My recent post in defence of modern churches drew a fair amount of comments. This Saturday, I found myself going to Mass at a church I've often passed on the bus but never actually entered before: St. John's Lane Church in Thomas Street. Nobody could call this a modern church, since its construction began in 1862. The style, its website tells me, is "Thirteenth Century French Gothic".
Doubtless, as a lifelong Dubliner, I should be ashamed that I've never been in this church before. But then, I am not much of a "Dub".
I liked it. Unlike many old churches (most notably Dublin's Pro-Cathedral), it is not cluttered and claustrophobic--- there is a sense of airiness and of space. The columns that run down the nave are a pleasant brown-red colour, saving it from the deadening greyness of so many other stone churches.
The stained glass windows, rising so high above the heads of the congregations, are certainly impressive, and appropriately solemn in their colouring. But, as with most stained glass windows, I found I couldn't really make the scenes out very well.
The marble high altar, I have to admit, is far too baroque for my taste-- it seems to be overshadowing, rather than honouring, the great mystery that it is there to serve. But doubtless this is a deficiency in me.
The Mass itself was "St. Rita's Mass", a weekly Mass of healing. St. Josemaria Escriva famously said that the Mass seems long because our love is short. I agree with him, but I have to admit I probably wouldn't have gone to that Mass if I knew it lasted an hour, with a long list of intentions during the Prayers of the Faithful, and various other insertions to the usual liturgy. I do think, however, of the comfort that it must bring to the physically sick, to know that they are remembered by name in such a well-attended Mass.
At one point, the priest pointed out to the congregation that he had noticed a young woman loitering at the back of the church, for purposes other than to pray, and warned them to be "mindful".
There was a good congregation, although it still left plenty of mostly-empty pews, given the size of the church.
At the end of the Mass, I lingered in the porch and lit a candle at one of the statues, a large-scale scene of Our Lord's crucifixion, with Our Lady and St. John flanking him. The style was realistic, and painted full-colour, although the painting of such statues always seems rather incongruous-- the skin painted a kind of creamy pink, the wounds an impossibly bright red, and so forth. This style of statutary always seems to me either too realistic or not realistic enough.
So what were my impressions of the church? More than anything else, it gave me a vivid sense of the Church Triumphant. I couldn't make out most of the pictures in the stained glass, and I didn't walk around the ambulatory to look at the various shrines, but even the casual viewer feels he is surrounded by an awe-inspiring sacred tradition, by a "cloud of witnesses" beyond number. Here, I have paused, typing and deleting the next sentence over and over, trying to explain why I find such an atmosphere merely poignant rather than inspiring, given the realities of our age. Perhaps I should not feel like this. Perhaps when we enter a Catholic church, we should find ourselves transported beyond the historical moment, into the supernatural reality-- in which we are truly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, by legions of saints and angels. I suppose I can't help feeling that church iconography like this, at the time it was built, expressed not only a supernatural reality but also a worldly reality-- the oceanic piety of the Irish people. I can't help feeling the contrast.
But it's not just that. I have to admit that such majestic churches, though I do admire their majesty and I am glad they exist and that so many people attend them, have something of a chilling effect upon me. Perhaps one day this reaction will vanish. Perhaps one day I will enter some centuries-old church with soaring columns and an exquisitely carved marble altar and I'll get it. Until that day, I think my imagination will more be stirred by little wooden churches, and by tiny chapels and oratories that remind me of the famous lines from the book of Kings: "The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”