The Rest of the Week
Monday 8:45 a.m.
As I walked into the sacristy early that Monday morning, I greeted the sacristans and servers, and quickly went about preparing for the start of another day, albeit a few minutes behind schedule. Then as I stood there tying my cincture, and carefully placing my stole and alb, I noticed the chalice, sitting just out of reach on the vesting case. For some reason it had been on my mind.
As I stood there looking across the room, I realized most people didn’t know its story. I suppose that is the way it is with most things in life. We see things as they are and presume they have always been there, rarely stopping to consider where they came from or asking questions and to learn the story behind the story. If we take time to learn, however, we may discover that the beauty of what we see before us is transformed not only by what is inside, but by the story of how it came to be there. Such was the case with this chalice.
I have been given many gifts in life, but this one held a value that was somehow greater than all the others. It would be silly to measure its worth by conventional means, to appraise it and quantify it in a way that would be beneath its inherent dignity. The very first time I saw it struck me with a simple elegance. It was not showy, boastful or proud, but rather communicated a beauty well beyond such things. I wasn’t a priest then, just a seminarian. I was sitting in the back of the chapel in my home parish attending daily Mass and as I prayed I looked up at the second elevation and the priest’s chalice caught my attention. The stem was a Celtic high cross with one diamond at the center that supported the cup. It was simple, dignified and beautiful.
After Mass that night, when we gathered for dinner in the rectory, I mentioned to the priest how beautiful I thought his chalice was. It was clear to me that he loved it, and the Irish heritage it celebrated, his heritage. He told me all about it and laughed with his characteristic humor and joy when he observed that he was an Irish priest in a French parish. Truth be told I never thought much about that conversation in the years that followed. I went about my business and he went about his. As years of seminary followed I always saw that priest when I was home on a break, and we would catch up here and there.
A few years later I was ordained a deacon. I remember the crowds of family, friends, and well-wishers and the many hugs and prayers offered at the reception which followed. The excitement of diaconate is two-fold, first in being called to serve, to preach and to minister to the people of God, and second in taking the final steps towards priesthood. That May afternoon when the parish hall emptied out and when my family and friends made their way home, I headed to my room in the rectory to collapse and soak it all in. The rectory was quiet. The pastor had missed the day's events, tied up with too many places to be all at the same time. The associate’s door was shut. A hushed quiet filled the air. As I made my way up the stairs, I felt blessed by all that had gone on that day. And yet I also felt profoundly alone.
When I reached the room, I quietly shut the door, sat down and began to ponder. What was next? I had entrusted my future to God, but as I sat there I couldn’t help wondering what awaited me in the future, and a pestering little thought ran through my head: I hope I didn’t just make a mistake!
Then I looked up and noticed something sitting on the desk, a cloth bag and a simple note. I walked across the room, reached out and carefully opened the notecard, and read its simple words: “Congratulations, I thought you might appreciate this.” As I pulled on the drawstring and carefully opened the bag, I slipped my hand in and felt it: a Celtic high cross with a diamond in the center and the cup of a chalice on the top.
For a priest a chalice is not only the sacred vessel used in the celebration of the Mass, it is also something uniquely special: the most personal item from one’s priesthood, the thing carefully left in Wills and Last Testaments, and entrusted to the next generation only in death. As I sat in my room that night, and looked at the chalice I would one day raise at the altar, I could not help but be profoundly humbled by the generosity of a priest and the gift of his chalice. I could not help but to be overcome by the kindness of a man who so lived the Gospel that he gave away the very thing dearest to him. It is that moment, on the day I first was commissioned to proclaim the Gospel, that the Gospel was proclaimed to me in the most profound way.
The next morning when I saw the priest for breakfast, he said with a smile, “Did you notice anything unusual in your room last night.” I smiled and said, “Yes,” and then added, “Did I ever mention to you that I really like your car?”
Now, on a Monday morning years later, preparing to celebrate daily Mass at my own parish, nobody bothered to ask why I used the chalice I did, or remark about its beauty. It was a Monday morning after all, and we were running a few minutes behind. No time for the story behind the story. Still that chalice made me pause. Its story was all the reminder I needed: beauty often comes from what is given.
Father Andrew Nelson is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, Somersworth, and St. Mary Parish, Rollinsford.