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Churched

As mentioned earlier, I’m a self-confessed church lurker. I visit them for their peace and quiet (especially on Saturday afternoons) and because I just can’t go through fifty pages of a book without dozing off on my mattress at home (I know I’m hopeless). Aided by the fact that the pews are just so darn comfortable to sit on, and the last instance I fell asleep while I sat was in an overcrowded ‘Virar fast’ train (the rhythmic rocking of the bogies is an overpowering, unsung lullaby!), I get a lot of reading done inside churches. There are three that I frequently visit on weekends—the nearest takes about five minutes from where I live while the farthest is a good 40 minutes away on foot, which I don’t mind given Bangalore’s fantastic weather.

Yet I don’t view churches as an excuse for public libraries—minus the public, of course. Right from the moment my puny-but-cute self stepped inside St Thomas Cathedral—Mumbai’s first Anglican church—all those long years ago, I’ve been smitten by their architecture. Tall bell towers, grand doors, long naves, high vaulted ceilings, wooden pews, arched pillars, arcades, clerestory windows (with stained glass work), prominent altars, chapels, choirs—there’s so much to take in and marvel at for unsuspecting eyes. Every visit to Horniman Circle ever after hasn’t been without a quick pitstop at St Thomas. It attracted me, this structure of stone and mortar, and I couldn’t resist stepping over its threshold time and again. I was curious to know more.

Churches of course are places of worship, but I was never tickled by their divinity, only by their structural grandeur. I got a little more insight into churches while reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth, a novel about the building of a grand cathedral church. I read two-thirds of Pillars between time spent among couple of churches, and it helped me appreciate the structural nuances of the church, as a building, and correlate it with Follett’s commentary on masonry and construction. In some ways it saved my poor head the trouble of visualizing Follett’s written word, if I had read it anywhere else. Believe me when I say that a church is an apt setting to devour Pillars in—been there done that, hence.

Despite my preference to sit in empty churches, they are seldom completely empty. People keep coming in their ones and twos to offer prayer, and there’s the church staff that keeps waltzing in every now and then. However, churches are almost always quiet (unlike temples – ring any bells? Precisely!) unless on occasions of choir practice or music lessons, which I’ve had the chance to witness and enjoy. I fondly remember this one instance where my “crazy church fixation” got me an invitation to attend a Sunday School Christmas function at St John’s—best free entertainment I’ve had on consecrated grounds. Ever.

Yesterday, I took my relationship with churches beyond the realms of mere structural fascination. You see I had been toying with the idea of attending mass for some time now, just to see how it felt. Throughout my time spent in churches, I couldn’t help notice people walking up the nave, some kneeling at the altar, others sitting on the front pews, their heads bowed in silent prayer. I wanted to do all that without emotion, with no strings attached, and I wanted to do it in front of the congregation. Madly exciting, don’t you think?

Sunday service begins at 7 am at St Mark’s Cathedral, I attended the one at 8.30 am. The church’s dominating features include a striking dome and a marble altar I had never seen before. I saw people enter the church through its two facade doors and main entrance on the west end. I sat in the second from last row, my view of the congregation and most of the church unfettered. An organ started playing somewhere in the chancel, its music deep and resonating—it reminded me of Lurch and the opening theme of The Addams Family. Just before 8.30, when the church was packed to full capacity, a priest entered through the main entrance. He carried a staff long and high, followed by the choir and other office bearers of the church. He walked along the central nave and placed the staff near the altar. That was the cue for the presbyter to take over proceedings.

What followed was a series of sung hymns, quoting scriptures, listening to sermon, praying (in song), confessing, and receiving holy communion—the moment I was waiting for. I followed the line of people walking towards the altar, my palms sweating. Was I doing something wrong? I abandoned that thought and went with the flow. As I knelt in front of the altar, and swallowed the bread and wine the priest offered, I felt relieved. My intention in attending mass was to observe and learn, never to offend. Will I still continue visiting churches? Absolutely.

If by now you’ve guessed I had “receiving holy communion” written down in my bucket list, give yourself a bournville. You’ve certainly earned it.

Originally published: January 25, 2010