I haven’t been to church in years. I can’t even remember the last time, other than when I attended services at a Jewish synagogue for a class project. Compared to then, a year ago, I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be in both mind and body. I remember sitting in that synagogue, the only blonde-haired and blue-eyed person there, feeling so uncomfortable. My bladder disease still felt new, my courage to reach further and further out of my comfort zone still building.
This was just one of the many things I thought about and remembered while attending my first ever Catholic service at The Cathedral and Metropolitan Church of the Holy Trinity, more commonly referred to as Christ Church Cathedral. The cathedral itself is one of the most stunning in all of Dublin. I couldn’t take any photos of the inside, but I do have some of the church grounds from a prior day when I was walking nearby. I went with my roommates, Abbie, Jess, and Courtney. None of us are particularly religious, Abbie and I less so than than Jess and Courtney, but we were all newcomers to a service of this nature in such a massive and beautiful cathedral.
The inside was ornate, the ceilings reaching upward where they met in lovely arches. Stain glass covered all the windows, some too high to see well but nice all the same. Even the floor had a unique pattern with circles and squares and bricks in dark greens and maroons. When we approached the door, crowned with a beacon of light, we were met by a man who clearly thought we were there as tourists. He said the cathedral was closed but open for 5 o’clock mass. We told him that’s what we were there for and he seemed pleasantly surprised, handing us the programs and leading us into the church. We were handed candles as we passed the front desk and found seats on the left side, right near the middle (and near a very life-like statue of a dead body lying on a coffin).
The lights were dim when we sat down and we could barely read the program, which had the entire service all laid out down to when we stood up, sat down, lit our candles, blew them out. Good, otherwise I would have felt more out of place than I did. But really, I didn’t feel like anyone could pick us out as people who didn’t belong or weren’t practicing Catholics. No one seemed to pay us much attention. We were quite early and slowly, other people came, most sitting behind us. The church was no where near full, but there were enough people to fill the space, all spread out as we were. I also couldn’t help but notice the lack of children. We were among the youngest there, which seemed very odd to me. Someone out of view was playing a church organ, which sounded – honest – like the beginning of some Pink Floyd songs. With the whispering of people nearby and the organ that seemed to sound strikingly like a synthesizer, I felt myself relax.
Suddenly everyone seemed to be standing. Was there a cue we missed? Clearly. The procession of all the religious officials – sorry, my terminology is weak at best – and the choir, separated by gender, came out from the left-front side of the church. They were hidden by the columns at first, but eventually they moved into view with their thick, heavy robes of white and red, with all their sashes and other decorative gear. Some carried staffs with a candle on top. The choir members carried their songbooks, which had nice microphones bending over top like book lights. We faced front, as everyone else seemed to be doing, but the silence after they’d passed was too much. I got a bad feeling that they were looking at the backs of our heads, picking us out as people who don’t belong. It wasn’t long really that long ago where people lost their lives in Ireland for attending mass. I waited for the rocks to hit the back of my head, rocks that thankfully didn’t come.
Curious, I turned around right as the choir began to sing. I was taken aback, used to church choirs that sound patched together at best. But this was a whole other production. They were very practiced and in perfect harmony. I love a good choir, loved hearing the music swell up to fill the spaces in the wide-open cathedral. I couldn’t help but think that maybe for a moment, it wasn’t such a stretch to understand why people felt empowered by religion. I’ve only ever felt restricted and held back by it, but with the music all around me, I couldn’t help but smile a little bit. People find hope in all forms in lots of places. I found some in the sound of their voices and the beauty of the space; others surely found it in the gospels that were read aloud, in the words we repeated back to the reader. “We find him born in our midst,” we said. “Sun of Righteousness, our God for ever.” “Good Lord, deliver us.”
Candlemas is a special service, as I understand, which takes place 40 days after Christmas. It’s a bitter-sweet celebration, for it focuses on the revelation of Jesus in the temple but also, we know what was to happen to him between now and Easter. I have never been to any other mass, so I can’t speak to the differences between this service and what another might be like. Early on in the service, a man and woman, both carrying a staff with lit candle atop, came down the aisles and the person on the end would light their candle, which they’d use to light the candles of everyone else in their row. The man was very kind to me, actually telling me that I had to bring my candle to him, not vice versa, or he’d spill hot wax on me. He gave me a smile and told me to pass the flame down. I misunderstood and passed the whole candle down, but all was quickly sorted out. We stood with our candles lit. I couldn’t help but notice the way the light from the flame danced across the page, looking as if smoke was trapped inside the pages. The lights, turned on at the beginning of the service, were dimmed. We sat in darkness with only our candles.
The movements of the priest and the deacon, the choir, and all others who ran the service were choreographed, but didn’t feel practiced. They moved with such grace, taking their movements so seriously, bowing at each other, holding the Bible up in hands gentle but firm like an offering. As I was in the middle of all this under a cathedral ceiling that has held the voices and prayers of many people before me, I couldn’t help but think about the mark of religion on our world. There was a time when religion didn’t exist. There was a time when Christianity was condemned. For as long as the idea of institutionalized spirituality has existed, people have died for and because of it. Wars all throughout history have been fought because of religion. The Crusades. The war in Syria. Israel and Palestine. The Jews of World War II. The American Revolutionary War. The Civil War between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, which might have ended in the 1920s, but whose legacy has remained a deep and festering wound. All the human sacrifices. All the honor killings in the name of God. The terrorists who suicide bomb and plot attacks in the name of their god.
