Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

Archive for the ‘Mass Tourism’ Category

Mass Tourism – Mykonos again

Posted by universalis on 8 June 2008

Church interiorThis is a rather less exalted posting than the last one about Mykonos.

Mykonos must be the original of Through the Looking-Glass. Whatever direction you set out in, you end up somewhere else. What is particularly impressive is that in one place, after walking uphill for 10 minutes from the harbour, you end up at the water’s edge. Surreal.

This time I got a map, and asked, and made a dry run; but nevertheless at the last minute I rushed back to my excellent hotel to get a bundle of old drachma notes to put in the collection (if the Church can’t turn those into money, I thought, no-one can) and I took a wrong turning and I was a good ten minutes late for the 7.30pm Mass. Not to worry: the Mass itself was also late and hadn’t yet started.

At the beginning of June the tourist season in Mykonos hasn’t really got under way – the roads are empty and the beaches are half deserted – so the tiny church was full but not overflowing.

We were given a novel kind of missal as we went in. It was in eight languages, and done in parallel, so that each double-page spread had eight boxes of text, one for each language. The bishops who have responsibility for the Greek islands realise that in summer their churches become little towers of Babel, and have imaginatively designed this book to help everyone cope. It works very well.

The people’s parts of the Mass were done in Latin, because that was likeliest to be the language we all had in common. The variable prayers were done in Greek. The non-Gospel readings were done twice over, once in Greek and once in English. The Gospel was in Greek only, but we had all been given sheets with the readings in our own language (English, Spanish, etc) so that we could all follow.

The homily was in Italian, and the priest paused every few sentences so that one of the congregation – a person from Philadephia whom I loathed on sight for reasons I shan’t go into here – could translate into English. The same sort of thing happened whenever the priest wanted to give us instructions or exhortation during the Mass.

Deepening my devotions, or distracting from them (it’s hard to tell which) was the eighth language in the missal. Latin, Greek, English, Spanish, Polish – all those were straightforward, but what was this thing called “Shqip”? I spent a long time reading the Creed and the Eucharistic Prayer in it, looking for the words for “Lord”, “Father”, and so on, but coming to no conclusion at all.

At the end of Mass various things became clear. There is no resident priest on the island (at this time of year, anyway), so the priest’s next journey was to the ferry terminal. Shqip is the Albanian name for the Albanian language, which shows that there are enough Albanian migrants, and enough of them are Catholics, for the Greek bishops to pay attention to them and care for their needs.

And the priest who was equally fluent in Latin, Greek and Italian was, of course, a Pole.

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Mass Tourism – Mykonos

Posted by universalis on 8 August 2006

The Greek island of Mykonos is the home of opulent hedonism. If God made the elements (the island says) then it was so that we should enjoy them. And people do. On the other hand, if you join the passeggiata of beautiful people wandering through the town at 1a.m, you will notice an interesting thing: along with the bars and expensive shops there are many chapels open at the side of the streets, and people drop in to them and light candles.

Greece is, of course, Greek Orthodox. But on the way back from the beach one Sunday evening I passed a small building near the harbour. It was a Catholic church. Mass was in just over half an hour – too long a time to wait, too short a time to get back to the hotel and come out again. So I carried on walking.

On the other side of the harbour I changed my mind and came back.

The tiny church was packed and I was squeezed somewhere into the porch. The Mass was in a mixture of Greek and Italian. I can understand the liturgy in Italian but I can’t make the responses in it, and my Greek is pitiful, so I compromised by using Latin fairly quietly, adding to the overall volume of sound without confusing or irritating my neighbours.

(At the end of the Mass one of my neighbours congratulated me in Italian on choosing to make the responses in Latin. We switched to English, and he turned out to be a Bavarian with a suspiciously detailed knowledge of central London parishes. All very confusing to the geographical sense.)

As we shuffled down the already sardine-packed church to receive Communion and then shuffled back again to approximately our original places, I was reminded how insistent Christianity is about giving value and significance to matter.

The Pope, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speculated wistfully (I can’t at the moment track down the reference) about how much easier things would have been if Christianity had been a refined, spiritual religion on the Eastern model. Matter, though not evil in itself, would have been seen as an imperfection to be regretted and eventually transcended. We would have replaced all those undignified rituals – washing people’s feet, pushing through crowds to have a piece of bread stuck in our mouths – with more elevated symbolic representations. More elevated and less prone to embarrassing accidents, when one of the people whose feet are being washed can’t get his shoe back on or when the priest sprinkles the entire congregation with holy water and has to go through the rest of the Mass in sodden vestments.

But Christianity obstinately does not spiritualize. God made matter deliberately. It was not an accident or a mistake. God took on flesh and became embodied in matter. That was not a mistake either. When we are resurrected we will be resurrected not as disembodied spirits but as complete beings with real bodies. Bread, wine, salt, water, oil and ashes form indispensable parts of our spiritual lives.

