February 26, 2023: “Let My Prayer Be Incense Before You”

Feb 17, 2023

[This First Sunday of Lent, St. Ignatius celebrates two Rites for 18 adults: the Rite of Sending for our catechumens (preparing for baptism) and the Call to Continuing Conversion for our already baptized candidates. In the afternoon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Dolan welcomes the catechumens, accepting their desire to be baptized into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. This essay is written by Kelly McLees, who was received into the Church last year.]

Watching the plumes of incense smoke dancing upward toward the gilded ceiling of St. Ignatius, week after week is what saved me.

I embraced Catholicism later in life. Raised in an environment that was hostile toward religion, I knew that my father had been brought up Irish Catholic, my mother Methodist. The only time we ever discussed religion, they told me that they hated the hypocrisy and that I could choose for myself when I became an adult. Their wounded bias was hardly enough information for a thoughtful decision.

As the years passed, I sought remedies for the growing agony of mental illness. Some were fruitless, and some were devastating.

Not until I started researching my ancestry did I find a beacon to God and to solace.

My paternal grandfather’s first cousin was Monsignor Archibald Vincent McLees, a Catholic priest in predominantly Black parishes in Brooklyn and Queens at the height of the Civil Rights Movement who worked tirelessly for racial justice. The more I discovered about him, the more he beckoned me to follow him into service through the Catholic faith. So, I enrolled in RCIA at St. Ignatius.

Throughout our months of instruction, Mass enthralled me: the pageantry, the homilies, the music, and the sweet incense smoke swirling and rising in the vault. Before this, I had only attended one other Mass. I have a vague but precious memory of my father’s mother, Nana, taking me to church when I was very small. I remember my lacy ankle socks because they were itchy and her gently explaining how to rest on the kneeler covered in maroon Naugahyde. It was likely an act of subterfuge, spiriting me away out of concern for my eternal soul.

Despite my deep desire to enter the faith, I struggled to surrender. I had nagging doubts about my upbringing, preventing me from joining my voice with the congregation in prayer and song.

On Holy Thursday, that wall finally crumbled. Standing beside one of our beloved instructors who couldn’t hold the music sheet while steadying herself against the pew, I shared mine with her, heard her voice, and raised my own. So began the magic that carried me through the Rites of Initiation and welcomed me into God’s home.

I chose Dymphna as my baptismal name after the 7th-century Irish martyr. She is the patron saint of the mentally ill, and I needed her intercession sooner than I had expected.

After Easter, summer passed, autumn descended, and the pendulum of my mood swung dark. My spiritual practices and rituals fell away. I became consumed by the familiar bleak despair.

Yet I kept returning to Mass.

I sat in the pew every Sunday, suffocated by the knot in my chest, rolling my mind’s eyes at the infuriating message of God’s love. Like a petulant child, I argued with it, insisting on my exceptionalism of being too horrible for even God to love.

God is patient, though, and does not forsake even the brattiest among us. And God kept parking me in the pew and letting Jesus do the talking.

Months passed, and the only moments I saw any light or felt any warmth were during Communion. That physical connection to Jesus gave me the will to keep fighting.

One Sunday, just before Advent began, the shroud finally began to lift. I was watching the incense smoke again and realized that they were prayers. My prayers, our prayers. The prayers we say each week for the intentions in one another’s hearts.

And, finally, rising with those prayers was all my sadness, and I was saved.

— Kelly McLees, Parishioner