Take a pew

by Listener Archive / 18 April, 2011
Like to learn more about foreign cultures while on holiday? Try attending church services.
I started attending church in foreign cities after reading about Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, who honed his 14 languages listening to church services. Unfortunately, I have yet to find Schliemann’s linguistic cornucopia, but I have learnt a lot about foreign culture. Recently, I joined a trickle of locals heading for the Sunday evening service in France’s Nîmes Cathedral of Notre-Dame and St Castors. At the battered green doors, a young priest remonstrated with a gaunt, unshaven man. Earlier, I had seen this character begging in the street and now his plastic cup was conspicuous at the entrance.

Once through the door I paused, lost in the dingy interior. The nave, rebuilt in the 18th century after France’s wars of religion, was much newer than its honey-­coloured facade. Stout square columns defined drab grey niches as they plodded down each side. Their squat lines drew my eyes up to refreshing light streaming through delicate stained-glass windows.

Seeking anonymity, I chose a chair among the vacant middle rows. Around me, others sat in ones and twos in silent contemplation. Across the aisle, an angular woman worked her way along the seats, stooping to speak briefly to each individual. Her thick black hair belied her age. Was she welcoming newcomers or perhaps conducting a survey? There were 21 heads in front of me. If there were the same behind, how could they make the place pay?

A hushed salutation snapped me from my calculations. The angular lady wanted me to help with the service – to read something. I shook my head.

With a “merci” she moved on.

It was holiday time. Their usual helpers were away, but me take a reading? It would be daunting in English, but impossible in French. As there were only 12 people left to solicit on my side, I didn’t fancy her chances. Why didn’t she do the readings herself? A couple of rows on, a balding head nodded and took a collection basket. She had scored. One row from the front a French plait nodded, too. The plait approached the altar, studied a weighty tome and returned to her seat.

The angular woman ushered in the priest in white vestments and introduced him to her volunteers. Then the beggar from the door strode up. Breaking stride, he stooped at the chancel and approached the altar. As he knelt down, I noticed the holes in his sandals. The priest’s eyes swept the congregation. After a pause, he leaned to the beggar’s ear and spoke – hushed. Then, with a gentle hand, the priest raised him up. The whispered ­lecture continued as the beggar was edged towards the door.

In the ensuing silence, a dank, moist feeling of old stone chilled me. Were the rest of the audience intrigued, too? ­Perhaps this was the elaborate television set for a bizarre spin-off from Father Ted or Candid Camera? Was I to be the butt of some elaborate joke?

The priest, in flowing green, stepped into the chancel and chased away my fantasies. Holidaying in Nîmes, he was filling in for the parish priest. Was the angular woman the only local? Our stand-in priest sang the service – a practice in France – and what a voice. The acoustics were not bad, either. I didn’t join in. Since being asked not to sing at primary school, I have resisted all choral activities. Instead, I sent up a good wish for my children and my children’s children, and considered the meaning of life and of success.

The French plait read the lesson, and the bald man emerged with another conscript to receive the collection. The angular woman’s face, as she looked around, showed she was pleased with her direction of the event. With all the drama, things were running late and hunger, not higher thoughts, had me all churned up. To my relief, we finally filed towards the bright sunshine outside. The beggar stood to the left of the door and the priest to the right. A final dilemma: should I join the queue to say “bonsoir” to the priest, or go to the left and drop a euro in the beggar’s cup?
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