It’s not all death. Religion has had a place in our world, is so deeply ingrained in our culture not because it’s killed so many people. There’s another reason it has survived and flourished. I don’t know the reason because I haven’t experienced it for myself, but I can imagine what it feels like, to believe. I can step outside myself and feel a wave of relief come over me, a heavy robe of pressure to find purpose and determine my own fate fall off my shoulders. People find something that helps them survive in religion. It helps them celebrate and it helps them heal. I could never say that religion is bad, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying it has killed more people, in ways direct and indirect, than anything else. No one disease has killed as many people, that is certain.
I don’t resist religion because I morally object to it. I felt pressured as a child to conform, and from an early age, I could feel my bones resisting. I never understood the stories in Bible school. I never felt the hair raise on my arms during a particularly moving sermon. I didn’t understand how there could be a God who would hate certain people, or demand money in a collection, or demand your presence at certain times in a church. I couldn’t wrap my head around the need to speak to him even though he never speaks back. Whatever God is in my mind, he’s not wrathful, he’s not judgmental, and he’s not a demander of anything from anyone. God is, perhaps, just the idea of peace and goodwill, but even this message becomes distorted because of all the bad feelings I have associated with religion. I’m just now reading a book about the Magdalene Women of Ireland who suffered slave abuses up until 1996 at the hands of the Catholic Church. I’ll never forget the pastor who told me my mom was going to hell because he was the man who proved to me once and for all that I would never find my God in institutional religion. I don’t want to praise anyone or bow to anyone. I feel grateful and I feel bigger than my skin, euphoric and higher than life, hopeful and happy. Maybe this is my God, but he doesn’t have a shape or a face. It’s just a feeling. I don’t know what will happen when I pass, but I’m okay if this life is the only life. I will never understand the suffering, but no Bible passage could explain it to me any better than my own intuition, which guides me, right or wrong, on the path I need to be on. I don’t need to fulfill anyone but myself, and this is a relief to me. My purpose is my own and I will determine it. Others find guidance in God, but I find guidance in my own feet.
This all swept over me sitting in the church, sitting and standing, lighting my candle, blowing it out. Listening, above all, to the sounds of the choir mingling with my thoughts. So profound, religion. The world’s greatest story by far. JK Rowling created one enchanting world that my generation will continue to escape into, but it is nothing compared to those storytellers that wrote the Bible, that conceived of and created the very religions that fill our churches today. I like thinking of religion as a story because I’ve always thought that words are the most powerful thing in the world. Stories can be remarkably real, becoming part of ourselves. Our lives become the stories. I believe this is true with religion.
This was all before the fire alarm went off. The funny thing about this is that I’ve always joked that the next time I step into a church I’ll catch on fire (because I often joke about religion, not to offend, but to connect). I wondered, as we were taking our seats the first time, what would happen if a fire alarm went off during a service. And then it did. Here’s what happens: nothing. The choir kept singing and it seemed like we were the only people who were shocked by the noise. A woman walked very quickly down the aisle near us and soon after, the noise stopped. Everything continued like nothing had happened.
The end of the service involved us all proceeding out along with the priest, deacon, staff-carriers, and the choir. As they sang, they led us through the back of the church, around the pulpit. I wish I had better terminology to describe what was hiding back there. I saw a spiral staircase leading up to – maybe? – where the organ was. There was a space right behind the pulpit, hidden by the walls, where a Bible sat in the middle of chairs cut into the wall, red cushions sitting on each. Next to that was a room with chairs, a nativity scene sitting in a cut-out stage in the wall at the front. The wings that surrounded the pulpit were shaped like a cross, I could gather that much. There were small steps up and down, iron gates that are usually closed open at each the entrance and exit for our procession. I don’t think most services involve such a procession, though I could be wrong.
We all gathered at the back of the great room (ugh, terminology why can’t I grasp you) until the choir finished singing. We blew out our candles and listened to the final prayer. My head was swimming with words, all these thoughts about religion I haven’t yet worked out but am still trying to. I’m grateful for my experience tonight in Christ Church Cathedral. I didn’t particularly enjoy repeating the verses back to the reader, but I did so out of commitment to the experience of what I was doing.
Tonight was about immersing in a culture I don’t understand. You’re now reading the words of someone who will never really understand, but who is not afraid to try. I don’t think religion is about being right or wrong, and maybe that’s where so many different denominations of the same faith fail. No one will ever prove in any meaningful the existence or non-existence of a God. The Truth of existence itself isn’t the point. Not exactly. I think in the space where we ask questions, where things are cloudy and the story is ours to write as we want, that’s where we find our safety, our comfort. God can be what we need him/her to be.
In my story, there is no God. And in this I am safe. I am comfortable. I have so many questions and a world to explore. I’m doing my best to make it all meaningful in a way that fulfills me. That feels hopeful to me.
Featured photo by nomadicpursuits.com