Easter Sunday, 2009
Trinity Church, Boston
It was Easter Sunday and we wanted to be blown away. So we chose Trinity Church. It is a Boston landmark, doubled in stature by its crumbling reflection on the side of the Hancock Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. My fellow anthropologist, a non-practicing Jew, had never been to a Catholic mass and so I was looking for something to knock his socks off. My girlfriend advised me that Episcopalian mass would be a close approximation, and Trinity is the biggest, badest cathedral in these parts.
Upon exiting the vestibule into the main cathedral, I could not help but fall awestruck. I kept imagining the experience of a peasant coming in from the field, into the most grandiose ornate structure—maybe the only piece of architecture—for hundreds of miles. How could this building not be a miracle-birthing womb? Even today, among modern feats of architecture, a cathedral of such enormity can evoke chills in the heart of the most frigid atheist. Believer or not, that curious vibration of fear and awe gets you in the bones.
It was Easter and the orchestra was pumping. Horns, chorus, and the seat-rumbling pipe organ, all in step. I got to thinking about the holiness of reverb. Could the spiritual-visceral pleasure it induces come from its being a sign of open space, of fortified shelter? A sort of emotional echo location. That led Jeff to ponder our emotional reaction to echoes as related to the acoustic fingerprint of caves.
Really, what would it all be without music? The positive feedback loop of art and religious ritual, about which I have been reading, is so apparent. It’s an impressive cycle; music inspires, inspired by the music of inspired believers. And so on.
As the church slowly filled up and we sat waiting for mass to begin, I panned the pews of backs of heads before me. Shiny white bald-domed daddy, kid, kid… kid, mom. Church—especially Easter—is a family affair. One by one, hair gave way to face and heads began to turn toward the back of the Church. Had we been impalas grazing in the pews, our heads would have turned like dominoes after the first few. But no, this wave of head turning was trickling and tentative. An amazing little demonstration of the interplay of epigenetic and cultural forces. I really want to turn my head, but it might be rude to stare at the guy behind me or I don’t want to be a sheep and do like everyone else, but wait, I can’t resist, what are they all looking at…
The clergy and posse entered with pomp. The entire congregation stood and sang Hallelujah in unison. It had an almost chummy, Das Boot feel to it. It was one of those tunes that everyone knew real well. The orchestra screamed and the rafters shook. One of the altar girls held a twenty foot pole with streamers on top, which she moved in a figure eight pattern high above. I felt a quiet comfort in her patterned geometric movements.
Part way through the mass came a moment where half the congregation remained standing while the other half sat, a divergence in the details of ritualistic practice among worshipers. Subtle as it was, this split was telling of the evolution of ritual within a religion, of its temporary status.
Reverend Anne B. Bonnyman gave the homily. I realized the power of this ritual, to interpret the ancient texts of the bible in contemporary terms. It is a descendant of the most ancient story telling traditions; this is how myth is spread, via the mouths and ears of people. She incorporated humor, poetic repetition, metaphor, and abstraction in her speech.
Shortly after I whispered to Jeff that receiving Communion might be overstepping our bounds as unbelieving visitors, he pointed to the page in the bulletin proclaiming all visitors welcome to receive the Holy Communion. So we joined. I suddenly flashed back to that self-conscious march to the altar from my youthful Catholic church-going days. In my zeal to drink the Lord’s blood, I accidentally sipped from the dipping cup. (Catholics don’t dip, they just sip.) It tasted like a port, but could have just been what wine tastes like after three hundred people dip their fingers in it.
There is a curious lack of emotion in the sound of a thousand Episcopalians reciting prayer. This has always been a strange aspect of mass for me. Group prayer can sound oddly like a lifeless going through of the motions. This quality is reminiscent of the trance-like chants of some American Indian cultures. At the same time, this is not the case with the more boisterous houses of worship of certain Christian sects.
The strongest flashback came for me at the end of mass. The exit was always my favorite part. Not so much that it was a sigh of relief because it was finally over, but a pleasantness in the weekly ritual of walking out past the girls I had crushes on in their Sunday dresses, the jovial look on my dad’s face, the shaking of hands, the act of passing from the solemn darkness of the church out into the warm Sunday sun, an exhalation and return to life. The communal bonds sewn by the mass were so visible in this moment.
This visit convinced me that we were on the right track, that just showing up to Church is rewarded with deeper understanding; that religious details read in a book will never jump off the page and inhabit the imagination like these same details experienced in the first person.