Feather Crowns

May 15, 2007

Readers of this space are probably aware that I have a checkered spiritual past. I was brought up as a Catholic by sincere, church-going parents but graduated from Catholic high school possessed of tons of doctrine but no real faith. I declared myself an agnostic in my early twenties and withdrew from all church practice. When I was 33 I had a experience which started me on a quest to reclaim a connection with the divine, and I found a faith which sustains me. Ultimately I became a member of the Lutheran congregation to which I now belong, but I prefer to describe myself as a Christian rather than in denominational terms.

Ron has a similar background, without the stepping away. A man of rock solid faith, he belonged to the Catholic parish he was baptized in until just a few years ago. About the time that his mother, who died in 2005, no longer needed him for transportation to Sunday Mass, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the music ministry in that parish. Singing is the way Ron prays, and he found kindred spirits and a liturgical style that spoke to him in the cathedral parish of Saint Patrick in downtown Harrisburg.

That parish is celebrating the centennial of the opening of the structure that now serves as the cathedral for the Diocese of Harrisburg. Built over three years at a cost of $250,000, it was dedicated on May 14, 1907, and last night I attended a celebration Mass there. I was drawn by Ron’s promise of special music, particularly a setting of Psalm 100 using the Old Hundredth tune (the setting for the doxology I love so much) and a brass fanfare.

I was not disappointed. Because I was accompanying a choir member I got downtown really early and had nearly my pick of the seats that were left. The cathedral is a large church, but even so, all the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, seminarian acolytes, and ceremonial attendants required a lot of reserved space.

The music was wonderful, full of majesty, some of it even the authentic Gregorian chant I grew up with. And the spectacle of the entrance procession of all the dignitaries was alone worth the effort to be there. First in were the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Color Corps, with their feathered chapeaux. The thurifer, the seminarian charged with carrying the censer and swinging it to keep the charcoal burning and wafting its scent throughout the assembly, the crucifer (cross bearer) with his two acolytes, and the lectors, were next. There followed then the Knights of the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. So much pomp and color almost overshadowed the entourage of priest concelebrants in more or less plain gold chasubles and the bishop and cardinals with their attendant hat holders and crozier bearers.

I didn’t have my sketch journal nor my colored pencils with me, but I did make some drawings in my notebook in an effort to capture the shape of the hats on the Knights of Columbus and the different colors of the feathers that cascaded from crown to brim.

And I had my notebook with me because at events like this I am something of a tourist, a voyeur, the writer observing and gathering material while keeping herself aloof and out of direct participation.

The Catholic church and all the ritual and ceremony associated with it is the experience of my childhood. When I was at the Jesuit Center at Wernersville last month I stepped back into it, the wanderer always welcomed home, if only for a moment. My ten days at Wernersville were, I believe now, a liminal space in my life, a moment between now and tomorrow, between what has been and what can be.

Back in my “real” life the Sunday after I returned I partook of the liturgy suddenly in place by virtue of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s new hymnal (to be called “the cranberry book” to distinguish it from the “green book,” so called to distinguish it from “the red book,” which it replaced some thirty years ago).

I’ve heard the new liturgy from the cranberry book (at least the one of a dozen included settings that Tree of Life’s worship committee chose) twice now, and I have to say, well, I hate it.

It’s “praise music,” the kind of pop flavored, string-heavy stuff you hear when flipping channels on Sunday mornings past the televised services in mega churches.

A friend on the worship committee told me to be patient. We’re only using this setting through June, and then we’re going back to a more familiar (but altered) setting for the rest of the summer.

I can’t accommodate any more change right now. The five-acre woodland beside my house is for sale. The debate over whether to renovate the high school campus I spent many happy days on or build anew in the suburbs seems headed toward building anew. A subdivision of 400 houses on the Stabler property is one township council meeting away from approval.

Let me at least have, for a while longer, a liturgy I can sing from memory.