It’s been a long time since I stuck my nose inside of a church, mosque or temple to continue my chronicle of church tourism started on this blog a decade ago. A recent visit to an old California mission (the first I’ve visited) with my good friend and guide, Jim Forbes, inspired this entry.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Spanish mission and estancia system stretched along the Californian coast as far north as Sonoma north of San Francisco. Spaced about a day’s journey apart, they were the first western/European centers of power along that wild coast, connected by a road known as El Camino Real. The first of the Alta California missions was founded in 1769 in San Diego. The mission I visited, San Antonio de Pala Astencia, or “the Pala Mission” was founded by Franciscan friars in 1816 as an astencia or sub-mission of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia closer to the coast downstream on the San Luis Rey River. The Pala Indian Reservation is home to the Pala Band of Mission Indians, descendants of the Cupeno and Luiseno tribe native to the area.
One gets to Pala off of Route 15 after passing the Lawrence Welk Trailer Park and hillside avocado orchards and citrus groves. The landscape is rugged, rocky, and arid with lots of boulders and volatile brush that makes the Pala/Escondido area a very dangerous place to live when the brush fires light up the skies and 200 foot tall walls of flame appear over the ridges. Pala is a reservation for the descendants of the Indian tribes who were displaced by Spanish and American colonists from their traditional dwellings closer to the Pacific Ocean. As one arrives in Pala the first sight is a large, modern casino with an immense sign touting the upcoming visit of some musical act. But off the main road, in a neighborhood of modest homes, is the Mission of San Antonio de Pala.
We got out of the car and walked through the Mission cemetery, our arrival noted by a pair of little boys who were surprised two gringos would walk through the hallowed burial ground checking out the tombstones. They clambered over the stairs leading up to the freestanding belfry, marked with a sign asking visitors to please not ring the bell as that was reserved for the call to worship and to mark the passing of a parishioner.
Since it was a Sunday a service was underway in the long, single story chapel, and with an overflow crowd standing in the doorway, we didn’t enter, but listened for a minute as the priest read a series of community announcements.
We lingered in the shade in front of the church for a bit, then moved on in search of a farmstand where I bought some dried chilis.
Yes, it has been a while since this church project has shown any progress. Trust me, there are two posts in the draft queue awaiting publication, but today I had to mark a significant event: the second annual baseball sermon at my village church here in Cotuit.
The Reverend Jeremy Nickel, my neighbor and friend and baseball buddy, pitched a gem of a sermon last summer at the Federated Church, preaching (to my ears at least) that Dave Roberts, the Red Sox pinch runner who sparked the greatest comeback in sporting history with his steal of second base against the evil Yankees in 2004, opening the door for the Red Sox’s first World Series championship in modern memory, should be canonized and given sainthood for his courage to step off of the bag and fly like the wind into the unknown and future greatness.
This morning Jeremy pitched his final baseball sermon, sadly on his way to California and a lucky congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area. The topic was, “The Imperfect Game”, and with artful elegance and insight the Reverend Nickel recounted the tale of Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galaragga’s tragic reminder that there is no perfection in the human pursuit, only the Daedalusian drive to try, always strive, to find perfection only to see it lost, robbed, by human fallability and fate.
Baseball is indeed a sport of awesome precision and regularity, yet also a pastime rife with errors and the capricious wiles of bad luck, misfortune, and emotion. The distance between the bases, the beautiful geometry of the lines, the time it takes for a catcher to throw a ball to second to try to catch a runner stealing the base …. it all fit beautifully, played out over a numeric routine of innings, outs, strikes, and plays that while tightly prescribed and timeless, is ultimately chaotic and as subject to entropy as anything can be.
This is where Churbucks are married, where they are buried. I was married here. I have stood on the altar stairs twice — once as a sweating groom, then before that at my father’s funeral, stammering to choke back tears as I read these lines from Melville in memory of his imperfect but brief larger-than-life life, and his unrealized dream of sailing around the world:
“”Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
“Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”
Those were sad words to say, words I always think of when I see the little shingle chapel in my comings and goings from the post office. I am not a parishioner of the church, but it remains my church, and while I planned on saving it as the last and final church in my rounds of 52, it had to happen today, out of respect to Jeremy and his wife Nicole, who are leaving later this summer for their new parishes in California.
