More Than Two Were Gathered
The communion wafer got stuck on the roof my mouth. I had to will my glands to produce enough spit to loosen it. With what seemed like glacial slowness, the wafer swelled with liquid and then cleaved itself. I rolled it with my tongue until I managed to fold it in half. Terrified of choking I forced a swallow and it was gone. I didn’t dare clear my throat, the sound would have been deafening.
Given my notorious inability to judge time, I wavered about leaving my hotel room a little early. “It’s just up the street, it’ll take two minutes,” I thought. But then I thought better. I donned my raincoat and set off. Drips but not rain welcomed me to the windy and still dark morning. I was off to attend the Wednesday “Morgenmesse i Bispekapellet” at the Cathedral.
The Cathedral was in view when it’s bells began peeling. Yikes, how could I be late, it wasn’t 8 o’clock yet. Panic gave way to calm as I figured they were the warning bells for mass, the five minute countdown. I walked along the ancient structure towards the sounds of bells. Roof openings near the main entrance protected the bells yet liberated the sounds.
I rounded the walk, turned left and approached the massive wooden doors. They were old, and studded with iron, and in an arched frame, and just magnificent. And they were locked. Panic strikes again.
The cacophony of the bells, the darkness and weather, gave an urgency to my quest. And then I remembered the chapel. Attached to the prestigious school next door was a chapel that looked like it was hewn from the same rock. I bet it was there.
With a quick, but not trying to look like a panic pace, I walked about the entrance and continued to the left. Up the path came a late middle-aged couple. My marks, they looked like they were going to church. I watched them turn into the chapel, I followed. We converged at the door. I tried to mumble in Norwegian to the man if this was the Bishop’s Mass but I could by now see inside and this indeed was the place.
I grabbed a program and found a seat, there were about eight or so scattered in the rows that could hold maybe 50-60. Seated, I now had a chance to look around. The ivory colored walls raced my eyes upward to a vaulted ceiling. I bet the layout was in accordance to the golden dimension. Granite ribbing gave boundaries to the sea of ivory. The floor was wood, wide and well-worn planks.
Our light came from candles and candelabras. The large candelabra suspended from the peak was electric, the wires sufficiently hidden. At a corner near the altar was a small portable radiator, colored like the wall. Those assembled would be the heat of the building, as designed. I was in a time machine.
I wanted to look at the chapel like a tourist. But I also wanted to take in this service in all its reverence in this ancient structure. The bells continued to toll.
And then silence.
It was a large silence, one that you notice because you think that maybe time just stopped and your ears are straining to hear, something. The pastor stood purposely from her frozen position in the front row. If not for her purple clad vestments and obvious flesh, then she would have fit right into the inanimate structure.
Her calm voice rang out, like a bell into the chamber. I glanced about for the microphone and speaker, there were none. It was her voice and this building, clearly the chapel was designed to highlight the sounds. I dared not move.
She greeted the assembled and we were invited to sing the first three verses of song #11. A man on the right bank of pews initiated the song with direct and confident singing, everyone else joined in. I initially listened, taking in the spartan sound. But when I tried to find my place in the hymnal, I just couldn’t quite find the spot despite the obvious pattern.
The Cathedral in Stavanger is over 900 years old, the oldest in Norway. Bishop Reinald gets credit for being the first leader of the church dedicated to St. Swithun. The chapel next to the cathedral is over 700 years old, Bishop Arne was likely responsible for its construction.
Both buildings were created under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church with the requisite beauty and sophistication in the stonework, interior decor, and stained glass when available. The Reformation blunted the pomp of the Roman tree but with the state still firmly entwined with the church, royal dictates of formality persisted.
The Haugean movement challenged the authority of the state. Hauge and his followers favored simplicity, piety, and informality. Sitting in the chapel I thought the influence of church reformers like Hauge were present. The wall were spartan and iconography was minimal. There were candles but no incense. The leader was a woman.
Lutheran churches in America are plain. To be sure some are proud masonry structures built by the children of the pioneers and testaments to their faith and personal existence. But most are modest: asphalt shingles, vinyl siding, easy-to-clean industrial carpet… There is a definite lure to incredible buildings like these, but my pious roots make me think that are more for visiting than using.
Text followed. Prayer with response. A moment of incredible silence. The words of communion. And then I was with the others standing in a semi-circle before the altar, miniature golden chalices in hand. We were 11 and the minister.
More words, more call and response. We sang the last three verses of the hymn. I found my place after the first verse and was able to join in for the balance. The man behind me sang with such a gustatory tenor that I was free to let my voice add to the sound without worry of tone or key.
The pastor blessed us and the faithful filed out. I sat back down to gather my thoughts and try to make mental notes of everything that happened in these oh-so-rich 20 minutes. The minister had found a new spot to sit in repose while the chamber emptied. I lingered, she knew I was a visitor and that I wanted to talk to her. She was right.