They sit in St Bavo cathedral in Harlaam, The Netherlands, upon whose enormous organ the fingers of Mozart and Handel had once played, and hold midday service. In a small corner of the imposing church, with a hundred tiny, flickering candles in the back and rows of wooden chairs, a scrawny little man plays a hymn on a scrawny little organ, an old woman with the voice of a squirrel reads from Lukas 4, Mary’s Prayer, and the two American girls do their best to follow along with the Onzevater. The words sound like jibberish, less coherent than a nursery rhyme told from the lips of Tweety Bird himself, while the old man with knee high socks and feet that can’t touch the ground stammers his way through the meditation and the cold gravestones underneath the chairs look away in embarrassment. One felt that it was a child’s game, this midday service – that it is play acting, glue and tongue compressors trying to build a castle. One wonders if when Paul wrote about the church being like sheep on their way to slaughter, he was referring less to a slaughter by swords and more to a slaughter by laughter, of the sheer ridiculousness of it all and the mocking laughter of the first century passerbys, echoed twenty centuries later in this ancient cathedral. The very image of blundering sheep almost asks to be conjured in the mind – bleating Mass in the language of lock jaw and double “oo” and random “j”s thrown in everywhere, while the sun shines brightly through the stained glass windows and the holy but pathetic flame of the candles realizes its glow is utterly useless next to the impossibly luminous world outside it.
And yet… One felt also that within the absurdity of the whole thing, somehow this moment in this scene in this church on this street is somehow the closest thing to the Church, to the body of Christ, as anyone will ever experience it. That in the absurdity is somehow solemnity, and reverence, and in the tiny man something of Luther, in the squeaky woman’s words of Mary’s prayer something of that original exultation, and in the Americans’ naive and infantile attempts to phonetically sound out “Onze vader die in de hemel zijt, uw naam worde geheiligd,” Jesus’s command to receive the Kingdom like a child is ery nearly obeyed. That maybe, in all the prayer meetings, theology courses, mega conferences, and church services these people have attended throughout the course of their lives, none has ever been as near to touching the heart of God than this.
One feels all this and is tired. The beauty still resonates but so also does the ache, and the questions weary of their own asking, and the loneliness that fears its own forgetting and thus repeats itself over and over again. The grace repeats itself also – for every “I am alone” is a “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” One hears both these voices and is tired. Somehow each morning finds the strength to be a child again, though the heart feels old, disenchanted, disillusioned. But the Gospel enters into this also. It re-enchants and re-woos and says that all will not end with disillusionment. The heart will feel whole again. The farce of faith will be the feast of the eyes. It says that yes you are tired, and you are afraid, and you are wounded, but there will come a day when, thanks be to God, the wound will be the inaugurating kiss of Kingdom on a sore and longing earth.