Fortunately I checked the church website for the time of the service, having mistakenly assumed a 10 am service when in fact summer hours called for a 9 am start. I popped upstairs, put on my 2007 Mike Lowell Red Sox jersey (he was the World Series MVP that year and is to my mind the ultimate Red Sox for his abilities, his good humor in the face of injury, and his solid performance in the clutch), and my battered and sweat stained Red Sox cap. The walk across the park takes all but three minutes, past the library and down the shady bower of Norwegian Maples where the hippies congregated in a noisy tribal mob during the late 1960s. Up the little hill and into the chapel, steamy in the July heat.
I took the back pew, in the corner under an open window and started to sweat. In the pew before me sat Cotuit Kettleers Michael Faulkner, the fantastic centerfielder from Arkansas State and his teammate Chad Wright who also stands in the outfield and is also batting over .300 so far this season. To my right, politely standing so the women and children filling the church could have a seat, was the Kettleer’s coach, Mike Roberts, father of Baltimore Oriole Brian Roberts. It felt good to be surrounded by talent.
The pastor, Nicole LaMarche, opened the service with announcements, a bell-choir rang the introit, and Reverend Jeremy (@PeaceNick) was given a Barnstable Bat and an old framed map of the village from the grateful congregation.
He began the call to worship with these words:
“To worship is to stand in awe under the hot sun in Fenway, to smell the fresh cut grass, the peanuts being freed from their shell …”
Then he and his wife read, one after the other, some poignant quotes about the religion of the game. Including my favorite from A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale during my days in New Haven, and perhaps the best commissioner of Major League Baseball of all time:
“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
The sermon was the best retelling of the Galaragga incident I have heard.
Then we rose as one and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Baseball is one of the last great things in the world, a place where children can stand on the field with their heroes, where youth displays excellence, where men like me can exult in the timelessness of the form.
A morning mass is the best way to gain fast entry to this famous basilica without having to stand in line for an hour with the mobs of cruise ship tours that infest Venice and seem to be an even greater peril to its future than global warming and the rising seas that flood San Marco Plaza every evening. The lines are atrocious, but to be fair are the only way to take in the entire experience of the 1000-year old church, one of the world’s most famous and certainly one of the most outrageous, with its homage to Venice’s Byzantine roots, its ties to the Holy Roman Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the rise of the maritime city-state into the greatest naval power of its time.
I rose early and walked alone from the Hotel Flora to St. Mark’s in the morning quiet, accompanied only by a few locals on their way to work and the first wave of workers trundling in pallets of bottle water, washing machines, hams, postcards, and cigarettes to restock the trattorias and tabacherria’s depleted by the previous day’s assault. A few puddles stood on the paving stones, left over from the previous evening’s high full-moon tides. The pigeons were gone, some high overhead growling and cooing in the smog blackened cornices of the piazza, ready to come back down and flock over some salmonella loving tourist’s hands and arms later in the afternoon. St. Mark’s is one of the world’s more ubiquitous tourism clichés, a place so filmed and described that one feels silly pressing the shutter button on one’s own digital camera. Hemingway wrote, in Across and the River and Into the Trees, that the church looked like a “cinema palace” and the square, when flooded and devoid of pigeons was an unappealing place for breakfast with one’s 19-year old lover at the city’s oldest continuous café, the Florian. I didn’t mind, I was happy to see it open and empty as the sky pinked over the domes and spires of the fantastic church.
St. Mark, one of the 12 apostles, was a big score for the people of Venice, even after the Byzantine Emperor strongly suggested the city’s patron saint should be Saint Theodore, who, judging from his pose atop the column at the foot of the harbor, killed some crocodile type of beast. But the people of Venice wanted one of Jesus’ board of directors so to speak, so, upon the discovery of the long deceased saint’s corpse in Egypt, managed to smuggle it out of the country buried under an order of fresh pork, effectively masking it from Muslim detection until it was safe ashore. With a full apostle’s relics in their possession, the people of Venice pulled out the stops constructing a Basilica that surely must rank among the greatest religious structures in the world, certainly in Christianity.
