Five Observations on My First (Accidental) Mass

While I was on vacation in Portugal recently (hence my brief hiatus from blogging), my husband and I stumbled upon a lovely little cathedral in the Chiado district in Lisbon.  Because it is common for cathedrals to be open to the public in Europe, and because we very much appreciate them, we went inside as we always do.

“Oh,” said my husband, “someone’s playing an organ.  That’s lovely.  We should listen a while.”

“Yes, let’s,” I agreed, and we sat down on the back pew.  Two minutes later, singing started, the church doors closed, the priest came out – and that’s how I found myself attending my first ever Mass.  It was a beautiful and unexpected experience, and I exited with five observations that will influence my spiritual life going forward:

  1. We lose something important when we lose our deep reverence for God.  I will be the first to admit that in our desire to frame Jesus as a close and personal friend (which He is), Protestants (of which I am one) all too often strip Him of his Holiness in the process.  At the Mass I attended, the reverence with which every congregant treated God’s house, communion, and Christ himself was astonishing.  It’s a difficult balance for us believers to keep: remembering God’s God-ness while we also remain mindful of His desire for joyful, close intimacy with us. And it’s easy to slide to one side or another of the scale while forgetting the other.  I’d like to hold that reverence a little more in my mind while I meet with my dearest friend and Holy Lord.
  2. I didn’t miss the coffee.  Coffee culture has taken over a lot of Protestant Christianity.  At my church, we have a coffee shop and doughnut holes in the lobby, and it’s not uncommon for congregants to carry them into the sanctuary.  I am one of those congregants: I’ve sipped a latte during the sermon.  And yet against the solemnity and sincere purposefulness of the Mass that culture would have been woefully out of place.  I’m still not averse to coffee in the sanctuary, and I have seen it used as an outreach tool and a fellowship builder…but I am more thoughtful now and more conflicted about how the act of bringing a coffee into the sanctuary puts me in a consumerist, passive mindset: that by virtue of sitting back and sipping my drink I am waiting to be entertained, and have lost something of the holiness of what the sanctuary is meant to be.
  3. Fellowship is richer and warmer when it is purposeful and has its place.  I was surprised, during the Mass, by how focused and solitary everyone (initially) seemed to be.  People came in and sat quietly, even when they were together: they sometimes prayed beforehand, always each to their own.  There was none of the meet-and-greet-until-the-service-starts that I’m used to.  And yet, at the given point in the service for fellowship (I am sure there is a term for this, and please forgive me for not knowing it), the solemnity vanished: people turned to each other and genuinely smiled, some hugged, and they warmly welcomed each other.  The purposefulness of the fellowship made it feel richer and warmer.
  4. God renders language and culture irrelevant.  I don’t know Portuguese.  The homily and much of the singing was lost on me.  And yet, for all that, I heard the words “alleluia” and “hosanna” in the singing, and it made me smile and it lifted my spirit, and I was able to share praise with a congregation with whom I had no common language or culture.
  5. Church is a bulwark against the world, but it is for everyone. I am American.  I am Protestant.  I attended a Mass by accident.  And yet I marveled that I was permitted by both the congregation and the priest to simply walk into this church as an unknown entity, and sit and listen to an entire service.  I was never once bothered, glanced at oddly, or questioned about my attendance.  All are welcome was the impression that I got, and it warmed me, and it reminded me of what church ought to be: the home for the believer, the quiet sanctuary in a world of noise and distraction, a place to center yourself in Christ before starting out again in the maelstrom, a place of last resort for the confused and the wondering and the weary and the stranger.

If I knew the believers in Lisbon to thank them for letting me witness their service, and if I knew the Portuguese with which to express it, I would.  Sometimes, getting out of your own world and into someone else’s can do wonders to refresh and rejuvenate your spiritual walk.


6 thoughts on “Five Observations on My First (Accidental) Mass

  1. Thank you for sharing a day of your trip. I agree with your observations – the American protestant church became so irreverent. Some churches have enough social groups to start a YMCA.
    I miss the solemn worship and solitary reflection.
    Have a good Thanksgiving brother.


    1. Thank you for reading!

      You know, in many ways, it has. I think perhaps because we don’t have much to compare it against so we don’t always fully realize what we’re missing. And while liveliness and community is important, having that space for solemn worship and solitary reflection is SO meaningful…and so absent, in many places. I was deeply delighted to experience it in Portugal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely loved everything about this post! I especially appreciated how you felt a connection to God and the people there even though you did not understand Portuguese. God’s love and our response to His love both transcend language. Thanks for sharing this with us!


    1. I’m so glad! Yes, it’s a unique and beautiful thing to realize that the things that normally unite people or create commonality are unnecessary when sharing praise and worship in Christ. It’s marvelous when you can really see how connected we all are, everywhere, in Him!


  3. Great post. My first Mass was quite amazing too in hindsight, and many years later I still find it amazing – a space away from the outside world where there is peace and reverance. I became Catholic four years ago for a variety of reasons, some of which you have mentioned here.

    Unfortunately, not every Mass is as beautiful and reverent as you were fortunate to experience. But many of those elements in the Mass are present no matter where you go in the world, which is pretty cool!


    1. It really was quite a gift to be able to observe the service. And hah – I’m sure that’s so! But the consistency of some of those elements sounds really wonderful to me. The consistent rhythm of particular acts and elements is deeply soul-changing over time.


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