By now readers will have seen that the Owl questions the relationship between faith and our ostensibly Christian culture. Most people: citizens, migrants, resident aliens, and dissenters of all kinds, participate in it comfortably enough to get along, if only by virtue of history, ancestry, and habit. When the Owl began his travels to foreign parts (1989), he carried his skepticism with him and tried to apply it in those unfamiliar places. A strange thing happened. He could not help admiring what he saw of churches, wherever he went. Not that his destinations were so exotic; at first we visited only the UK and Italy.
As it happened, the first worship service I ever attended outside the United States was Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There was a powerful modern organ prelude (though I wrote to ask, I could never find out the composer or name of the piece), followed by an aria of Mendelssohn sung by a boy soprano. That latter, a single voice resonating in the tremendous space was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I embarrassed myself and those around me by shedding copious tears.
After that, my wife and I attended Mass at Westminster Abbey, sitting in the choir, where each chair contains more architecture, arches as crotchets, than most whole buildings in America. In the succeeding week we received an extraordinary welcome from the congregation at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria, including an architectural tour of their twelfth century sanctuary and cloisters, visits to surrounding points of interest, and personal hospitality.
In Italy the first worship service we ever attended was Mass in the chapel of the Nikopeia, in the north transept of the Basilica of San Marco, Venezia. There the icon of Theotokos is adorned by an arc of lights; one kneels on the cold stone floor. I lit candles for my Protestant friends at home, while I say only half in jest, this made me a Catholic. There followed Masses in other churches great and small: the Duomo of Florence on Easter 1994, when I stood on the pew and yelled with the rest of the crowd, Giovanni Paolo II’s twentieth anniversary Mass at St. Peter’s, the procession on Domenica delle Palme in Borgo Sansepolcro, . . . . The list goes on. It also includes some very humble incidents: a woman with shopping bags in hand comes in one door, kneels alone with head bowed to pray before a very unremarkable madonna col bambino in her neighborhood church, then goes out a different door, taking her shortcut home.
Contrary to my experience at home, in none of these had I any doubt that they were authentic, profound expressions of their surrounding cultures. Brits and Italians may not think they are religious, but if so they are wrong about themselves. Rather, they take the faith for granted as part of the air they breathe, and indeed it is. If one isn’t at prayer today, or tomorrow, or for many days, someone else is, praying for one in two senses: (1) asking God to grant his neighbors grace and favor, and (2) doing their temporarily neglected duty for them.
Now I have to ask myself: If I’m so sure of a disjunction between Christian faith and my culture at home, why am I so impressed and refreshed by these experiences abroad? It is very touching to see ordinary people at worship, and out in the streets, to receive the benediction of church bells. This Protestant boy gets tears in his eyes, remembering how it felt among absolute strangers, bent-over widows in black as well as unruly French and German tourists. Not abating the disgusts and frustrations of tourism, it is palpable and wonderful (an expression I seldom use). How can this be? Why does it seem so different at our local in the US?