The present structure is the third to bear the name St. Mark’s. Here is the Wikipedia being smart so I don’t have to be:
“The first St Mark’s was a temporary building in the Doge’s Palace, constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. This was replaced by a new church on its present site in 832; from the same century dates the first St Mark’s Campanile (bell tower). The new church was burned in a rebellion in 976, rebuilt in 978 and again to form the basis of the present basilica since 1063. The basilica was consecrated in 1094, the same year in which the body of Saint Mark was supposedly rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Faliero, doge at the time”
The 7 am service took place in the western, or port-side chapel to the left of the main altar and iconostasis. Entrance was gained through a side door roped off by a velvet disco rope. A security guard gave me the eye as I entered, but the first rule of sneaking into anything is never sneak and always arrive with the full psychological expectations and body language of one permitted to be there. This has worked for me at everything from churches to Grateful Dead concerts, even crime scenes marked off with yellow police tape. I pressed through a pair of doors, through a green curtain, and into a small chapel arrayed before a gorgeous golden icon of the Madonna and Child. Afterwards I learned this icon had serious historical significance, dating back to 1200 when it was carried into battle by Venetian armies and navies as superstitious inspiration. Twenty candles in red glass pendants hung from the ceiling on black chains, giving the altar an ancient, almost Hindu aspect I recall from some of the inner sanctums of the Temple of Shiva at Madurai. In the center of the church rose the altar, iconstasis, and prayer chancel, a marble object so old and worn it looked dirty and greasy from centuries of hands touching and rubbing it for good luck.
The floor was a fantastic constellation of mosaic work and cracked marble tiles, swirling like the end papers of an 18th century leatherbound novel. The columns before the apse, starting with the penditives that supported the circular base of the dome, were dark green like wet marine creatures, all dark but gleaming in the reflected sunlight that managed to murkily seep through the windows on the southern side of the cruciform nave. The last column, against the wall was plain brick, red and crumbling, making, to my projected imagination, a statement about simplicity and unadorned
Two columns of prayer benches and wooden chairs ran back about 15 rows from the altar. I sat alone on the left side in the customary back row, three nuns took the last row of the right side, a gentleman in a trench coat sat in the second row, and that was it. Five congregants sitting quietly. An electric bell rang and two priests, each about my age, popped out from behind the main altar in white vestments with gold collars and surplices. They quickly strolled in front of the icon, turned on their heels in perfect synchronization and knelt deeply before the table. They lingered for a moment, then rose, turned and with upraised right hands, greeted us.
To state the obvious: the service was conducted in Italian which meant I understood less than ten percent of the content but was able to more or less guess along with the rest. Morning weekday services are very efficient, very effective, and meant to nourish the spirit before a long day at the oar of a gondola the way a nonbeliever like me needs a caffe macchiato to get things rolling in the morning. Speaking of which, I did zone out and caught myself falling asleep at one point – one those whiplash inducing bouts of narcolepsy where I made a loud and abupt “Snark!” as I popped back awake. I dragged my shoe on the floor to try to mask the sound with another like it, but it was no good, I had snored and the nuns busted me.
At one point the man in the raincoat rose and joined the priests by reading some scripture or bible verse. One of the security guards assisted with the blessing of the holy sacrament, helping by unfolding the holy towel/napkin and helping the priest when he poured holy water from a small cruet over his hands.
Communion was served and I decided to partake – something I do more often ever since partaking in Istanbul at the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. Communion was supposed to be verboten in this project – as I do not want to participate in any holy of holy acts up at the altar, but sometimes I feel so moved to get up close and personal and check things out, so that Wednesday morning in Venice, in one of the oldest places I have ever stood, I tagged along in the communion line, stood before the priest, opened wide and waited for him to intinct my wafer in the vin sancto and place it in my gaping mouth.
It was the generic communion wafer, made of some pulp/paper product in a special communion wafer factory. It was the size of a Sacagawea silver dollar and it cemented itself to the roof of my mouth. I thought about scraping it off with my finger, but suffered through it as the priest wound things up and the mass drew to a close. I was first through the green curtain, popped a picture of some water puddle in the basilica’s porch, and once outside in the morning light found my chance to get the wafer pried free. Five minutes later I sat down with my wife and daughter in the garden of the Hotel Flora and drank my coffee.
