The Tolling of the Iron Bell Calls the Faithful to their Knees

My church going experience in Europe so far has been a dangerous journey, filled with nearly-missed masses, incomprehensible sermons, and other scandals soon to be revealed. It seems that many Catholic churches in Europe have to share their priests, having not enough parishioners per church to support one full-time. Coming from an area where there were easily half a dozen churches with at least three mass times per week each, not to mention the Ugandan and Lebanese missionaries who sustained the half-hour four-times-a-day weekday masses at Dominoes Farms, this strikes me as being… pretty pathetic. I would almost understand this, because this is Germany, and Luther did kick off the Reformation in Berlin and all, so maybe I would expect a smaller Catholic population… except that (according to Wikipedia) the Catholics and Protestants comprise equal parts of the population at about 31% a piece, and the Catholics are concentrated in my area, southwestern Germany. So why is it that, in an area that has a supposedly high Catholic population, there is not enough church goers to sustain more than one weekly mass per given church? (I would think that maybe there was a priest shortage–and maybe there is–except that the mass attendance really is horrible low.) And on top of this, I encountered the same problem in France, where I thought there was a higher Catholic population than Germany.

Well, other people with more experience with Catholic churches in France may have more insights into this than I can give, so I will not attempt to speculate any more about churches there. Besides, the one I went to during my stay was rather cool. I liked the priest. I did not understand a word he said, but from the way he said it, it sounded important. Maybe that was because he said it in French, but there were other things he did that were good indications. He had a good voice, and he got the rest of the church to sing along with him. He gave a couple of older teenagers a glare during the beginning of mass once when they were whispering and giggling during the opening prayer. That was a laugh. But I digress.

Recently the local Catholic church I was attending crossed the border from pathetic to downright outrageous, to the extent that I decided to switch churches. Low attendance I can take. A priest who talks slowly with a bland smile plastered over his face and gazes absently around the church as if someone just hit him on the back of the head and knocked his brains loose I can take. But teenage girls from the youth group rapping the homily is the limit, even if they did not skip some of the readings, forget the Creed, substitute the reading of the Good Samaritan with a skit, and sing a song from Sister Act as the recessional (“I Will Follow Him.” Yes, it was in English.)

And they had to do this while my family was visiting.

So that was it for St. Whatever-it-was. Sure, it was a convenient bike ride/walk away, and sure, I know have to take a train all the way into Stuttgart to get to my current church, but I am willing to do so for a real mass with some substance to it. And I think my new church has this. Not only is it a beautiful old Gothic building (my old church was modern, and I am not so fond of modern German architecture. Too many right angles. They don’t even use rectangles, mainly squares. And it is all white… and steel…), but the priest and deacon talk as if they actually have something to say. The first mass I went to, when the deacon read the announcements afterward, he shook his fist in the air after every other word. If he had been standing in the pulpit, he would have been pounding it. And this was just the announcements! I believe there is a lot you can learn about someone from their voice and body language if words fail you. My old priest struck my as bland from the beginning, and the way his church turned out, my first impression was justified. But I have high hopes for my new priest. He is younger, more lively when he talks, and when he prays, he appears to do so with real reverence. I can only pick up a bit of what he says, but he often seems to be calling the parishioner’s attention to some part of the Mass. Last week he announced we would be praying the Our Father slowly, I believe so that we could concentrate on the words more. It tripped up most people to have to take a short pause after each line, but I think the idea was a good one. Usually the Our Father is prayed too fast for me to pick out any of the German words, but I caught almost all of them this time.

Communion is also a little different, but I think the change is kosher. It is more in the old communion rail style, so that instead of walking down the aisle and receiving the Blessed Sacrament one by one, we all line up in a row, and the priest walks down it to distribute it. One of the sacristans or Eucharistic ministers follows with the cup, and afterwards the priest seems to say some extra blessing before we are allowed to go back to our seats, at which point the next row of people is able to line up and step forward. It is interesting, different, and I think I like it, for a change. It is rather nice.

This all brings me at last to what I really wanted to share about all this. Last Sunday, while standing in line waiting for Communion, I had a strange experience. I do not know if it was the first time I had this experience, or if it will be the last. Maybe I have felt this way many times before, and forgotten. Maybe it is the sort of revelation that haunts you on and off for years before you accept it as something taken for granted. But I can remember the feeling and the moment very clearly this time, and I shall try to express it as best I can.

I was standing in line, and the sun was shining through the old stained glass windows behind the altar, where I was facing. I was looking up at them, and thinking about how awesome old buildings were. Something about the way the light was streaming into that old stone building, with the tall arched windows and dark stone pillars struck me at that time, and forced me to take in the setting under, literally, a new light. It was like a fog had been lifted from my vision, or more accurately, it was as if I had just remembered to put on my glasses. Something about it impressed me with a feeling of deep awe and reverence. Suddenly, I found myself seeing myself in this new light not as a “girl,” but as the being most people describe as a “young woman.” I was seeing myself the way the people around me probably saw me, without the fears, anxieties, and insecurities that I am always faced with, but as the confident, assured person I usually try to be.

This is part of why I came to Germany. I wanted to feel as if I were making decisions on my own, not because they were the routine, or because they were what was expected of me, but because they were what I truly wanted. I wanted to step away from my family and friends so I could see who I was apart from them. I gleaned so much of my identity from the people around me, that I could not think of myself as anything but my parents’ daughter, or my brothers’ sister, or somebody’s friend. I still am these things. I still want to be these things. I always will be these things. But now I can at last believe I am not just these things. I did not leave my life behind me when I left these people. Away from the those I love most and who define my life the most, I still exist. I do not disappear.

