Monday, September 8, 2014

A Pagan Among Us (or, going to Catholic mass in Sweden as a non-Catholic foreign student)

Uppsala’s domkyrkan is the biggest church in Sweden and you can see the spires reaching for the sky from just about anywhere in the city. If you can’t see them, it’s usually because there’s something else standing between it and you. In the course of its existence it has also been burnt down and re-built something like three or four times and despite the assurances of one of my fellow foreign friends that domkyrkan in Lund is more architecturally pleasing and generally more beautiful, I, personally, find the place to be stunning (though the one in Lund does have giants carved into the pillars in the basement – I must be there).

When I went to mass there on my second Sunday here, it was not my first time actually going inside domkyrkan. It must have been my third or fourth day here that I went in for the first time, and it was the first time ever walking into a cathedral that I didn’t feel some sense of…well…threat.

 Often when I walk into cathedrals I feel a very strong sense of walking into the mouth of a gargoyle – going literally into the belly of the beast. While part of this is likely a reflection of my relationship with the church as an entity and idea, a bigger part of it probably has to do with the fact that the architecture is designed with the intention of being intimidating. I’m not sure if the lack of this threatened sensation is a direct response to my own shifting attitude toward the Christian God or if there’s something different in the architecture (rather than gray stone the exterior of the building is adorned with red bricks, giving it a warmer, earthier feel) or if there’s just something different about the place.

Similarly as I walked in I felt a greater sense of warmth and invitation than I usually experience in cathedrals – once again this could be the result of many different things. Domkyrkan is half museum these days, with the smaller rooms to the side once reserved for shrines to the saints now converted into exhibits if not tombs (many of the tomb rooms have, in fact, become exhibits themselves, displaying statues of the seemingly-sleeping departed). When I entered the first time there were only a scattered few in the pews praying. The majority of the people in the cathedral were following a guide who lead them through each room and explained the history and significance of what was contained therein. The main area displayed many old pieces of artwork – statues of Mary and saints, old crucifixes paused mid-decay and hung to be admired for their artistry and age, and a red neon sign reading “WHERE ONE IS THE OTHER MUST BE” at the foot of the primary crucifix not only warms the room but bring a touch of modernity to it as well.

I had already well familiarized myself with domkyrkan and its contents, it sounds and smells and feels, by the time I attended mass there. I had already, in fact, prayed there – if praying is what you want to call it. I had sat in the pews and closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of people’s voices rising to the domed ceilings, a continuous murmur whose words couldn’t be made out, and breathed long and deep and counted off beads on the rosary I made months before coming here. The rosary is dedicated to one of my gods, a little-known Norse goddess in fact, and while I meditated in domkyrkan it was to her I spoke. Twice, actually – the first time all she told me was to take in the beauty of the place, to listen to those voices and really look at the artistry of the building and all that it contained. And there is so much to look at – so much fine detail in the paintings on the walls, the wooden carvings adorning the stone, the arches of the ceilings. There is a never-ending feast for the eyes in that place, and, of course, that continuous murmur that sounds almost like music when you clear your mind and just listen. The second time is another story for another time.

The point is, there is something about that place that resonates in me, something beautiful and powerful. I do quite like simply being there. I wanted to go to mass there to say that I had been to mass at domkyrkan, this old landmark which bears all of this history. I wanted to go to mass generally for a couple of reasons – one of the primary being that I wanted the exposure to the language (it can be difficult to get people to speak Swedish to me here, in part because I get shy about my abilities and in part because, when I do try, they can often tell I’m having difficulty and usually just switch into English at that point). I wanted to have an opportunity to listen to the words being spoken without expectation – just to hear the voices and the words and see what happened.

So I went to mass at domkyrkan, and as I came in and picked up a psalm book and sat down in the (what I thought would be significantly more crowded) pews I started to feel that slightly uneasy feeling of the severely out-of-place. Not only am I not Catholic, or Christian of any recognizable variety, I really only have a very basic grasp of the language. I am not familiar with the rituals of mass or the level of interaction that’s expected of me or the songs that are sang. Not only do I not know the songs that are sang – I don’t know most of the words in the psalm book I was given to read out of.

The sensation was never as great as it had been at home the few times I went into a church after leaving Christianity – I never felt a fear of all the eyes turning on me and pushing me out with their judgment. In fact, despite the title of this entry, I had very little concern about my status as a religious misfit in the room. I was worried, mostly, that someone would notice that I didn’t belong because I was unable to keep up with the rituals – that I lost track of when I was supposed to stand up or sit down and I couldn’t find the right hymns in the book.

I glanced around often, hoping no one would notice, until I realized…no one cared. No one gave a single shit about whether or not I knew what page to turn to in the psalm book or about whether I stood up a few seconds too late. No one was going to notice me because – if they weren’t here as tourists observing the rituals (I could tell there were a couple at least, from their camera flashes) then they were here to worship. They were here with their loved ones, with their priests and clergy, with their god, and I was not a part of that equation. And that eased the tension in my shoulders substantially. It made me feel more comfortable with not adding my voice to theirs, with fiddling with my pagan rosary while I stood there in my blue and white dress, dark blue sweater and new fancy shoes. I could just listen and it was all a-okay.

I even got away with minimal interaction. The only other person sitting in my pew turned to me to shake my hand at one point, and smiling I shook his hand firmly and muttered a quiet “hej,” hoping he wouldn’t notice how little I knew about what I was supposed to do, and then – in the tiniest spurt of courage there ever was – I turned around the shake the hand of the woman in the pew behind me. And that felt…quite nice, really.

After mass I was able to creep out, returning the psalm book to the shelf and slipping through the doors and the gathering museum goers, my fancy new-used shoes clicking on the cobblestones as I went. I’m not going to say mass changed my life or that I’m even particularly eager to go do it again (though I plan to) but I was surprised. The experience of even being in the cathedral was different than it ever had been before, and the experience of the mass was different than the one I’d gone to in high school, or any of the church-going ventures I’d attempted after leaving Christianity. I was tired after, but not with a bitter taste in my mouth. It was a pleasant, peaceful kind of tired, and as I walked out in my dress and sweater and clip-clopping shoes into the gray, over-cast day, my goddess’s rosary still in my hand, I felt strangely beautiful and buoyant.

1 comment:

  1. Just....well, beautiful. Thanks for sharing your experience :)