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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.