Next: an overdue account of my one and only brush with Christian Science.
“I went into the church. It was very dark, and impregnated with centuries of incense. It affected me like the lair of some enormous creature. My senses were roused, they sprang awake in the hot, spiced darkness. My skin was expectant, as it expected some contact, some embrace, as if it were aware of the contiguity of the physical wor;ld, the physical contact with the darkness and the heavy, suggestive substance of the enclosure. It was a think fierce darkness of the senses. But my soul shrank.
“I went out again. The pavemented threshold was clear as a jewel, the marvellous clarity of sunshine that becomes blue in the height seemed to distil me into itself.”
D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy
Very strange metaphysical exploration by Lawrence, set in the Lago Garda region of Northern Italy in the Dolomites. Stumbled on the book and found this passage that seemed appropriate after venturing into the darkness of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basillica.
The opportunity to visit some of the great churches of Europe has always held a very exotic appeal for this 52 Churches project, but the problem is most of my business travel takes me pretty much everywhere but Europe. A recent vacation in Italy – my first real leisurely personal trip through the country – yielded two wonderful opportunities to really experience the Catholic Church in all of its Italian glory. I took advantage, and on two mornings woke early for the first mass of the day.
The first was in Florence, Firenze, in the great cathedral of the city, the “Duomo” or more accurately Santa Maria del Fiore and the second was in Venice, at the Basilica San Marco the ancient basilica that looks, in the words of Hemingway, like a “damned Cinema Palace.”
The Duomo in Florence is one of the enduring symbols of the Renaissance, particularly its astonishing dome, which was designed by Brunelleschi and completed in 1463. I climbed to the top of the dome, all 462 steps, and overcame a severe phobia of heights long enough to cling to a wall and peer anxiously out at the city arrayed along the Arno Valley.
One of the great advantages of church tourism is that the tourist has a certain pious priority in gaining access to churches otherwise overwhelmed by lines of tourists paying steep admission fees. By inquiring of a quard standing by the door into one of the side chapels I learned the first mass of the day was at 7:30 am. The next morning I hurried through the alleys of Florence alone, dressed as respectfully as possible in jacket and tie, humming the words of the Band’s great “When I Paint My Masterpiece” while enjoying a few minutes of silent streets before the whining hornet drones of the Vespas and scooters ruined the atmosphere.
I entered early and made a brief tour of the three altars, trying the entire time not to gawk too much in front of the skeptical guards who doubtlessly thought I was a tourist just trying to get a free unobstructed tour of the nave and apse before the mobs arrived. Photography is permitted inside of the Duomo — one of the few churches that do permit photography, but I didn’t press my luck during that morning visit, but instead tried to determine which of the three “churches” or chapels within the Cathedral would be the scene of the mass, which I assume would be called “Matins.”
The Duomo is the fourth largest cathedral in the world according to the guide books, and was built by the wool merchants guild of Florence in the 1400s. Given that the Medici fortune was based on wool, there is a certsin syllogism that the Duomo is not only Florence’s most enduring landmark but also a monument to the power snd glory of one of the world’s most powerful and illustrious fsmilies, one that gave the church several Popes, Queens, Kings, and overtime became the wealthiest family in the world. But I digress as this post is not a history lesson on the Medicis but a simple account of a trip to a great church.
I had read an excellent history, Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King, before visiting and would recommend the same to anyone anticipating a visit to the Duomo. It is an amazing tale of Renaissance brillance, of a true “Renaisssance man” Filippio Brunelleschi, an inventor, architect, and artist who not only pulled out an impossible act of engineering but in also invented some key construction tools and machines that were the technical marvels of their time, being sketched by Da Vinci and widely imitated as ground breaking enablers of architectural wonders.