And this is as it should be. It seems superficially attractive to “become more spiritual” as an antidote to the sins of the flesh – but only if you forget that the sins of the flesh are inherently self-limiting whereas the sins of the spirit are invisible and can grow without limit. Spiritualize still further and you end up with the dualistic world-view of the Manichees and the Cathars, who believed matter to be evil and the creation of an evil god and were led to perverse practices as a result.

So when a Mass that has being going at a reasonable pace grinds to a halt as too many people try to crowd into too small a space in order to receive Communion, don’t start wondering why we can’t have a single member of the congregation, up front, symbolically receiving the Host as a proxy for us all. Matter and its positioning in time and space is an essential part of the ritual, even when it is inconvenient, because matter is an essential part of our lives, even when it is inconvenient. It is not a mistake; it is not evil; it is not an illusion. It is good, and holy, and part of us; and it must always be respected, because God chose to make it.

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Mass Tourism – Kensington

Posted by universalis on 31 July 2006

This is cheating, in a way, since the Carmelite Church in Kensington Church Street is my parish church. My excuse is that it isn’t the parish church of most of my readers; and that it exemplifies yet another aspect of the theme of the Sign of Peace.

I was in the church one Sunday as Mass was just beginning, and I happened to be praying hard for someone I’d met once or twice there before. I hadn’t seen him for some time and so it was one of those rather complicated for-him-or-the-repose-of-his-soul prayers. Then I looked up and saw, walking up the aisle, a little stiffly, but walking all the way to his usual place in the front, the man himself.

I went up to the front row to keep him company. It was only when I got there that I became aware of the details of his appearance: long grizzled stubble, purple hair, and a short black pleated skirt over black tights.

This is a very good test of a congregation!

They passed the test brilliantly. No-one stared, and at the Sign of Peace they all shook his hand in the usual way (even the woman behind us who was wearing her Hermès scarf with the label showing: I still regret not telling her). He received Communion and was driven home again by his nephew. It was the last time that I saw him.

He used to worry that Our Lady would be angry with him if he forgot to bring her statue whenever he went into hospital but I’m sure she didn’t really mind. He wasted his life and he died mad. Pray for him.

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Mass Tourism – San Cristóbal de las Casas

Posted by universalis on 27 July 2006

Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico and the poorest. In the lowlands it is intolerably hot and humid, but at an altitude of 2000m, San Cristóbal de las Casas is cool and refreshing, wrapped (in September) in an almost perpetual mist. Many of the plants in the forest don’t even bother with putting roots into the earth: they simply stick themselves onto a convenient tree and absorb the mist and the dew.

Compared to Oaxaca the city looks poor and run-down. The buildings are lower, the streets narrower, and the beggars are persistent and importunate, lacking the dignity of their Zapotec counterparts. In nearby villages the churches have been taken over by strange syncretisms combining Maya beliefs (apparently without the blood-letting), Christian personalities and elements of African divinities. The ex-churches are full of greenery and the chapels of the Apostles are turned into shrines, with each saint’s statue converted into an idol before which offerings are placed. It demonstrates the indiscriminate self-abasement before the numinous that must have covered the whole of Europe before Christianity arrived to liberate us; and incidentally provides good business to the guides who lead tourists round the villages and devote some of the proceeds to alleviating the squalid conditions of the inhabitants.

At Sunday evening Mass in the cathedral, the floor was strewn with pine fronds. I don’t know whether this was to make people feel more at home if they were used to the green pagan temples of the villages, or simply a practical local substitute for a carpet.

I have commented on the Sign of Peace before. Here is a counter-example to what happened in Paris. Next to me, but crowded as far away from the central aisle as possible, were an Indian family. They were very shy and reserved. I looked at them; they looked diffidently at me. I moved over and gently offered my hand to the nearest one.

All the shyness disappeared and they all wanted to shake hands with me. Every one of them, in that row, and the next row, and the row after that. I had to shake them all, young and old, two rows forward and two rows back. There was such joy in their faces.

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Mass Tourism – Paris

Posted by universalis on 23 July 2006

The Hôtel des Invalides is one of the great achievements of the age of Louis XIV, both as a building as an institution. Housing old soldiers and an army museum, it is an expression in stone of the glory of French national pride, impartially embracing kings, republics, empires – for all are French and therefore worthy of honour.

My sister (a military historian) wanted to see the museum; my mother and I wanted to go to Mass; and I had a suit. Accordingly we turned up at the Invalides on Sunday morning: we might be civilians and we might not be French but we were, after all, Catholics.

