Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Saved by the Mass: Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water

Our thanks to one of our frequent guest contributors, Roseanne Sullivan, for offering us permission to reprint part of this article from her blog Catholic Pundit Wannabe. In it, she summarizes journalist Sohrab Ahmari’s experiences of the Catholic liturgy, and the role they played in his conversion, as recounted in his recent book From Fire by Water, published by Ignatius Press.

One Sunday evening in 2008, after two nights in a row of binge drinking — part of a pattern of compulsive misbehavior that shamed him when he was sober — Sohrab Ahmari was pacing around the block near Penn Station in New York City, killing time waiting for a train back to Boston. After several turns past a building that had what he described as a “nondescript brick façade” with “a relief above the entrance of an almost alien Jesus,” he went in and found a passage into a church where Mass was about to begin.

The Capuchn church of St John the Bapist in New York City, with the “alien Jesus”.
Sohrab Ahmari’s First Mass

Ahmari had never attended a Mass before. “The first thing I noticed on entering the vestibule was the serenity of the place, which struck me as almost impossible. Miraculous even, amid the pandemonium of midtown.”

A young guitarist with a man-bun played and led the congregation in singing hymns. While the congregation around him stood, kneeled, sat, prayed, and sang, Ahmari stayed seated in the back and wrestled with his ambivalence about religious belief. He paid little attention to what the friar was doing at the altar.

Skepticism had been ingrained in him in Iran from his bohemian family, and it had been reinforced by his experiences after he came to live in the United States with his mother at the age of 13. He had deep spiritual longings, but he didn’t want to be counted among the gullible by his intellectual peers. He thought he was too smart to be a believer. “But all of a sudden, the singing and the strumming dissolved into that all-encompassing serenity, and something extraordinary happened.”

During the consecration, he began to cry, not tears of sorrow or of joy, but of peace. The Mass appealed to two deeply-rooted parts of his personal make-up that he described in the first chapters of the book: he had always admired heroic self-less sacrifice, and he longed for cosmic and moral absolutes. The words of the consecration struck him because they made present at the Mass the redeeming death of the blameless Victim, who humbled Himself to become human and died on the Cross that all may live. On his way out after Mass, he saw a photo of Pope Benedict XVI in the vestibule, and that set off a new bout of tears—because he intensely craved loving, paternal, moral authority and the continuity that the papacy stands for.

He attended another Mass, and, from then on, he found that he could no longer honestly say he was an atheist. As he said in a Fox News interview, although he felt the faith was true on the level of his imagination and emotions, “it took, still, a long time to finally assent to faith.”

Wrong Worship (without the Mass)

Seven years later, Ahmari was married and working in London as an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal’s European edition. He had come to believe in Christianity and — with the encouragement of a zealous friend — he occasionally worshipped at evangelical services. He lived near an evangelical Anglican church called Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), and he began to occasionally attend services there. “[T]he Regency church with its elaborate stained-glass windows and vaulting arches, played host to charismatic worship that included JumboTrons, rock bands, and funky lighting.”

The Latin OF Mass at the Brompton Oratory

On the way home after one such charismatic service at HTB at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, Ahmari noticed a sign at the nearby Catholic Brompton Oratory (Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) advertising a Solemn High Latin Mass, starting at 11, and he went in.

It was Pentecost Sunday. The richness of the church decor with abundant marble and carvings, the way that the architecture beautifully leads every eye to the altar of sacrifice, and what he felt was the rightful inclusion of the carving of the Immaculate Heart of Mary under the baldacchino and in a painting above the main altar, all captivated him. “It was a holy place. It was a place of right worship.”

A world-renowned choir chants and sings traditional sacred music at the Brompton Oratory’s Solemn High Latin Masses. The priests celebrate ad orientem, facing towards Jesus, towards liturgical East. Instead of staying aloof as he had at that first Mass, Ahmari threw himself into following along with the other worshippers as best he could, standing, sitting, kneeling, and blessing himself (a few times with his left hand).