For ten minutes I sat alone in the northern chapel, as the cancles there were lit and the rows of prayer benches looked promising. but as I got comfortable and gawked st the soaring arches, pendentives, mosaics and stained glass windows I realized the action was across the nave in the southern, Arno-side apse. Off I went, taking the usual back row seat, satisfied I was in the right place when a gaggle of nuns in blue and white habits paraded down the aisle and took the first few rows on the starboard side. A few worshippers joined them until there were about a dozen of us waiting for the procession of the priest and his assistant. In the game of “One of These Things if Not Like the Other,” your’s truly was the obvious choice, as I stuck out fairly obviously as one who had no clue what the drill was.
A bell rang, we stood, and in marched the priests.
The mass was conducted in Italian, and therefore my comprehension level was ten percent. mostly due to three years of Latin with Doctor Baade and Mister Burgess at Brooks in the mid-70s, three years of tedious declensions and genders that yielded a decent score on the SATs and enabled me to figure out some of what the priest was doing. The nice thing about morning weekday mass is the service is very accelerated and to the point. Prayers, a little Bible, Lord’s Prayer, the Credo, some silent kneeling prayer, some communion, greet your neighbor, make the signo croce a few times, and all if over in sbout 30 minutes.
Of course there is far more than that going on. First off the priest’s words do some amazing things in a stone cathedral the size of the blimp hanger in Mountain View, California. Second, you’re genuflecting, kneeling, and praying in a space 600 years old, looking at a marble floor that is out of this world, and greeting the day under stained glass that was the 1400s version of George Lucas and the first Star Wars movie to the peasants.
More photos and details to follow when my internet connection improves.
As I draw close to the six-month mark of this amazing and humbling experience, I find myself not so much losing interest as losing my motivation to make a move on Sunday morning to the next church. This is understandable given last week’s stint of five churches during Holy Week, and I have to admit there was no way I was going to consider another Christian church this fine morning.
So off I turned to my local guide, a page on the Cape Cod Times website that lists, in some detail, the local worship options. Today I found, after months of wondering if I would ever succeed on the Cape, a Buddhist service, the Cape Sangha; a small gathering who follow the teachings of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. This was my first Buddhist service, and my prior education in the faith has been limited to a reading of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and a viewing of Bernardo Bertulucci’s Little Buddha starring a trippy recreation of Buddha’s life by Keanu Reeves. I have never visited a Buddhist temple nor worshipped/meditated in any formal sense of the concept.
I emailed the organizer of the Cape Sangha, Jim, and asked for permission to visit. He replied in the affirmative and so off I went for the 4:30 pm meditation session at the Unity Church of the Light Spiritual Unity Session in Hyannis near the Cape Cod Mall and the BMW dealership. I arrived a few minutes early, saw some others in the parking lot and followed them into the nondescript building and onwards into a nave-like space with about 100 chairs and an altar at the south end. I dropped my offering into a box, signed the guest book behind a large man with a big bushy white beard and a spring jacket with an eye painted on the back.
At the front of the “pews” was a small table covered with a cloth. On it was a candle, two framed photographs (of Thich Nhat Hanh I assume) and a small statue of Buddha. Around the table/altar was a ring of pillows for sitting in the lotus position. Around that collection of floor seating was a ring of chairs. As I cannot contort myself into the Lotus position I took a chair and sat and smiled at the two men in brown robe-like jackets sitting in the positions of prominence. I assumed one of them was Jim. By 4:30 there were 19 people gathered at the front of the church. A bank of candles flickered in the apse. There were no Christian symbols such crucifixes, but some potted plants and two tapestries which expressed sentiments along the lines of “Celebrate Community.”
I shed my jacket. I was dressed in jeans, clogs, and a polo/golf shirt — correctly assuming back home that a pair of grey flannels and a blue blazer with a bowtie would not be part of the Buddhist dress code.
What is the Cape Sangha? Let the website do the talking:
“The Cape Sangha is a group of folks who meet weekly to practice mindfulness meditation in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, scholar, author, poet and peacemaker. Our members are interested in numerous types of meditation, including Vipassana, Zen, Tibetan and nonsectarian mindfulness. You don’t have to be Buddhist to practice with us.”
