I distinctly remember one Sunday when I was in graduate school. It was a commonplace Berkeley day, sunny and warm, and my friends and I had agreed to attend mass at a different church—outside the enclave of school. One of our number found a church not far away, less than a mile from the city. It was simple, stone, and imposing—a domed, Old World structure that rejoiced in being anachronistic. There was a calm that hung over it, though bells could be heard clamoring on above announcing the start of mass.
In the sanctuary, there were no pews, no seats, no auditorium. High-backed, ornately-carved wooden thrones were strung along the outer walls facing each other. At the end of the elongated space rose the chancel and the altar. From the linens that adorned it, the sanctuary soared impossibly high, capped by a glorious dome encircled with squinting windows.
And though I remember almost none of the service itself, this image is stuck in my mind: the priest, an ambling, waif of an octogenarian, lumbering around that great stone altar with incense in hand. He launched the thurible high into the air, releasing plumes of smoke and scent. As incense wafted high, filling the church from apse to door, the organ surged with the power of my favorite Latin tune: “O filii et filiae.” In that uncomfortable moment, so far outside my ken, I felt something truly awing. It was not just the incense, and it was not just the high-backed chairs. Nor was it the soaring ceilings or the laboring priest. Nor the stage that was set: piercing sunshine, the impossible still, the palpable quiet, the masculine organ. It was all of it together: one sum of divinity experienced.
Some may say that the pomp and circumstance of church has been overdone. It is show, and entertainment, and it means nothing. And often they would be right. But I tell you: Some of my most profound moments in faith were those enjoyed at the crux of pomp and brightly-lit circumstance.