Within the Roman Catholic faith, the church is hailed as a holy mother, referencing her capacity to nourish and sustain. And indeed, one of the nice things about being a Catholic is that as long as there is a functioning Catholic Church in the vicinity, there is always a constant in one’s life. No matter where in the world you go, or what language they speak there, the liturgy of the Mass is unchanging. As a result, all you have to do is follow the mass with your own responses in the language you are comfortable in, and almost instantly, even if only for the duration of the mass, you have a home even in the most foreign of locations. This scenario can lead to a number of rather interesting experiences, where you realize that through this standard ritual of the Mass, one can also reach out to the individuals around, or alternatively be profoundly touched by the same people.
Take for instance my experiences while in the city of San Francisco, almost two decades ago. Located some three blocks away from my home on the edge of the Mission district, and its steeples clearly visible from my bedroom window, was the Church of St. Paul’s. While I did not really engage with members of the parish, the strongest memory I carry back of the church is the voice of the lady who led the choir every Sunday. Strong and matronly, but by no means untrained, her voice contributed to the more moving experiences I have had in that church. Even today, though I often cannot recollect the internal architecture of that church, I can close my eyes, and recall from memory her voice ringing out through that Church, and embodying the faith experience of my time in San Francisco.
While living in Lisbon, I found my spiritual home at the Chapel at Rato, as much for the eloquence of the priest Tolentino Mendonça who prays the Mass, as for the, as yet anonymous, voice of the man who leads the choir every alternate Sunday. Who knows what it is in the voice of this man, but when, accompanied by his guitar he sings the Psalm, there is something profound that moves among the congregation. Indeed, so moving is his voice that newcomers to the congregation often look up to try and glimpse into the choir loft, and determine the owner of that voice. If you are among the faithful, and you ever make it to Lisbon, a service at the Chapel at Rato must be a part of your itinerary for both these reasons.
It is as a tourist that I have had the most bemusing experience as a church goer. Believing that a space opens up in a completely different manner if one uses the space, I often attempt to attend Mass in the more spectacular churches of places I visit. Attempting to do so in the Mesquita of Cordoba, I walked up the evening of my arrival and inquired of the guard on duty what time the daily mass at the church within was scheduled. “It is not for Muslims, only for Catholics” was his response twice over, until I could beat it into his consciousness, that despite my possibly Moorish features, I was indeed Catholic, not Muslim and had not the faintest intention of recovering the monument for the glory of Islam by offering namaz inside. (Of course I don’t see why anyone should object to a Muslim wanting to offer namaz inside a space that was originally built for congregational prayers, but I am not Cordovan, and that was not my battle).
Once inside the Mesquita the next day, my faith in the experience of these spaces being different when used rather than just gawked at, was rewarded not only through the smells and bells that inform the Catholic experience of the Mass, but especially when in the course of exchanging the peace of Christ, through a smile and the grasp of my hand, I was made even if for a moment a member of that church’s believing community.
(A version of this post first appeared in The Goan dated 27 April 2013)