This chilly January, we remember a reflection from a special snowy service that happened in our BSVM 2018-2019 year of service and spiritual formation. Mara Scarbrough (BSVM 2018-2019) served in Baltimore, MD during her year and reflected on an instance of God using the unexpected (a snow storm) to bring new life into the routines of her spiritual practices. Read below to learn how ‘The Snow Sunday’ created a shift in her presence and find out how that shift mirrored her spiritual growth during her time with BSVM.
The Sacred Snow Sunday
By Mara Scarbrough, BSVM 2018-2019
A graduate of Birmingham-Southern College
I was not made for snow. Growing up in southern Tennessee, I was spoiled with warm weather and temperate winters. The one half-an-inch snowfall a year would shut the city down, and the threat of snow was guaranteed to ensure a clear-out of the stores’ stock of milk and bread. This January, Baltimore was hit with a number of snowstorms, and one of the hardest arrived early one Sunday morning.
Our community attends St. Bernadine’s Catholic Church, a vibrant parish about a mile from our home. The 11:30 gospel mass is a weekly two hour experience that never fails to lift my soul. St. Bernadine’s is the home of the best gospel choir in Baltimore. A majority of the service is sung, and together we sway and worship the Lord with a musical sound that is indescribable. Every part of the mass is broken up by songs that provide a space to reflect on the service and the choir sings with a contagious joy that sweeps me up. The Sunday of the Snow, I was unsure if we would be able to make it to mass. The roads were icy and in my mind, any amount of snow over a light-dusting seems dangerous to drive in. Thankfully, I am in community with people from states that are used to snow, and they felt confident tackling the roads.
We arrived just in time for the service and were greeted with a relatively empty church. Monsignor Rich Bozzelli had predicted a low turnout and had set the Church up with 15 folding chairs placed in a semi-circle around the altar. For a congregation that normally has full mass, it was disconcerting to arrive to such an intimate setting. We were called up to join the two other families at the front of the Church, and we all took time to introduce ourselves as we settled into the folding chairs.
The service itself was an informal affair. Not a man prone to pomp on a regular Sunday, the informal setting seemed to suit Father Rich. The liturgy was relaxed yet still reverent, with a natural flow that came from people stepping up to read as they were needed. The homily was presented in a question-and-answer format that suited our group. Father Rich read the homily about the baptism of Jesus and asked us questions. He guided a discussion about faith, the importance of sacrifice, and symbolism that could never have happened in a large group. As we had questions, he was happy to clarify, and tangents were encouraged to make sure that we all left with a better understanding of the significance of why Jesus would be baptized. It helped to reshape a story I have heard dozens of times, and take ownership of it in a new way.
In all, the 11:30 service was comprised of thirteen people, including Father Rich and the dedicated choir director. We attempted to sing all of the music, but for a congregation used to a 30 person choir of talented singers, our enthusiasm did not manage to measure up to the standard. It is worth noting that while we normally sing all the verses in a song, this was a two verse maximum week. My Granddaddy’s motto has always been, ‘if you cannot sing well, at least sing loud,’ and we were loud. In such an intimate setting, all the voices were needed, and an absence was noticeable. As such, everyone sang. It was not a traditionally pleasing sound, but I know that God was relishing in our rejoicing. There was a freedom in our worship and despite the fact that everyone was singing in a different key, it was a beautiful sound.
The Consecration of the host was the most powerful aspect of the intimate service. What is always a reverent time in the service took on a new life when I was sitting up-front and center. Father Rich moved slowly in this part of the service, taking time to sit with each part of the blessing. I could feel the Holy Spirit speaking in that moment. So often I notice my mind wandering as the choir is singing, or I am distracted by children playing in the pews around me. Not so this Sunday. I was fully present. We each walked up to the altar and received the gifts in relative silence, each “Amen” echoing in the empty space.
There was no music to guide the procession, no pomp in the presentation; just a thoughtful quiet. As someone who loves the music, I thought that I would have a hard time settling into the solemnity. I did not find that to be the case, however. It added a reverence to the experience, which seems like it would be at odds with the informal service, but I think it might be the reason for it.
The next week, the 11:30 mass was filled, the choir returned and the church was busy, and everything was mostly the same. I never thought I would be thankful for snow, but I found that the “Snow Service” helped to jolt me from complacency. I notice the choir in a new way, paying attention to how the song selection connects to the readings. We hug our usual pew neighbors during the passing of the peace, and still wave across the church to our small group from January.
Our attendance at St. Bernadine’s this year has challenged my concept of spirituality and worship all year– not just that Sunday. The community I have found at St. Bernadine’s helped to connect me to the city and quickly helped me create roots in Baltimore. It is a Church that loves this city and in the midst of chaos, they strive to be an anchor for a community that is disproportionately affected by the violence in the area. It is a congregation that worships actively and I have seen the fruits of engaging with the service in a way that is new to me. I grew up in a traditional Catholic church community that valued the personal experience that mass provided. At St. Bernadine’s, the congregation is focused more on the communal experience of the service, while still respecting the response of the individual. When we sing the Our Father, the whole church community comes together and connects. People lean across pews, or stretch out into the aisles to ensure that everyone has a hand to hold. Passing Peace is a mobile activity, with congregants making their way across the Church to hug a friend or welcome a stranger. It is a reminder of the connections we have in Jesus.
The Snow Sunday has created a shift in my presence in current services, as I have found my appreciation for the mass to be richer. I find that this service mirrors my growth this year. In living with my community, I have found that I am less isolated in my relationship with God. There has been a gradual shift from personal to communal prayer. I was hesitant with the idea of praying together on Monday nights, but I quickly found that it opened up a unique space for dialogue. Intentionally carving out a space to pray together has been an important foundation for our community. It has made my prayer life richer, both when praying with others and alone. I have discovered new ways to pray and had the opportunity to formally and informally experiment with different ways of talking to God. The fruit of this exposure had yielded a more intimate, yet casual relationship with the Lord. My prayer life currently looks more conversational and less formulaic than it has in the past. I am not always reciting prayers, but usually walking with the Lord throughout my day. I am thankful for the communities I have found both in St. Bernadine’s and through BSVM that have encouraged me on that spiritual journey. I am confident that the connectedness I feel St. Bernadine’s and West Baltimore helped me make the decision to stay in the city when my year ends.
In the ministry program, we are reminded that when we go to work in our neighborhood, we are “walking on Holy Ground.” It may be a cliché, but I agree with it. God shows up in unique ways in the streets around us. He is seen in the laughter of the kids at the park across the street, in the beauty of the flowers fighting for a space on the sidewalk, and in the familiar greetings between stoop neighbors on our walk home. This year, I have learned to find God in the unexpected– be it a snow service, with a neighbor picking up trash, or through sharing life with my fellow community members.