I hesitate in calling it a “Service” per se, as there was no liturgy or rite aside from a benediction of sorts, the ringing of a handheld bell (in the shape of a brass bowl), and the prayerful hand gesture of namaste. Jim, the leader of the Sangha, welcomed us, encouraged us to move around and be comfortable, and then explained that there would be 20 minutes of meditation, followed by introductions and discussion, then another period of meditation before finishing in 90 minutes.
Shoes were shed, people sat very upright on the floor and in their chairs. Some sat with their eyes closed and their hands resting on their knees, palms up and fingers together. Jim recommended a deep breath to empty the mind, and then to focus on breathing — “Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out” — telling us that our “monkey-like minds” would think of the past and the future, but to focus back on the here and the now and the breathing.
I followed his advice and for 20 minutes found myself thinking about the bird outside (I believe it was a robin), the traffic driving past, and the sound of the airplanes taking off and landing at the Barnstable Municipal Airport just a mile or so away. I was conscious of random itches, and found myself speculating on the cause of a random itch, and how thinking about itching engenders further itching. A person coughed. I heard an occasional deep breath like a whale breaching. I heard people readjust themselves. My left buttock fell asleep. I fidgeted. I opened my eyes and looked around at the other people, freaked one of them would open their eyes and catch me peeping.
After 20 minutes the little bowl was tapped with a wooden rod, we opened our eyes, made the namaste sign, and then Jim asked us to introduce ourselves and give a “personal weather report” saying he himself was “partly cloudy.”
The others did the same — all saying their first names and hometowns (which were nearby: Mashpee, Centerville, Osterville, Cotuit, West Dennis), and delivering a little weather statement. There were a few “sunnies” and “clearings.” I introduced myself as “Dave, also from Cotuit. Visiting 52 churches and temples this year and today marks the exact half-way point.” Which I now realize was a statement in error, I am not at 26 yet. Today was 25 — but wait, actually, I haven’t written up second Orthodox church in Istanbul, and nor do I count St. Mary’s in Fall River ……
Then there was discussion of a recent PBS broadcast of a special about Buddha and Jim — who does not own a television — asked those who had watched the show to talk about it. This sparked an interesting discussion about Buddhism, historical evidence, the concept of the “middle-way” and the ecumenical nature of Buddhism which does not pray to a higher power, nor which makes any ecclesiastical demands on its practitioners to do anything or eschew anything in order to be saved or part of the program. I enjoyed that discussion very much. I thought about the surge in interest in Buddhism in the west, and remember my old mentor Bill Ziff scoffing at it. One of my favorite novelists is a Buddhist — Peter Matthiessen — as is Leonard Cohen.
A good number of people spoke — more than half of those in the room — and then we meditated again. This time I realized that like the Quakers I visited last fall, Buddhists put great stock in meditative prayer or silence and that the one thing that really appeals to me in the church/temple experience is the few moments of silence and reflection that worshiping affords. At the end of the second mediation I definitely felt a little more relaxed and “emptied” than when I arrived, and I think I might try some meditation in the future to cut back on work stress and other psychic baggage.
At the conclusion I thanked Jim, put on my shoes and coat, and made the usual early exit. Before I could leave a lady stopped to ask me about the project, expressing her enthusiasm and encouragement.
Women slightly outnumbered men.
The Sangha is 14 years old.
The group was mostly over 50 years old.
It was a very refreshing experience after last week’s solemnity.
The parking lot demographic showed a lot of foreign imports and some liberal bumper sticker sentiments.
Next week: I fly to Beijing on Sunday, so I may seek a Brazilian evangelical service some night this week, or a Jewish service on Saturday. I may try to get in a visit to the Lama Temple in Beijing, though I understand from my step-sister that it is more of a tourist thing than a religious experience.
