I started reading at church recently.
I am not referring to reading the newsletter from cover to cover in the lull before Mass begins - I am already intimately familiar with its contents, having spent a fair part of my working week devoted to its composition.
In any case, should I scrutinise the publication with the impartiality afforded by at least 24 hours' separation from editing it, my eye would inexorably be drawn to the errors I would doubtless suddenly discern.
Better to set it aside after a cursory glance.
No, what I am referring to is that I have been enrolled as a reader at Masses, one quarter of a rolling rota of four, the remaining three quarters of which consists of expert readers that have been in situ for years.
My first foray occurred early in the New Year; I skipped the subsequent slot due to my self-isolation period but the compass swung round with alarming speed, and I stepped up for my second stint one recent Saturday.
I use the term 'alarming' quite deliberately: it had been a good while since I was engaged in any kind of public speaking capacity, and I had forgotten how daunting an undertaking it could be.
When I was invited to become a reader, my immediate response was guilelessly affirmative.
Mooted in the sunny aspect of a coffee shop, the prospect seemed comfortably, hazily distant.
In addition, I will readily admit, I felt honoured to be asked: Ministry of any kind in the church is a privilege, and I was grateful to be considered qualified to seize the mettle.
However, a few weeks later, when the first rota hit my email inbox and I observed my name emblazoned in black and white, alongside an appointment some weeks hence, a swathe of sleepy butterflies in the pit of my stomach stirred their wings a little restlessly.
The gift of time cajoled them into sweet slumbers once again, but, as the significant date approached and reality set in, they awoke with a vengeance, fluttering around inside me with unsettling vigour.
I was keenly aware I needed to prepare: Biblical passages being what they are, I might well be obliged to annunciate the odd challenging character or place name: no-one wants to be greeted unawares by a rogue Nebuchadnezzar.
Thus, the day before my first assignment, I stood in the pulpit to practise the words I would read at Mass the following evening, determined to conquer my fears.
Two friends, accomplished readers themselves, listened in an otherwise empty church, to support and critique where necessary.
I felt nervous but capable, and managed to work my way through the two scripture passages, responsorial psalm and Gospel Acclamation without heinous error - and not a Nebuchadnezzar in sight.
My friends offered encouragement, merely suggesting that I take things a little slower, particularly as nerves were bound to cause me to hurry the next day.
I stepped down, reassured that I had familiarised myself with the text and would be able to deliver the readings without undue difficulty.
Arriving in good time for Mass the following evening, with my father and sons in tow, I approached the pulpit while the church was still filling up, to confirm the correct passages had been marked in the lectionary.
To my horror, I had no recognition of the readings on display where the book lay open.
I checked the heading, which was ostensibly correct.
Trying to contain my rising panic, I flipped back through the book and located the passages I had rehearsed - with a heading that might also be considered relevant to the Mass date.
It was now a mere few minutes before the service began, far too late to alert the attention of anyone who might be able to assist me.
I was faced with a dilemma: either I could switch to the readings I had practised, or gamble on the ones laid out for me.
After seconds of wretched internal debate, I decided to go with the pages marked out for me, trusting in the greater competence of others than myself.
It was a risky strategy, leaving me only a few seconds to skim read the text, with no opportunity at all to speak the words aloud. But I had made my choice.
Shortly thereafter, Mass began. As you can imagine, this latest turn of events had done little to pacify my errant butterflies, who were now swooping around inside me in haphazard, chaotic flight, constricting my vocal chords and accelerating my breathing.
Finally, the moment arrived for me to approach the pulpit; I took a deep breath, climbed the steps, and began.
Reflecting on the experience afterwards, I concluded that, although my performance was far from faultless, I fulfilled the task without major catastrophe: I had survived my first venture.
As is the case with most new experiences, my next appointment was less nerve-wracking, and I am happy to report that I am no longer terrified to see my name appear on the rota.
I just hope Nebuchadnezzar never raises his ancient head on my watch.
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