That is a comforting thought.

Oddly enough, this “discovery of my adulthood” seems to coincide with a rediscovery of childhood. Since my life at this time consists largely of the care of little ones, I find myself remembering a lot about my own childhood that I had forgotten. It is strange the things children can remind you of, and what they will show you. They can draw your attention to the tiny details in Creation that you had forgotten how to look for. They can be more petty, more selfish, more stubborn, more unreasoning, more childish, than you thought anyone could be, but at the same time, their smallest gesture can overflow with unbelievable amounts of love and affection. Children are so sincere in everything they do. Their innocence is at once shocking and heartbreaking. It is laughable how poorly a four-year-old lies, and how incapable of deceit or cunning a two-year-old can be. Disobedient, yes. Troublesome, yes. Yes, even malevolent. They can do things to intentionally anger you and irritate you (like the way they make sure they have caught your eye before the very deliberately drop their spoon on the floor.) But they are consistently open with their emotions. A four-year-old can lie, but he does so with fear and guilt written over every feature of his face. Little children keep no secrets, and hold no grudges. So now that I feel I understand adulthood, I will have to work the rest of my live to not forget childhood.

The irony, of course, is that all this high-blown introspection comes from someone who, in turns, walked, ran, skipped, and very nearly cartwheeled, all the way to and from the mailbox. (Now that they have installed a drop off box at a more convenient location, just a block away, I am considerably less irked with the postal system. I still feel it is backward and inconvenient, but now I take a sort of Austenian delight in my walk to drop off letters.)

10 thoughts on “The Tolling of the Iron Bell Calls the Faithful to their Knees

  1. I nearly fainted with the mention of Gothic architecture and stained glass. From a current learning stained-glass artisan: you have <>REALLY<> picked the right church. Now, I believe you should take some picures of the windows for me =P (If you can, I would be much in debt to you. I am in love with stained-glass windows and the art of making it. In fact, I am making a small window now. It’s tres exciting.)I can’t really comment on the church going proceedings as I don’t often go to church, but I had been brought to several in the past. I know the feeling when a church just feels nicer than another. It could be the architecture, or the priest (or eqivilent for other religions,) but some places just make you feel like you belong. It’s like being in a cozy living-room with good friends =]Your first church does sound pretty unpleasant, though.-K

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  2. Laura, I really just like reading what you write. You could be writing about watching the dust accumulate on your desk and I think I would find it delightful.Now, stop being “independent” and start redefining your life around me, or I will become angry with you and use my magic.

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  3. I can really relate to this post. Not the being in Germany part, or the Mass in another language part, though I have been to my share of irritating/boring/outrageous masses. But I also went to another country to prove my…my me-ness…to myself. To be whatever I was, rather than me in reaction to my family and hometown. (In a minute I will exhaust normal vocabulary and start speaking in German philosopher style compounds about is-ness and such, so I’d better stop now). Anyway, going away was good for me. This current ‘going away’, not so much. I’m getting older now and I want to be rooted again! I’m rambling, so I’ll just stop now. Good post, I enjoyed reading it.

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  4. Kayla: Once I get my camera fixed up, I shall be more than delighted to share some pictures of my new church.John: It is amazing the amount of dust that can accumulate in a room over the course of a week. I think it may have to do with the total lack of carpeting. Dust sticks to carpet, and without it, it floats about and settles on everything else. I try to clean it away about once a week, but I always feel as if it needs to be done more often. Particularly on my desk. I try to keep my workspace fastidiously clean, but this seems to do me no good these days. Maybe it is because my potted plants, Harriot and Persephone, seem to be wilting, and Harriot in particular sheds her slender yellow leaves like Cleo in mid summer…Kate: I rambled for two and a half single spaced pages about everything from the Catholic population of Germany, to self discovery, to childhood. I don’t mind people who ramble, I do plenty enough myself. Actually, I rather enjoy long posts. It makes me feel like I caused someone else to think. I am glad you enjoyed my post, though. Thanks. ^_^

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  5. On a separate note, I am glad to hear about Harriot and Persephone. I love my own houseplants dearly, and although I haven’t named them yet, I have attributed personalities to them, and I fret over their good health frequently. Sometimes, if I forget to water them and a leaf wilts, I feel guilty. This is offset by the comfort I take in treating them to miracle grow.

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  6. Oh, I don’t think that’s irony, my dear. That’s perfectly consistent. It’s the ones who walk stonily the whole way (or worse, attempt to drive) that you have to watch out for. I once heard someone liken human growth to that of tree rings; for every year, you gain a layer of that age, but you keep each age you’ve been before underneath. So, even if you have a fresh layer of 19-ness, you can still reach further in and touch the 12-year-old layer, or the 5.I have to agree with John, you know; it is truly wonderful to read what you write, regardless of what it is about. That, combined with the fact that you write about worthwhile things, makes your blog one of the ones I enjoy most.Your description of the priest in the church you abandoned made me laugh. Oh, goodness, I know that look too well. That’s why I don’t go to St. Mary’s very often. -_-‘ Apparently the pastor is reasonably good, but his two helpers are terrible.

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  7. Well, yes, writing about worthwhile things can be good, although I don’t know about how much of what I write actually is “worthwhile.” It’s not like I write about life-changing earth-shattering subjects. But I’m glad you enjoy it anyway. Makes me happy.

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