When I go to a cathedral or mosque, a temple or ceremonial hogan, I like to be a participant instead of a tourist. So one evening while we were still in the Country Where You Have to Look to the Right Before You Cross the Street and I saw a sign in a famous twelfth century church inviting us to come to Evensong, I convinced my husband that we should return for the service. I didn't know, exactly, what Evensong might be, but I just loved the name of it. (Yes, I am the kind of person who will often choose a colour in a catalog based on how poetic the name sounds.) When we returned in the evening, we were told that the service wouldn't be Evensong, but a Sung Eucharist, which turned out to be very much like the traditional Catholic Mass I grew up with, except of course without the Catholic parts.
When we arrived, coming through the heavy doors, I slipped into the side aisle, taking the chair just at the elbow of the man who was directing the choir. From that spot, I could look right into the faces of the choir, a handful of young men and about a dozen little boys, who stood solemnly in their dark red and white robes. The choir had no girls in it, but these little boys had incredibly high-pitched voices. I can remember when Shaggy Hair Boy's voice was like that – he'd have these meltdowns and he'd scream in a voice that was more piercing than a smoke alarm. I realize now that we could have taken advantage of that voice and put him into a choir.
The only woman present on the altar was a young woman who seemed to be in the role of some kind of assistant. She seemed strangely familiar with her dark curly hair and lovely British accent, but I couldn't quite place her until my husband nudged me and said, "It's Hermione reading the Scriptures."
I spent most of the service watching the choir boys, who would dart shy smiles my way when they saw me looking. They took the music very seriously, their voices rising to the old stone arches that rose high above our heads in the candle-lit dimness. With their pale skin, dark hair, and flushed cheeks, they reminded me of my own boys at that age.
I've lost track of how many famous and not-so-famous chapels and churches we have visited over the last week. I never turn down a chance to gaze at stained glass windows, climb a tower for a magnificent view, admire stone gargoyles, or analyze architecture that tries for transcendence. In each church, I would find the side chapel where the candles were, slip coins into the candle box, and light a candle. In some churches, the candles were round flat votive candles to be set on big circular grates. Other churches had the little white tapers that could be wedged into old metal holders. I love the habit of lighting candles, of a little flame dancing near other little flames, my prayers joining the prayers of others who do not even speak the same language. I lit candles for my kids, of course, for my parents and siblings and mother-in-law. In the Cathedral Dedicated to a Famous Woman, I lit a candle for a friend who was planning a difficult conversation with her mother, and another candle for a friend who is working through some painful issues from his childhood.
Even though the stone buildings were huge – and magnificent, with their high ceilings and statues and windows – the candles created intimate spaces where I felt comfortable taking the time to light a flame and then rest on an old wooden pew, sending warm energy across the ocean to those at home.