Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Long ago reflections in the catacombs

Houghton Memorial Chapel at Wellesley College

Searching for the opening to the underground level of the century-old, granite-blocked, red-roofed Houghton Memorial Chapel, I noticed some stone steps leading downward, and I swung open the heavy wooden door.

When it closed behind me, the sound echoed, vibrating throughout the empty rooms.

An autumn midday,

I sought refuge within stone.

I found emptiness.

I walked down into the catacombs, and I would soon discover why this place was aptly named.

Catacombs were secret places for worship and burial in the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire.

Dark and cold, the white-walled passageway was eerily quiet.

Upstairs, the beautiful Protestant Chapel glowed with the polished veneer of intricately designed woods while light streamed through lovely stained-glass windows.

Here in the lower level were discarded wooden pews, old choir robes, stacked chairs and boxes filled with religious goods.

I passed the Buddhist and Hindu meditation room and the Muslim prayer room before I saw the Catholic sanctuary. When I walked into the room, I felt disoriented, since I expected an altar and statues of saints.

I saw a small man dressed in street clothes, sitting on a couch. Immediately, he stood up and introduced himself in a thick Spanish accent as Father Andres.

I sat down. The little priest dragged a small table into the center of the room and draped it with a white cloth. He lit a votive candle and placed ribbons in a prayer book, marking passages.

No trappings of church

Filled the underground chapel.

No saints but sinners.

Another man entered the room. He was very tall. Speaking with an Eastern European accent, he introduced himself to the priest as Igor.

We waited for others to arrive. No one came.

The holy man laid three Communion hosts on a silver plate and poured red wine into a clear beverage glass, instead of the usual golden or silver chalice. Only now I noticed an unframed print of Mary, a medieval portrait of the Queen of Heaven, propped up against the wall. The priest placed a long silken vestment cloth around his neck and began to pray.

The Mass began. I listened to the familiar words spoken with a foreign tongue, and they sounded strange and alien to me. The priest passed the book to Igor, and he read in his deep, heavily accented voice a passage from the Old Testament. Then he handed me the book, and I read the psalm, line by line. They repeated my words, and our voices became one, praising the Lord.

After the Scripture readings, Father Andres asked us to pray for the young women on campus. We closed our eyes and silently prayed.

Instead of kneeling in pews, we sat in orange plastic chairs while the priest broke the bread and blessed the wine. He placed the Communion host in my hand and passed me the glass. I put the bread in my mouth and sipped the warm wine, the body and blood of Christ.

The priest bade us go in peace.

I climbed out of the catacombs into the bright fall sunshine, welcoming the warmth and light around me. I thought about the half-hour service and the unlikely gathering: the little priest, a Cambridge psychologist from northern Spain; the Boston University history professor, an immigrant from the Czech Republic; and myself, an American-born student in pursuit of an undergraduate degree.

And like the early Christians, I had traveled to what seemed to me, a secretive underground place. Once there, I had worshipped with strangers whose accented voices proclaimed an identical faith. Our prayers had echoed through dark and empty passages and filled them with a beautiful sound.

All were invited.

Only a few came to pray.

All benefited.


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