Finding truth through tradition
I was visiting Paris this past weekend, and on Sunday I went to a Catholic mass for the first time. Now, I’m more comfortable in a casual protestant crowd, but since I was in Paris, home to some breathtaking cathedrals and a healthy Catholic culture, I wanted to experience mass for myself. So on Sunday evening, I found myself sitting on a wicker chair at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a beautiful old cathedral in the 6e arrondissement.
The liberal protestantism that I identify with doesn’t ascribe much importance to clerical garments, relics, or rosary beads. I tend to dismiss them out of hand as a materialistic distraction from spiritual growth. But I decided to put my prejudice on hold and experience mass with an open mind. What I found was a new perspective and a deeper respect for tradition.
Through the haze of incense, I couldn’t quite make out the priest’s face. That annoyed me, because I like to see people when they’re speaking. By tilting my head slightly to the left, I could barely get a view of the altar through the sea of heads in front of me. I’m used to seeing an energetic pastor speak from a well-lit stage, accompanied by easy-to-follow PowerPoint slides. For a moment, I felt disappointed. But then I realised: it must be intentional.
Once I stopped judging the mass based on my own expectations, I saw the good in this setup: by not being able to see the priest, I was concentrating less on the man and more on the words he was speaking. The white robe he was wearing served to further blur the identity of the man. His individuality had been stamped out by religious symbolism. Ironically, this made me feel as if God’s word was being spoken to me more directly.
I say ironically, because one of the main criticisms of the Catholic church is that it ignores the “priesthood of the believer” - that is, it appoints specific intermediaries between God and people. But in this situation, I felt like the intermediary was far less present than a typical Pentecostal pastor.
When a preacher of God’s word is an identifiable human being, I find that I interpret his or her message as “Pastor so-and-so’s commentary of Luke Chapter One”. On the flipside, this Catholic priest’s identity was shrouded in ritual and symbolism. Since I couldn’t relate to him as a person, I saw him purely as a messenger of God. Funny how that works.Sam Nabi