Rorate Caeli

The Glory of the Low Mass - Together with the Martyrs in the Catacombs

The tiny transept had its little altar, with a Greek cross in relief against a purple disk. Overhead the enormous curve of the vaulting hung heavy, and so low that a man could touch it by stretching an arm; it was as black as the mouth of a chimney, and scorched by the fires that had consumed the cathedrals built above it.

Presently the clap-clap of sabots became audible, and then the smothered footfall of nuns; there was silence but for sneezing and nose-blowing stifled by pocket-handkerchiefs, and then all was still.

A sacristan came in through a little door opening into the other transept, and lighted the tapers on the high altar; then strings of silver-gilt hearts became visible in the semicircle all along the walls, reflecting the blaze of flames, and forming a glory for a statue of the Virgin sitting, stiff and dark, with a Child on Her knees. This was the famous Virgin of the Cavern, or rather a copy of it, for the original was burnt in 1793 in front of the great porch of the Cathedral, amid the delirious raving of sans-culottes.

A choir-boy came in, followed by an old priest; and then, for the first time, Durtal saw the Mass really as a service, and understood the wonderful beauty that lies inherent in a devout commemoration of the Sacrifice.

The boy on his knees, his soul aspiring and his hands clasped, spoke aloud and slowly, rehearsing the responses of the Psalm with such deep attention and respect, that the meaning of this noble liturgy, which has ceased to amaze us, because we are so used to hearing it stammered out in hot haste, was suddenly revealed to Durtal.

And the priest himself, unconsciously, whether he would or no, took up the child's tone, imitating him, speaking slowly, not merely tripping the verses off the tip of his tongue, but absorbed in the words he had to repeat; and he seemed overwhelmed, as though it were his first Mass, by the grandeur of the rite of which he was to be the instrument.

In fact, Durtal heard the celebrant's voice tremble when standing before the altar in the presence of the Father, like the Son Himself whom he represented, and imploring forgiveness for all the sins of the world which He bore on His shoulders, supported in his grief and hope by the innocence of the child whose loving care was less mature and less lively than the man's.

And as he spoke the despairing words, "My God, wherefore is my spirit heavy, and why dost Thou afflict me?" [Psalm 42] the priest was indeed the image of Jesus suffering on the hill of Calvary, but the man remained in the celebrant -- the man, conscious of himself, and himself experiencing, in behoof of his personal sins and his own shortcomings, the impressions of sorrow contained in the inspired text.

Meanwhile his little acolyte had words of comfort, bid him hope; and after repeating the Confiteor in the face of the congregation, who on their part purified their souls by the same ablution of confession, the priest with revived assurance went up the altar steps and began the Mass.

Positively, in this atmosphere of prayers crushed in by the heavy roof, Durtal, in the midst of the kneeling Sisters and women, was struck with a sense as of some early Christian rite buried in the catacombs. Here were the same ecstatic tenderness, the same faith; and it was possible even to imagine some apprehension of surprise, and some eagerness to profess the faith in the face of danger. And thus, as in a vague image, this sacred cellar held the dim picture of the neophytes assembled so long since in the underground catacombs of Rome.

Joris-Karl Huysmans
The Cathedral