weeds return first to the garden. Here is the first I have seen: a new song, “Shelter Me,” which my parish’s Facebook page coolly announces will be introduced, streaming, to the Masses this weekend. It’s written by the same very good and kind priest who wrote the famed “On Eagles’ Wings,” that staple of Catholic funerals so I’m told. I wouldn’t know, I’ve not been to a Catholic funeral in ages. Father Simon of Relevant Radio once joked that in the trade the ditty is known as “On Beagles’ Wings.”
At any rate you can listen to “Shelter Me,” above. The tune is pretty enough, the register — I know nothing about music, except that as Rumer Godden’s Dame Agnes would say, children have taste and sense — the register seeming to me flatly Disney. It might be Pocahontas singing about John Smith. Some of the lyrics are most unfortunate. Who can mangle the 23rd Psalm? Someone, very good and kind I am sure, writing “Death dogs my steps from day to day,” not caring that even to the native English ear, death dogs is wholly inapt.
Then there is the tone- and cultural-deafness of “Shelter Me.” Posterity will not automatically think, Ah yes, the famed shelter-in-place orders of various state Governors at that time, 2020! How sweet. People then and right now, looking at Mass now, are much more likely to think, oh yes, yes. Memory stirs … the Stones. “Gimme Shelter.” The composer himself is 68, a true Vietnam baby. I have never been very big on Vietnam anthems myself, it was about five years before my time, but even I made the connection at once. If we’re going to sing anthems about shelter in an apocalypse, I fancied raging on the parish Facebook page, let’s do it with some Stones.
Of course I didn’t post that, it would be so rude and uncharitable. I will leave with this: the eruption of this very song may show the odds are good that when the fiasco is over we may get exactly back to normal. Sometimes it’s what we least expect and what’s least healthy, no pun intended, that does happen after all. It’s just what people, whose authority and tastes were interrupted, resume arranging for all of us. They simply start doing their job again.
So imagine the rest of your life as a Catholic, never mind any spiritual awakenings about the life-outside-time of Christ in the Host, rocking back to gently settle at the old level. “Oh shelter me ….”
The Rolling Stones
and Grace Slick did it better just screaming simple words like WAR! MURDER! If I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away. You could post it on your parish’s Facebook page, but I didn’t because I don’t have the guts.