I don’t talk too much about religion. Don’t get me wrong. I’m mooooore than happy to offer up my opinions and beliefs and non-beliefs and to speak at length on what makes sense to me, a Man of the 21st Century who got slightly above average grades at a liberal arts college in western Wisconsin.
It’s just that … nobody asks.
Remember how people like Garrison Keillor just loved to make pithy, knowing comments about the quirks and foibles of various Midwestern religious groups? And everyone just ate it up? Being a good Protestant, John did this and that. The Lutherans were upset because of whatever it is they care about. Obviously, the Catholics were none too happy because reasons. The Presbyterians? Forget about it … insert a soft, comforting chuckle from the audience.
Myself? I’m actually pretty fuzzy on the quaintly humorous differences between our region’s predominant sects of Christianity, so I try not to chime in.
I’m also just pretty fuzzy. In general. It’s part of my charm.
However, I do know a thing or two about Wisconsin Catholics. I was raised a Catholic and attended Catholic grade school, middle school, and high school right here in Eau Claire. I stopped “being Catholic” decades ago, and while some of the programming is still firmly installed (now, and at the hour of our death, amen), I don’t miss anything about it.
Unless you’re talking about Christmastime. Because that’s a little different.
It’s in the architecture and the vaulted ceilings. It’s in the banners and the statues. The many, many flickering candles. The shadowy corners. The weird incense. The deep colors and the special robes. It’s freaking Hogwarts.
I grew up attending Catholic Christmas masses – yes, multiple masses – every year because church-goin’ was built into my schools’ weekly extracurriculars, like physical education, music class, and squirting tempera paint into your friends’ faces in the art room. Between school and normal Sunday mass, I got more than my fill of genuflecting, incense, and holy water.
And during all that pew-sitting, I learned to love Catholic churches. As in, the structures themselves. These are buildings specifically designed to inspire wonder and awe and feelings of transcendence, and … it works.
I know the Christmas season means a lot more to people than the building in which they gather to celebrate, but the sensory spectacle found within a large Catholic church during the holidays is hard to ignore. Especially at night.
It’s in the architecture and the vaulted ceilings. It’s in the banners and the statues. The many, many flickering candles. The shadowy corners. The weird incense. The deep colors and the special robes.
It’s freaking Hogwarts.
There’s an atmosphere both grand and mysterious soaring through the arches and alcoves, building above the quiet reverence and the whispered prayers of people close to you, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t at least feel supernatural. Like magic.
And the music. It doesn’t matter if there’s a full church choir, a “modern” band (with, gasp, a drum kit), or just a pipe organ. Familiar Christmas music wafting through a big church festooned with pine boughs and wise men is just ... I don’t know. It’s moving.
To achieve the full effect, it’s gotta be dark. You need some deep, deep shadows lurking just beyond the circles of candlelight, out in the corners and antechambers, or on the other side of the stained glass windows. Just to remind you of the unknown.
Whatever that “unknown” thing might be (whether you think it’s scientific or supernatural), a little glimpse at the awesome wonder towering just outside your peripheral vision is a fantastic thing to consider on a cold winter’s night as you sit on a polished hardwood bench beneath a lofty, ornate ceiling.
I like it. I like the ceremony and the repetition of phrases and the soft echo of an incantation bouncing off the marble floors and around the tapestries, searching for a place to land.
I’m not a Catholic, but at Christmastime I could still go back to church. Not as a fair-weather parishioner, but as someone who enjoys the holiday rituals on my own terms. The door is always open, and the people are usually pretty happy for that one night.
And that is something I don’t mind talking about.