March 17, 2007

Famous Churches

When I go to a cathedral or mosque, a temple or ceremonial hogan, I like to be a participant instead of a tourist. So one evening while we were still in the Country Where You Have to Look to the Right Before You Cross the Street and I saw a sign in a famous twelfth century church inviting us to come to Evensong, I convinced my husband that we should return for the service. I didn't know, exactly, what Evensong might be, but I just loved the name of it. (Yes, I am the kind of person who will often choose a colour in a catalog based on how poetic the name sounds.) When we returned in the evening, we were told that the service wouldn't be Evensong, but a Sung Eucharist, which turned out to be very much like the traditional Catholic Mass I grew up with, except of course without the Catholic parts.

When we arrived, coming through the heavy doors, I slipped into the side aisle, taking the chair just at the elbow of the man who was directing the choir. From that spot, I could look right into the faces of the choir, a handful of young men and about a dozen little boys, who stood solemnly in their dark red and white robes. The choir had no girls in it, but these little boys had incredibly high-pitched voices. I can remember when Shaggy Hair Boy's voice was like that – he'd have these meltdowns and he'd scream in a voice that was more piercing than a smoke alarm. I realize now that we could have taken advantage of that voice and put him into a choir.

The only woman present on the altar was a young woman who seemed to be in the role of some kind of assistant. She seemed strangely familiar with her dark curly hair and lovely British accent, but I couldn't quite place her until my husband nudged me and said, "It's Hermione reading the Scriptures."

I spent most of the service watching the choir boys, who would dart shy smiles my way when they saw me looking. They took the music very seriously, their voices rising to the old stone arches that rose high above our heads in the candle-lit dimness. With their pale skin, dark hair, and flushed cheeks, they reminded me of my own boys at that age.

I've lost track of how many famous and not-so-famous chapels and churches we have visited over the last week. I never turn down a chance to gaze at stained glass windows, climb a tower for a magnificent view, admire stone gargoyles, or analyze architecture that tries for transcendence. In each church, I would find the side chapel where the candles were, slip coins into the candle box, and light a candle. In some churches, the candles were round flat votive candles to be set on big circular grates. Other churches had the little white tapers that could be wedged into old metal holders. I love the habit of lighting candles, of a little flame dancing near other little flames, my prayers joining the prayers of others who do not even speak the same language. I lit candles for my kids, of course, for my parents and siblings and mother-in-law. In the Cathedral Dedicated to a Famous Woman, I lit a candle for a friend who was planning a difficult conversation with her mother, and another candle for a friend who is working through some painful issues from his childhood.

Even though the stone buildings were huge – and magnificent, with their high ceilings and statues and windows – the candles created intimate spaces where I felt comfortable taking the time to light a flame and then rest on an old wooden pew, sending warm energy across the ocean to those at home.



Rev Dr Mom said...

Evensong is a lovely service, and I'm sorry you missed it, but any service would be lovely there, I'm sure.

You can listen to an Evensong service on BBC Radio on-line if you want to hear what one is like.

I love cathedrals.

Linda said...

I went to Evensong at that church when I was in the Country Where You Have to Look to the Right Before Crossing the Street. I was just starting a six-week backpacking tour of Europe on my way home from two years in South Korea. I remember lighting a candle for all of the friends I left behind in Korea, not sure that I would ever see them again. What a beautiful thing to think of that sacred space holding people so far away in the warmth of candlelight and beautiful music, and the prayers of faithful friends. Having been one who was held in such a way, I can assure you that connection through prayer makes all the difference in the world.

Linda (FM) said...

That was me, by the way. Didn't realize I was logged into my other gmail account when I left the comment.

And may I add that Blogger's word verification has become downright aggressive. I had to go through it three times to leave that comment....the words are long and hard to read anymore!

cloudscome said...

How nice to think of you leaving a trail of lit candles... I am just catching up on all your travel posts and it sounds so sunny and lovely. I am stiff and sore tonight from shoveling ice and frozen slush. The poor robins are hopping around bewildered. I don't think spring is coming this year ... don't hurry home. Sit in the sun a bit longer for me.

Hel said...

I love following your words into places far from where I am.

Gannet Girl said...

We would have such a good time on a trip to cathedral cities together.

Lilian said...

I think we attended two Evensongs during your six day visit to London. We didn't have time to visit Westminster Abbey during regular visiting hours, so the only way we got to see it was attending an Evensong service (of course we weren't able to look around much, but at least we got to see it). We also went to the Evensong on the day we visited St. Paul's and climbed up on its cupola.

I also lost count of the churches we visited on our whirlwind tour of Europe (or 8 big cities of Europe) back in 2000.

Oh, and I love that photo of Notre Dame, just gorgeous!