A Review of
One Ordinary Sunday:
A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass
Reviewed by Callie R. Feyen
Paula Huston was one of my first writing teachers, and without a doubt, the toughest. I would send her pages and pages of gorgeous description, witty dialogue, and hefty characters and she would send them back with comments like: “No conflict!” Something needs to happen.” “Dig deeper.”
I didn’t want to write conflict. Conflict made me uncomfortable. I wanted to write what I knew, and I didn’t trust that I’d be able to resolve an essay or a story if I brought up a problem. However, under Huston’s mentorship, I slowly began allowing space on the page for conflict, and learned to endure and eventually enjoy coming to the story and looking at it again and again. I believe I am a better writer after studying with Huston, but it wasn’t until I read One Ordinary Sunday that I considered looking at and embracing conflict as a spiritual practice.
The book, which takes the reader through one Mass at St. Patrick’s, Huston’s church in Arroyo Grande, California, is broken into two parts: The Story and The Sacrament. Huston explains each part of mass, but while she explores the story churchgoers attend to each Sunday, Huston tells another story alongside it: “Though I haven’t told a soul, for months I’ve been battling a vague gray something, a mixture of anger, self-pity, and a secret sorrow.”
As the book progresses, Huston uses Mass to navigate her own story. During the Homily, for example, Huston discusses the differences between the long Lutheran sermon (on which she grew up), and the short Catholic homily. “A sermon is more like an oration, in that it is often more formally structured than a homily, and frequently includes sections devoted to exposition, exhortation, and practical application….[t]he homily, in contrast, is meant to shed light on the readings for the day.” On the Sunday that Huston writes about, she listens to a homily on Matthew 11:30. Huston contemplates why this concept, letting Jesus carry our burdens, makes her suspicious. “[A]s a Norwegian Midwesterner to the bones despite a lifetime in laid-back California, I cannot imagine giving up strength for voluntary weakness. Which might, I am starting to see, having something to do with my gray funk.” Here, Huston sits with a story she’s heard again and again, and uses it to explore this new story that she is living. “Perhaps, I think, this is what Catholic homilies – so brief and informal compared to the weighty sermons I heard as a Lutheran child – are meant to do. Not so much to teach the Bible as to throw swinging bridges between the readings for the day. Not so much to be a moral exhortation as an invitation to go deeper into the mysterious realm of the heart.”
Contemplating the words in the Sanctus, Paula is shaken by the Isaiah 6:1-8: “Whom shall I send?” She doesn’t want to be the one to be asked, she realizes, because she is grieving. “Ashamed, I lower my head…I want the Mass to reshape me…but there’s something getting in the way of that, something I’ve got to let go of, and how do I do that when I’m not even sure what it is?” Here again, Huston layers her own story onto the story she’s participating in Mass.
When it’s time for the recessional, Huston realizes what it is that’s bothering her: “It’s death, pure and simple. I’m tired of it. I don’t want to go through more of it.” While Huston is writing about physical death in this scene, I wondered as I read if every time we offer our stories on the page, a sort of death happens. Perhaps that is why I was reluctant to write conflict; if I hold onto it, maybe it won’t happen.
However, Huston’s next sentence, and what I think she was hoping I would learn when I was her student, is that conflict: death, sorrow, fear, will not stop happening. Why not lay it down alongside the stories in the Bible: “where we get a little taste of Heaven.” Where we have a place in its history, where we learn that, “this is what it means to love and be mortal.”
One Ordinary Sunday is the story of one Catholic Mass in Arroyo Grande, but it is also about returning to where we’ve been, “[y]ear after year, we relive the events of the Great Story, the Story of the Human Race, honoring what should be honored, weeping for what should be mourned, and praising God for his infinite love.” When I was her student, Paula was trying to steer me towards a more bold and faithful kind of writing; the sort that honors all the nuances of the story, no matter how difficult or mysterious they may be. Huston shows in her book (and her teaching) that the tough work of living a story is also the most life-giving.