On Saturday afteroons, there’s a special stillness in the air of churches, a vacuum like a collective holding of breath that contrasts favorably with the outside weekend buzz. With the electric lights catching a break and the stained-glass windows granting some vent to Brother Sun, brightness and gloom split their differences, settling in the end on something comfortably dim.
Small stimuli start making big impressions. The hum of the air conditioner becomes a rushing wind; the trickling of water into and out of the baptismal font, a cleansing rain. Dust motes hover like swarms of tiny dragonflies in beams of light. If, by nature or training, you’re receptive to this kind of thing, you could report to Confession a sinner and go home a buddha.
Pico Iyer writes of this stillness and its salutary effects on human consciousness in “Chapels,” an essay that appeared in Portland Magazine. On the whole, he does a great job. But Iyer has spent most of his life trotting the globe for Time or Harper’s, so the overstimulating chaos he has to flee is all out in the world. My overstimulating chaos is in my head. If you were to observe me on the street, or even on the highway, chances are good you’d see me gesticulating wildly, debating someone who isn’t there, and this without benefit of an earpiece. My problem isn’t that I think I have literal, physical company; my problem is that I’m not really there myself.
It’s George Lucas’ fault. One day when I was about six years old — a year after Star Wars first hit theaters, and six months after my mother finally got around to taking me — I was running down a residential street in Nutley, New Jersey. I think I was running to work off the frustration I felt over some slight I’d suffered that day at kindergarten. In an instant, the literal, physical world faded into a point-of-view shot from an X-wing fighter’s cockpit. I spent the rest of the afternoon — actually, the rest of my prepubertal existence — shooting various directors’ cuts of the attack on the Death Star.
Since then, my tastes have matured. My mental home movies look a look less like Star Wars and a lot more like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But whenever I enter a church on a Saturday afternoon, the camera shuts off. Instead of fighting a desperate battle against some Other I’ve constructed, like a golem, from the mud of my projections, I can begin to have a nice, somewhat drowsy conversation with myself while the Holy Spirit acts the part of marriage counselor.
That’s why I like visiting churches on Saturday afternoons.
But yesterday I noticed right away that something was off. Entering the chapel from the rear courtyard, where the ash cans are, I saw a crowd of about 20 gathered by the confessional door. Some were standing, others seated or kneeling in the pews. Impatience rose from them like steam, and I could feel it thicken the air as I took my place at the tail of the line.
My parish church has two confessionals. Both sit just behind the sanctuary — one to the left, the other to the right. The starboard confessional, next to the tabernacle and the sacristy, is the default, the one put into service on those days when only a single confessor is available. After a few minutes, our pastor, Fr. K, a lovely man who looks like a dieting Cardinal Dolan with hair, stepped through the door of that confessional and nodded. We knew then it would be a one-priest day.
The first confessee stepped in; the light above the door changed from green to red. Minutes crept by. Two junior high-aged girls began kicking against the marble rail on which they were sitting. Ahead of me, I heard stage-whispering voices echo off the tiles. Looking up, I saw a red-faced, wattled man in a golf shirt point at the line, then at a man in the pew. A middle-aged woman in glasses, mother to at least one of the girls, pointed back. I leaned forward and caught the words, “Okay, he can go before her.” She sounded agitated.
Slowly, the line began moving. But the stillness was broken. The man in the golf shirt began conferring with another man. Their arms were crossed and they were nodding judiciously. They were too far away for me to make out what they were saying, but their hum somehow had the quality of self-satisfaction, the kind men exude when they talk about rising property values. Someone arriving through the front door left it open, allowing sunlight to flood the nave.
One by one, people made their way to he head of the line and disappeared behind the confessional door. Soon, both the wattle-faced man and his companion were gone, and then the mother and her kicking girls. But by now, the extraordinary Eucharistic ministers had flung open the sacristy door and were puttering back and forth bearing the gifts. One stiff-haired woman, younger than the others, trotted in heels that clacked on the tiles like fingers on a keyboard.
By this point, I was wallowing in disgust, cataloging all the offenses against decorum and meditative stillness. Eager to see how bad all this could get, I pictured someone pulling a lacrosse stick out of thin air, warming up against one of the walls, and launching a 190-mph crank shot at the corpus.
At that moment, I happened to notice two things. First, I was doing what I normally do when caught up in one of my ecstasies: I was acting out the scene I envisioned, cradling an invisible India-rubber ball in the head of an invisible Brine Shotgun. Second, I had an audience. At some point during the long wait, the Vigil Mass crowd had begun arriving. By now, the pews were filling up with what looked at a glance like a mural of floral-patterned shirts.
That snapped me out of my trance just in time to take my turn in the booth. Following absolution, I left in a hurry with my eyes clamped resolutely on the floor. On the way home, it occurred to me I ought to be more careful about what I wished for. Last week, I’d praised carnival atmospheres; just a few minutes earlier, a carnival had grown up around me until I had become one of the carnies.
Well, horses for courses, I guess. Legal records from Jacobean England tell of men fined for firing muskets during church services. On Eldridge Street in Lower Manhattan stands the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in New York City. When I toured it a few years ago, the guide took great pleasure in pointing out the spittoons bracketing each pew. If you’ve ever dipped, you’ll know that nobody, unless he were two heads taller than the average man, could hope to hit that target from the middle of the bench. To avoid spitting tobacco juice on each other’s heads, congregants would have had to stand up, inch forward, and aim carefully, distracting the people beside and behind them.
So, yeah, carnivals are great — a fine way of living amongst people if that’s where you have to live. Meditative stillness is a luxury. And, like all luxuries, it’s easy to take for granted.