It’s been a while since I posted a church visit post. There’s a simple reason for that: I missed a week due to a slight case of the wine flu and I decided to post four churches in one post for Holy Week. So hang on for a long one. I don’t want to over clutter the blog with too much piety and devotion, so this will serve as a mega post in the project, befitting the holiest week in the Christian calendar. I visited five churches in the course of the week (I didn’t enter one due to the cancellation of the service because of the weather, so it will not count but I did drive three hours to find that out!). They were:
St. Peter’s Episcopal, Osterville, Mass.: Palm Sunday
St. Mary’s of the Assumption, Catholic, Fall River, Mass: Chrism Mass (cancelled)
St. Barnabas Episcopal, Falmouth, Mass.: Maundy Thursday
St. Michael the Archangel, Antiochean Orthodox, Cotuit, Mass: Good Friday
St. George, Greek Orthodox, Centerville, Mass.: Holy Saturday Easter Vigil
Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday. Good Friday or Holy Saturday. I had no idea. Seriously. I’ve never “given up” anything for Lent. I have never had ashes smeared on my forehead and until this past Palm Sunday, have never come home with a palm frond. My Easter knowledge is pretty much defined by Sunday School, Charlton Heston, Mel Gibson and the usual highlights of crucified, died, entombed, risen. Then there are the eggs, chocolates rabbits, peeps, hunts, and plastic green grass. Holy Week is a pretty intense round of church, and given that the Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant Easter calenders coincide this year, I decided to make the most of it and mix it up between different churches and different denominations. I did not get to a Catholic church — I tried on Tuesday to attend the Fall River Diocese cathedral at St. Mary’s, but alas, it was rained out.
After the jump – five churches in one post, but only four count.
Sunday’s clock change threw me a surprise, and a calamitous night of howling winds and slamming doors made it a doubly difficult morning, with me fumbling downstairs for the ritual of fetching the newspaper, watching the dogs relieve themselves, feeding them, feeding myself and reading the latest baseball news in the Sunday Times. As I opened the Times, the familiar clock graphic under the fold pf the front page reminded me I was out of time if I wanted to get myself to a church. I hadn’t picked a place and it was nearly nine, so I remember the suggestion from Paul Noonan that I might like to visit the Zion Union Church in Hyannis. A quick online search said services began at 10:45, so I relaxed, finished my oatmeal, then got on my way.
The Zion Union Church is a Baptist congregation of mostly African-American and Brazilian parishioners. The service is delivered in English, but the scriptures are read in Portuguese as well, and a Portuguese translator does a real-time translation of the sermon — to whom I can’t say, perhaps some remote worshippers listening in via the internet or telephone. I saw no UN-style earpieces or translation devices on people’s heads. I’ve hoped at some point to see a very musical, “gospel” type of service, and on Sunday morning I found it at Zion Union. It was, in classic Baptist tradition, a very vibrant service with all the accompanying cliches of “Can I have a Hallelujah,” swaying in the pews with arms held high, and a great choir with a particularly wonderful lead singer who would have given Arethra Franklin a run.
The oldest synagogue in America is 70 miles from my home, so it was a given that at some point I would make the trip. On Friday night, prodded by the congregation’s website that seemed to indicate that services would end on March 6, I rushed to Newport after work, taking a phone call on the way.
Rhode Island’s reputation for religious tolerance in the face of intense intolerance by the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies is renowned — fostered by the liberal attitudes of Rhode Island’s founding governor Roger Williams, who also established the nation’s first Baptist church. Touro is the only example of a Colonial synagogue, the oldest Jewish structure in America and, as I said, the oldest synagogue. Visiting was a privilege, because if not for this project I doubt I would have had cause or inclination to set foot inside other than to admire the historical furnishings and architecture. As it was, I witnessed a moving, solemn orthodox shabbas service, met my first shabbas goy, and had a good historical experience.
The Jeshuat Israel congregation can be traced back to 1658 when Sephardic Jews arrived in Newport (then the capital of Rhode Island) from the Caribbean island of Curacao. Sephardic Jews emigrated — fled is more accurate — Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic jurists forced the conversion of or put to death most Jews. An excellent, if exhaustive history on this topic is B. Netanyahu’sOrigins of the Inquisition in the 15th Century. Those Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism in secret, are referred to as Marranos.
For the first 100 years of their existence, the Newport Sephardim worshipped in private homes until 1750, when a wealthy merchant, Aaron Lopez, son of Portugese marranos, funded the design and construction of the Touro Synagogue (so named for its first cantor, Issac Touro). Lopez became the wealthiest resident of Newport through his diverse business interests, but most notably his focus on the spermaceti candle industry — spermaceti being the waxy substance found in the head cavity of a sperm whale.