The back three rows of the church were a solid mass of scarlet uniforms of straight-backed officer cadets. We went further forward, where it was pretty empty. The Mass began: it was unmemorable until the sign of peace.

When the sign of peace first came in I waged a long campaign against it – I was 16 and willing to fight any trendiness my elders sought to impose. I called it “the most divisive innovation ever made” (or some such resounding phrase). This is true to some extent, since you never know, if you’re a stranger, what the local community expects you to do and who you are expected to do it with… but naturally one mellows with age, and so when the sign of peace came at the Invalides I turned round and offered my hand to the lady in the row behind me.

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Mass Tourism – Florence

Posted by universalis on 19 July 2006

I don’t trust Mass-spotters – those people who collect Masses just for the sake of it, accumulating variations in vestments, ritual, and so on. They have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. They are treating a sacred Act as an object of study.

I am reminded of the hero of Patrice Leconte’s film “Ridicule”, whose entire future in Louis XIV’s court at Versailles hangs on a single engineered “chance” meeting with the King. “They tell me you can make an epigram on any subject” says the King. The courtier looks humbly at the ground. “Let me see you at work,” the King adds. “Make me an epigram on… Make an epigram about Me”. We hold our breath. The courtier gives a diffident glance up at his lord. “But, Sire – a King is not a subject”.

The King of Heaven is not a subject; and his banquets are not there for us to give Michelin stars to them.

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Mass Tourism – Rome

Posted by universalis on 23 May 2006

Sunday Mass is not the only kind of Mass. When I’m on holiday in a city I’m so energized that I usually wake up early, a lot earlier than my friends. Sneaking round the streets looking for a morning Mass is far better for the temper than sitting slumped in a chair grumpily reading the same page of the guidebook over and over again; and it’s a far better way of seeing a city from the point of view of the natives.

So this is why I found myself, on the first day of a visit to Rome (my ninth visit, my friend’s twelfth, her friends’ first) awake long before everyone else and wandering south from the Pantheon towards the church of S. Andrea della Valle. I thought it would be rather fun to hear Mass at the church that figures so prominently in the first act of Tosca. (We were planning to see Castel S. Angelo, which figures prominently in the last act of Tosca, the following day).

Like most Baroque churches, S. Andrea della Valle has grand heavy dark wooden doors that seem out of proportion to the entrance of a single person: only a procession could enter them without seeming absurd. But I slipped in, feeling invisible against the massive scale of the façade.

It turned out to be difficult to assess how closely the church resembled opera designers’ representations of it, because it was in the middle of some building works. This early Mass had been moved to a chapel attached to the sacristy: all dark wood and histrionic Baroque paintings.

I have forgotten every detail of that Mass except one. To my left, across the aisle and one row back, was a nun. She was very, very old and her face was one mass of wrinkles. It was one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen. I could see the glory of her soul burning its way through from the inside. In a year or two she would die and become a being so glorious that (as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory) we would be strongly tempted to worship it – if, that is, the mere contemplation of her did not reduce us to smouldering ashes.

I didn’t have a camera with me. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to ask her permission to photograph her – not without sounding like the crassest kind of tourist.

On the way back the air was still fresh and invigorating, and as I joined my friends for breakfast I was determined to go to early Mass every day for the rest of the trip. But in the end I didn’t, not even once.

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Mass Tourism – Istanbul

Posted by universalis on 12 May 2006

Rather than editorialise, I thought that this time I'd just give you an extract from a travel journal from 1995:

Sunday 30 July

“We're sitting, Freddie and I, in the bar of the Pera Palace Hotel. We're the only people there. He is reading a book on Sufism and I've been looking through the guide-book and thinking that everything looks too much effort. Fortunately F. thinks so too: we had a very tiring day yesterday. Presently we'll wander out and get some lunch, and then we'll see. Paul (our art historian friend) was a bit fractious this morning and has gone off to the Archaeological Museum to refresh himself or do some work on an early fresco of St Francis or just get away from us. I actually feel a bit get-away-from-ish too, because I'm really quite tired.

“This morning's Mass was at St Antuan on Istiklal Caddesi (the main fashionable shopping street of Istanbul). We'd really come to find the Chaldean rite – ancient, parts of it in Aramaic, mostly attended by prehistoric people from south-eastern Anatolia – but we'd been given the wrong time when I rang, and the Mass was in English, with a lot of Filipinos and some Africans (perhaps Sudanese). I found it simple and quite moving, even things I'd normally hate such as the guitars and "Amazing Grace" during the offertory and some hymns in Tagalog after the consecration and after Communion. For the Creed and the hymns they had an overhead projector showing the words (which is how I know about the Tagalog) and a little bouncing ball moving from one word to the next to keep you in step.

“Paul, who is Russian Orthodox, found the whole thing rather shoddy and undignified, but I always feel put to shame when simple people praise God so un-self-consciously (there was also a rather splendid peasant woman near me, full of age and upright dignity, and rather a pretty choir).”

