What an Atheist Learns at Corpus Christi

It was rather surprising when I found myself at Saint Stephan’s Cathedral on Corpus Christi. As a catholic turned atheist I hadn’t been to mass in years, and I did it while I was out of country nonetheless. Since I went with a group of music students, we were there to listen to Mozart’s Requiem along with a couple of Handel pieces being performed in the space they were originally written for. I found the entirety of this experience to be something much more than any mass could even hope to be in the United States….or at least the churches I’ve been to.

The mass started out with incense. Incense everywhere. The sweet smell filled the room and left no space for any other scent to be perceived. Next came a procession of families tied to the church, followed by all of the altar boys and officials of the church. All were in traditional garb. From the sectioned off area to the front of the cathedral was painted with costumes that could only be outshone by the architecture of the building itself. As stated in my previous blog post, Saint Stephan’s cathedral is of a Gothic style. This means that of course every inch of every wall is decorated with the finest of details. One could get lost in the details for the rest of their lives, if it weren’t for the gothic way of forcing the eyes to the front of the room. This ensured that we paid attention to the sermon.

Though it was hot, and we were sitting (and occasionally kneeling) shoulder to shoulder on hard benches, it was not hard to make it through the entirety of the program. The chanting filled the entire space with one vibration that we could feel. The sermon was entirely in German, but we could still generally get the gist. The music was absolutely gorgeous. Every part had enough space to really be heard, it wasn’t all cramped together in a tiny space where they only thing you can hear is the sopranos. Every part was allowed to flourish.  During greetings there was a sense of connectedness when you shook the hand of your neighbors. During communion it was something else to have the taste of the body and blood of Christ at the tip of your tongue.  At one point in time during the music you could see the incense’s smoke flowing upward toward the light of an open window and the only thing that I could think of was the smoke’s ascent to the heavens.

All of the senses were in overdrive. There was not one sense that wasn’t being utilized to create this indescribable feeling. Some people no doubt think of it as the presence of God. Many of us on the trip that I spoke to after said it was more unsettling than comfortable- it probably didn’t help that most of us are non-believers. Nonetheless, so many people made it their lives work to craft this feeling.  Many people expressed their love and/or fear of God through the format of the service.

And this lead me to the realization that expression isn’t just for communication. Expression brings feelings—whether that feeling be a cozy one or one that shakes you to your bones. It’s so much more than communication. While communication can bring you facts or opinions, it’s really the expression of these facts that gives somebody feelings of empathy. With no empathy, there is no real understanding. I can calmly state that the world is going to end for ages, but if nobody else truly feels the same way I do, then what good is it? People would continue on in their normal way if they hadn’t really internalized the message.

Expression, no matter the medium, is far more important than I have ever previously given it credit for.

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