Note: I am not a practicing Catholic. My family was loosely Methodist (Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day), and my personal spiritual philosophy is a very mixed bag. Most of what I know of Catholic doctrine comes from portraying an Italian noblewoman at Renaissance Faire for many years. I am not advocating a particular faith, dogma, doctrine, or way of being. My desire was to attend a Catholic Mass to experience it for myself. Everything said below is said with respect for the faith of those who call the Catholic Church their spiritual home, and is not a complaint or criticism of the Catholic Church. This is a personal experience, an attempt to step back in history, an effort to gain understanding of a tradition not my own, and is not an invitation to a discussion of institutionalized religion. Any comments posted which are not made with respect for this point of view will not be approved.
Finding myself in Montreal, home of the beautiful Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, I decided I would attend Sunday mass to experience the building as the designers intended it to be experienced. Instead of approaching it as art appreciation or checking off a box on the tourist to-do list, I would immerse myself in the light, color, sound, and scent of the mind-altering experience of Catholic Mass. (This is not to suggest any kind of sinister mind control; however, the intensity of the incense does alter one’s consciousness, most effectively, and the Catholic Mass is far from the only religious ceremony to use scent as a way to alter consciousness. Look at the pile of incense on your own altar, and get over it.)
Sunday morning, I gathered myself into a semblance of presentability and set off to the Cathedral. Having packed to attend a technical conference and not a Catholic mass, I relied on a blue shawl to help me be a bit more dressed up. (An unnecessary concern, as many in the congregation were in extremely casual summer wear, but it’s important to me to at least attempt a respectful appearance.)
Christophe walked with me, intent on setting off on his own adventures once I was safely ensconced at the Cathedral. As we approached the Cathedral, we saw a large group of people and a large military presence. Given the recent unrest and demonstrations in Montreal over rising tuition costs (my, this feels just like home), we at first thought it was a protest. However, it turns out that today’s mass was a special one in acknowledgement of Victoria Day tomorrow (much like Memorial Day in the U.S.).
The military escorted the Mayor of Montreal and other dignitaries to the Cathedral. They established an internal security perimeter (there was one outside already). Flashbacks to the entrance of the Prince in Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” – and to many years of playing a Medici at Renaissance Faire, with armed bodyguards escorting the nobles.
Once the dignitaries had made their entrance, the military marched to a rest station and were provided bottles of water. (Given that they were in black wool dress uniforms, and the temperature was in the high 80s, an excellent idea). The Cathedral staff held entrance of the Mass attendees until the military had returned and taken their pews. We were then admitted to seat ourselves. I chose a pew in the next to last row so I could see everything.
Once I recovered from the shock of the flags of Canada and Quebec being stationed at the altar (raised in the US, one tends to forget that the Constitutional separation of Church and State is not universal), I tried to figure out what was going on. Continuing the game of “spot the non-Christian symbols in the building” begun with Christophe the night before at the Mandragore concert at the Chapel at Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours (another beautiful church, and a wonderful concert) occupied me until the service began.
The entrance procession of the clergy was grand – an Archbishop (I think – his mitre was cloth of gold), two Bishops (plain white mitres), three Cardinals (red hats), and a variety of Priests, candle bearers, and altar attendants. While the chandeliers in the church were lit, only two windows were open, so the lighting was delightfully subdued and suitably medieval to match the architecture.
The civic and military dignitaries were seated near the altar, and several of them read parts of the service. Being as we were in Montreal, the Mass was conducted in French. My vestigial high school French was no match for the steady stream of words rushing at me. I could follow some of the basic language, and recognize certain pieces of liturgy (The Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer) but for the most part, I was as clueless as any Renaissance peasant watching a mass conducted in Latin.
The choir loft at the back of the Cathedral makes it seem as though the music is coming from angels singing in Heaven. The dark blue ceiling, covered in gold leaf stars, only partially lit, becomes the sky. Leaning one’s head back to look up at the paintings, the sculptures, the stained glass windows, creates the physical prerequisite for a bout of Stendhal’s Syndrome. Add the billowing incense, the rolling organ, the angelic choir singing above, and one begins to understand the ease of belief in the particular magic created by the Church. Even knowing with my intellectual detachment what the elements were, and how they were combining to create a sense of being out of Self and connecting to a Higher Self – it was easy to achieve that state in such a lush environment. I wondered if there were other non-Catholics who were attending as a way of making a connection to a personal divinity rather than to participate in the standard liturgy.
The Mass itself was beautiful – the pacing, the music, the lights, the candles, the heady incense – even if one can’t follow the words, the atmosphere and energy create a mix of emotions which create an effective personal ritual of release, Divine connection, and re-connection to the World.
After this lovely and uplifting experience, the congregation was invited to offer a Peace Greeting – handshakes all around. (I think this used to be when one offered the Kiss of Peace, but in 2012, the dangers of kissing random strangers is recognized, so the Church uses handshakes.) Even though I knew no one, and could barely think in English, much less in French, it was a lovely minute of community and communing, realizing we are all one, connecting and sharing energy with those around us. As spiritual drama, wow, this is effective. Again, even with my supposed intellectual detachment, the effect was profound and powerful. At the end of the Mass, I felt as calm and peaceful as if I had spent time in one of my own rituals in front of my own (much less elaborate) altar.
Except for the liturgy being in French instead of Latin, and the fact that women were amongst the dignitaries and the altar attendants – and extra points for the female Choir Director – nothing about the event was any different from a Mass celebrated 500 years ago. As a historian, I found this thrilling. In addition to the spiritual experience, I was able to time travel to a very important piece of history and experience it first hand. The emotional impact of that experience is equally profound as the spiritual experience – being able to connect in a real way to a part of my Faire alter ego was quite amazing.
The recessional was also awe-inspiring – the lights, the gold appurtenances, the colors and fabrics, the organ playing at fortississimo as the Cathedral bells rang – truly breathtaking. I miss living in a town where church bells sound throughout the day, every day.
While I am no more inclined to become a member of the Catholic Church than I was 12 hours ago, I feel I have a new understanding of its ceremonies, and a new appreciation for the beauty of its rites. I am grateful to the Basilica for providing me such a rich experience and a safe place for this spiritual and personal exploration.