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Finding Beauty at Mass by Taking Photos

Read this reflective narrative about Molly's different perspective on her faith after taking photos of Mass.

Molly was asked to serve as a photographer for her parish, to capture images from her community’s worship gatherings. The experience opened her eyes to see the Mass in a new light. 

One of the benefits to the whole going-to-Mass-every-Sunday thing is routine. It’s a ritual that anchors my week — I know what will happen, and I can step into the church and know that I can rely on the community and format to carry me in prayer. I don’t have to do something to connect with God there — it’s easy to see the ways God comes to me. Like I said, it anchors my week.

But there’s also a potential pitfall in this repetition, doing the same thing over and over again. It’s something many of my friends cite as the reason they no longer go to church.

It. Is. Boring.

Despite the incredible things happening at the Mass — the literal turning of bread and wine into body and blood, for one — the experience of the event as it happens week-in and week-out can feel mundane at times.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of my mentors and favorite professors actually wrote a book on just this subject and aptly titled it Bored Again Catholic. But it does mean there’s room to lose sight of what’s really happening, to get lost in my own thoughts and become a bit restless.

I’ve been known to slouch my way through Mass, easily distracted. But over the past few months, I’ve gotten the incredible opportunity to become my parish’s unofficial assistant photographer — and that’s helped me see Mass anew once again.

When I’m taking pictures, it’s pretty hectic. Between trying to capture the perfect moment and being respectful of the Mass, I’ve got my hands full. But this chance to take pictures at baptisms, other sacraments, and special celebrations has reminded me, yet again, of the beauty of the Mass.

I’m primed to see beauty in the seemingly mundane

When I’m taking pictures, I see things differently. I’m primed to pay attention to light, movement, layers. And I’m hyper-focused on what’s happening on the altar, in particular.

I know that what happens in the Mass isn’t changed by whether I have the perfect view, or am in the right seat, or what I can and can’t see. But I’m a visual person, so being able to see the action matters to me.

When I’m participating in the Mass on any given Sunday, I get used to what’s happening on the altar and overlook it because it’s familiar. But when I pick up my camera and point it at the altar, I’m seeing things anew. It’s not just about the lighting, or the zoom, or that I’m doctoring up something to be more beautiful than it is. I’m seeing the truth of why I go to Mass in its barest form: the small white host and the chalice of wine present the person of Jesus to me in that moment.

And in those moments, where I’m seeing beauty anew, I’m reminded of what I already know. It’s not like my faith is somehow changed by taking pictures, or that we need to see things through the light of a lens and a screen to see them for what they really are. On the contrary, I’m simply reminded to look for the beauty, to look past what might seem mundane and ordinary. I remember once again that Christ gave his life — His body and blood — for me. And in participating in His supper, I’m made whole to give of myself to others once again.

When I take a photo of the details of someone dipping their hand into holy water, the moment a baby is baptized, the cherishing of one another at the sign of peace, I see things I wouldn’t otherwise notice. I hear individual notes in the symphony of a harmonious hour of praise. And those details are easy to miss, but trying to capture them with a camera illuminates and highlights them in a new way.

When I’m laser-focused on telling that story for myself and others through the lens of the camera, I’m reminded just why it’s so important to go to Mass.

I see my faith through someone else’s eyes

In addition to capturing the beauty of the Mass in its simplest, smallest moments, I’m able to see the impact that the Mass has on the people around me. This is particularly true of children.

There are often silly arguments on Twitter about whether people should take their kids to Mass (you should) and if a crying child is too much of a distraction from prayer (she’s not). But what I’ve found through taking pictures at my very child-heavy church is the real light of our faith.

One of my very favorite pictures is of a little girl who’s probably 4 years old. It’s taken at the Easter vigil, which starts outside with a large bonfire we use to light the Easter candle. She’s looking up — a little scared, a little surprised — and she’s just in complete awe of this giant fire lit before her.

It’s got a lot of problems from a technical, compositional standpoint — you’ve got no context for what she’s looking at, she’s obscured by people on either side, for example — but that’s what I love about this shot. It was a single moment, and in capturing it, I saw something I would’ve normally missed. I found out later that even her mom hadn’t even noticed her reaction.

This little girl is so enraptured, so captivated by the beauty of the Easter Vigil service. And I can’t blame her — it’s beautiful, shocking, and immersive. It’s one of my favorite times to go to Mass for a reason. Taking pictures at this Mass — and at others where children and adults alike are present and praying — allows me to see faith from another person’s eyes.

Now, when I’m in a dry spell in my faith and I’m not feeling anything at all when I go to Mass, I’m reminded by these pictures that my faith is about something bigger than me — that my participation in the Mass is about the betterment of the world, and that there are all these people praying with and for me. And I’m inspired to know that I’m not alone.

Next time you don’t feel like going to Mass, or don’t think you’re going to get anything out of it, I encourage you to look for those moments, those little details. See the faces of the people around you. Notice the intricacies of the movement on the altar, the art on the walls, the simple grace and beauty of the host and chalice. And remind yourself that no matter how boring it may feel, and no matter how isolated you are, when you’re participating in the sacrifice of the Mass, you are never, ever alone.

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