Stories sometimes demand to be told, and as they form in our minds, we aren't entirely sure why they want to be heard. The following is one such story.
It's Christmas eve, 1999. Steve and I are spending Christmas with some of his cousins in the Bavarian Oberpfalz, in a tiny village about 15 miles from the Czech border in which Steve's family, on the mother's side, has lived for centuries. I wrote about this Christmas visit in my travel journal, Never in Paradise. That account (from my travel journal) is here.
We walk to midnight Mass through the snow. All is silent. None of the families trudging through the snowy little village to the church are speaking to each other. Nor are they speaking among themselves. The only point of light and warmth to suggest a festival is at hand is a fire in front of the church, where men are brewing rum punch in a large pot to be sold to revelers following the Mass.
As we enter the church, Steve's cousin Hermann directs us up the stairs — a winding affair with steps that decrease from wider to narrower as each step affixes to the central pole holding the stairwell together — to the balcony. His wife Regina sprints into the main part of the church. I assume she sits with the women, who congregate on one side of the church, while the men sit on the other.
I know this because Steve and I have been to Mass at this parish church before, and made the mistake of sitting on the women's side of the church. A few other brave souls play the gender-transgression game and do the same. At this midnight Mass, I have to assume that the arrangement remains gender-divided, since I can't see down into the church. I can see only the altar, straight ahead, with its gilded sworls and playing cherubim and symbols of light breaking forth from the tabernacle.
Only men are in the balcony. Steve and I sit with our backs, the backs of our torturous too-short pews built for stocky, short Bavarian bodies and not our taller bodies, right against the organ, so that I can feel it reverberate through my body as it swoops and bellows.
As my travel journal indicates (see the link above), I'm baffled by the liturgy, as someone who did not grow up in a little Bavarian village. Hard enough for me to follow German. The initial pre-Mass skit put on by young folks in Bairisch is absolutely incomprehensible.
What strikes me about the whole show, as a spectator hidden away in the balcony, is just how much of a show it really is — how perfectly caught, a fly in amber, in the Baroque moment of counter-Reformation Catholicism it is. People are there to watch, not to participate. I don't mouth the responses because I can't do so, since I don't know them in German. But neither do all the village men sitting around Steve and me in the balcony engage in the responses. They watch in silence.
When it's time for communion, only two or three men go down from the balcony to receive communion. Several elderly men in the balcony stand up so that they can peer over the railing and see who is going to communion (!). Since I can't see, I can't really know what's happening down there. Because we've been to Mass in the village before, as I say, I know that very few people receive communion. They're there for the spectacle, to see, not to take part. They're there for the sound, the light, the swirling colors, the gold and playing angels — the foretaste of heaven. Baroque Catholicism is premised on these assumptions about liturgy, and little appears to have changed in this remote Oberpfalz village in many years.
And then it's all over and I'm now getting to the point of this story: down the steps we trot, I having completely forgotten that the steps narrow as they reach the pole holding the staircase together, so that I miss a step and pitch forward into air and space and a perfect tangle of sturdy Bavarian bodies all shorter than Steve and I are, threatening to bring the entire procession of men who had been in the balcony during Mass down in a big tumble at the bottom of the stairs.
I can see the headlines as I start to fall: Curious Accident at Midnight Mass in Oberpfalz Village, As American Worshiper Brings Down the House.
And then this happens: someone, someone whose face I can't see, who is behind me, immediately sees that I have missed the step and puts his arms around me to hold me from falling. I right myself, clutch the railing, and creep down the stairs. When we get to the bottom, I thank him profusely and he nods, walking on into the darkness.
Perhaps he catches doltish Americans falling down the church stairs on a routine basis, and this is no big deal to him.
And that incident, the catching by the stranger, the stranger willing to put his arms around me and hold me from falling after Christmas eve Mass: that's somehow the point of this story. Though I don't know how to make that point in any finished way, other than to tell the story . . . .
The graphic: a close-up shot of Ernst Barlach's 1926 wood carving "Das Wiedersehen," of Jesus meeting Thomas following the Resurrection, from the Barlach museum in Hamburg.