In their own lands

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.

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Liturgical Moments

Every church member has more and less satisfactory experiences in worship. I complained to my friend Ken about disappointing services in my home parish, so he challenged me to describe what I would consider ideal. My Episcopal parish celebrates the Mass every Sunday, so the question evokes a liturgical imagination different from what we find where the sermon is the main event.

The form of the Eucharist is set in Christ’s Institution of the Sacrament (Matt. 26:26–28 and parallels). Its physical movement, breaking the bread, pouring and drinking the wine, would be recognizable anywhere in the world; a communicant would not need to know the language to follow and participate. Far from being rigid and constricting, the structure of the service frees worshipers from a preacher’s words or emotions. Absolutely any feeling, possibly different for each person present, could arise to be blessed.

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Easter in Florence

This is the day of days. There are dove shaped breads in all the stores; chocolate eggs bigger than the children who will receive them. The celebration started with a massive peal from the campanile on the stroke of midnight. Probably the first Mass began then, for there was another such peal shortly afterward, where the Gloria or the prayer of consecration would have come. We left our hotel after a quick coffee, to get to the Duomo in time for the 9:00 a.m Mass. It was raining. Arriving more than an hour early, we got a pew about the tenth row, but we were surrounded by standees, and soon became virtual standees ourselves.

The west doors opened with the sound of drums and trumpets. Men in Renaissance dress entered carrying halberds and swords, weapons that could have wreaked real havoc. The procession ended with the archbishop, blessing the crowd as he went. Through the doors we could see the famous carretino, two storeys high, gilded and painted, pulled into the piazza by white oxen. This must have been done within the hour, since there had been no sign of it when we arrived. It is loaded with fireworks. Men rigged a wire to it from a pillar about two storeys high in the crossing.

At the Gloria a papier-maché dove with a rocket in its belly traveled with frightful noise down the wire to the carretino, set it alight, and returned. By this time it was exploding with cascades, roman candles, and flash-bombs. This lasts all through the Gloria. There are multiple hymns by the choir. Their mouths move, but nobody can hear them. The congregation is not here for Monteverdi or Bach, and the choir is not here to entertain tourists. The choir addresses God no less, on behalf of worshipers who stand on the pews with full-throated shouting and weeping. The bells of the campanile peal throughout the consecration prayer.

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