Ahmari was struck that “the metalwork and masonry and painting directed my imagination to spiritual realities,” and in contrast to what he had just experienced at the HTB service, “the Catholic Church didn’t need to bend herself to the vacuous fads of 2016.”

The very next day he sought out a priest at the Brompton Oratory’s offices and announced he wanted to become a Roman Catholic.

There is more of great interest in Ahmari’s story, much more; the rest of the fascinating story is told in From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith. Conservative journalist and media figure Sohrab Ahmari wrote it to show the influences and events of his life and the changes in his convictions that brought him — from the fire of misery and the captivity of sin, through the water of Baptism — and into the Catholic Church.

Ahmari Speaks About the Mass with Ignatius Press

As noted above, From Fire by Water was published by Ignatius Press. In the following video, one of a series of videos discussing Ahmari’s book as part of the Ignatius Press FORMED Book Club series, he talked about the differences between his experiences at the two Masses described above, and the form of the Mass he prefers, beginning at 4:40. The relevant portion of the interview is also trascribed below.

Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. (founder and editor of Ignatius Press): In your conversion story two liturgical events were critical. One was right around Penn Station . . . when you went into the Capuchin Church. The other was when you went into Brompton Oratory. Vivian, why don’t you make your point about the first experience?

Vivian Dudro: When you went to the chapel near Penn Station, . . . that Mass was a low Mass in English. At the consecration when you heard those words, “This is my Body,” you made the association that a sacrifice was occurring, and that was an “aha” moment for you. And then later you were at a Brompton Oratory Mass in Latin. I was wondering if your first experience of the Mass had been the one at the Brompton Oratory, do you think you would have understood that a sacrifice was being made if you hadn’t been able to understand the words of the consecration?

Sohrab Ahmari: I think it would have struck me more, but I would have understood less. That [Brompton] Mass is a richer presentation of both the symbolism and the supernatural action of the Mass, and it would have been an experience I would not soon have forgotten.

But I don’t think I would have put two and two together to understand that this is an altar like any altar of every civilization that has offered sacrifice—which all civilizations have—but in this case, it’s God Himself offering Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb. I don’t think I would have understood that as much, but at the level of mystery and emotion and imagination I have no doubt that the Brompton Mass would have made more of an impression on me.

But overall my state of mind in going to that mass was one of ‘I am lousy. I am abject. I need something to redeem me,’ and as it happened, I found the Mass but thereafter within twelve hours I had forgotten about it.

In either case it would probably have taken some time to get to the point of willingly seeking out the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Fessio: What’s your preference liturgically now?

Sohrab Ahmari: I have a son who I like to take to Mass. [Since the interview, he has also a baby daughter.] I’m registered at a church that has a Solemn High Latin Mass on Sundays. But my son can’t sit through all of it. I vary. Sometimes I need that beauty of the Latin Mass. . . . So that means I will go alone on some Sundays to have that. And then on other Sundays, when I want to take him and my wife, then we’ll go to a different church where the liturgy is fifty minutes, a reverent Novus Ordo Mass [in English]. I try to go to Mass daily; I don’t always succeed. My day is so packed that I’m grateful for the twenty-minute daily English Masses at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Father Fessio: I celebrate ordinarily the Novus Ordo mass, but in Latin, with English for the readings and prayers and the Preface and for everything that changes each day. I celebrate the rest that stays the same especially the Roman Canon, [Eucharistic Prayer I in the Ordinary Form] in Latin.

Sohrab Ahmari: I have to mention the Mass that is described in the book in the final chapter at the Brompton Oratory was not the Traditional Latin Mass. It too was a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin—also with the variable parts being done in English. I’m quite fond of that format.

Father Fessio: You’re young and energetic and a talented writer, so I hope to pass the torch onto to you from the Brompton Oratory and from me that in the future you can agitate for more widespread use of the Novus Ordo in Latin. I call it the Mass of Vatican II because it’s what the Vatican fathers were thinking about when they were talking about the reform of the liturgy.

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