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Mass Tourism – Oaxaca

Posted by universalis on 8 May 2006

It was September 21 and my last day in Oaxaca: indeed, the last day of my 2-week trip to Mexico.

I woke up early and went wandering through the town. Not the least attraction of Oaxaca is that its climate is always equable – permanent shirt-or-light-jacket weather. The sun hadn't risen yet but the sky was light. Remembering that this was the day of the autumn equinox and that sunrise would be at 6am (or 7am summer time) throughout the world, I positioned myself in a picturesque spot by Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and waited.

And waited.

It was evident that the Mexican sun was a leisurely orb, and what had started as a spontaneous good idea was turning into something sterile and laboured. So I walked up the hill to the church of S. Domingo. Without giving myself time to think I went in to early Mass.

It was pretty well attended – perhaps 40 people, far more than the proverbial "three charwomen and a cat" of English church services, and a more mixed congregation than the evening Mass, which tends to be packed with rosary-saying female stormtroopers. There was an interesting thing when the time came for the bidding prayers. After the first few prayers, odd members of the congregation started to stand up and call out something to be prayed for. Each petition would be heard with respect and after the pause there would be the usual "Lord, hear us / Lord, graciously hear us".

That sort of thing is beautiful and incredibly difficult to organise. It demands trust, for a start. We have to trust that those who stand up will not use their moment of fame to make political or controversial points, because that is a despicable invasion of our moment of vulnerability and openness to God. We have to trust that those who stand up will be competent and have some idea of what works as a bidding prayer and what doesn't – which all adds up to the fact that you need a congregation that has experience of working together, not merely a collection of random arrivals. And of course we have to trust the priest as well, to trust us to do it and to know when to bring the bidding prayers to an end – neither too soon nor too late.

He did just that, while I was still dealing with my stage fright and deciding whether pilgrims in Spanish were "pelegrinos" or "peregrinos" (no-one would have minded either way, but it was a good excuse for delaying).

On the way out, the Stations of the Cross had started, so I stayed, not really wanting to but not able to persuade myself not to. They were taking it in turns to do each station, using a book that they all had (Guía del Peregrino, so it's just as well I didn't say "pelegrino"), and after one or two stations I was really gripped, because of the thing itself and because the G. del P. has rather splendid commentaries and prayers for each station. It was extra moving to see a crowd of rather poor people (I could imagine them to be porters and street-sweepers) doing all this for themselves without the instigation of the priest.

I got nearer the centre of the group and by the 11th station my neighbour offered me his book and suggested that I do the 12th. I hesitated because I didn't know how to say "12th" (décima secunda)… got over that, got ready to do the 13th, but was pipped at the post because some woman at the back started saying it. I then realised that there was no set order and it's just whoever jumps in first… I was rather upset because I felt it would have been a great honour to do it, but there we are, next time perhaps. At least having the book meant that I could say the Our Father at last instead of miming it.

Afterwards I explained to my neighbour what had happened. His name was Victor and he was very friendly (we used "tú" at once). We expressed a lot of good feeling, I explained I was leaving the city, he asked when I'd be back, and we ended with "Dios te bendiga" on both sides. Outside it was light, and he went off to his work and I back to the hotel to have breakfast with my late-sleeping friend.

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Mass Tourism

Posted by universalis on 5 May 2006

One of the earliest things I remember learning from my friends about the law of the Church was the useful fact that travellers were exempt from the obligation of attending Mass on Sunday. (This is just the sort of thing that shocks pious Protestants and gives rule-dodging Catholics a bad name).

Leaving the question of obligations aside, and not going too deeply into whether a tourist is a “traveller” anyway, I’d like to recommend Mass tourism as an excellent exercise, both deepening one’s piety and bringing one closer to the people where one is staying. We are forever complaining about guidebook-clutching tourists lifting their noses from their books just long enough to verify that yes, they have visited this or that Sight, before rushing on to the next Sight on the list: we complain even when we do it ourselves. We complain about the theme-parkification of the places we visit, of history and culture packaged up into easy-to-digest undemanding chunks. We complain, above all, of how we exist in a vacuum, invisible, uninteracted-with, isolated from the locals and unable to meet them.

And all the time the churches are sitting there, waiting to fulfil our needs, and we pay no attention to them except as monuments.

I’m not holding myself up as an example of piety. There are times when I’ll find any excuse not to go to Mass (“God will understand”) and I am a master of being late for Mass without having intended to. But – the times I have been to Mass while on holiday have yielded an amazing number of uplifting, moving and simply enjoyable moments, and in future postings I’ll tell the story of some of those moments as an encouragement to you to take up Mass tourism as an activity.


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