I gaze at the dimly lit apexed chapel ceiling far above. At its murals of old monarchs and saints important to this institution each with their name in gold below, unreadable to my eyes owing in part to the great distance between us.
Depictions of contorted faces of old knobbly Chasidim, their heads tilted upwards uttering this verse with tears appear in my head, as the choir announces, merely announces, but with mystery in song, “My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God.”
My neighbour to the right looks pensive, reflective. He comes every week I decide. He looks as humble as I feel, in this awesome dim shrine of overbearing majesty. Truth be told, I feel like nudging him to demand that he put aside mortal sin just for a while, to focus on this glorious anthem.
The choirboys chime in with a noisy “When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” then add gently, “My tears have been my meat day and night: while they daily say unto me,” to which the whole choir barks in response: “Where is now thy God?” The substitution of the word “meat” for “bread” mystifies me, and I point this out to others within our group, who explain that this would be a Eucharistic reference.
The stalls creak with an eerie echo. Most are seated although some kneel as does the man to my right. The minister chants the Lord’s Prayer in a strange elongated monotone. His congregants follow his lead in a synchronistic mumble, then cross themselves. It all takes a while.
A picture that I imagine to be produce of the holy pastoral inkjet printer, had been handed to each parishioner prior to the service. The Sacrament of the Last Supper, a painting by Salvador Dali it is. It becomes the focal point of the evensong sermon.
The sermon by a young newly ordained priest amuses me no end and I cannot withhold a smile or two. How hard it must be for him to come up with a topic each week where there is no weekly portion. He cannot start with “In der vokhedyge sedrah shteyt,” for there is none. “Poor guy,” I think.
“Dali’s painting in which we see Jesus’ face, which nontheless is missing at the upper depiction in Dali's picture, highlights the fact that Moses could not see God whereas we can,” he says. “The bloody nerve he has,” I think. He fleetingly mentions the geometrical Golden Ratio that Dali uses in this painting thereby alluding to Da Vinci’s Last supper scene. As the priest contrasts the two paintings, I try instead to contrast his sermon with one that the dayan at our shul might give during the third meal after zemiroth on Shabbos. I try to imagine the dayan asking us to focus on a painting by some surrealist, who had once proclaimed that he had no faith, but I simply cannot.
I think that Dali painted the scene merely to tease and toy with this young idealist standing high above his congregation, preaching in a tone suited to the first ever proclamation of the Ten Commandments rather than his light weight diatribe on “Dali’s painting,” beautiful though it may be.
The service ends in another wonderful recital. The organ pipes, which occupy a space that ought to have been two chapel windows between many others magnificently stained, rattle as they do with grace.
The cross-bearer in black robes marches the length of the church in a slow processional pace, and is followed by other clergy members who join as the procession makes its way towards the altar.
I watch with amazement the order of exit. The minister, the choir and choirboys led by their master, all dressed in bright red robes. And after them other figures of importance that in my ignorance I do not know to name, exit the towering open door.
The one and only imperfection in that chapel, is my presence which is as conspicuous as -- well, as a Chasid in a church.
The meticulousness that they have achieved in worship, the humility and insignificance that the service imposes upon its subjects is striking to me. Is it not utter genius to ask that laymen kneel while clergy stand tall and chant?
I contrast this to the happy, sad, and simple one level floor of the shtiebel at home. If religion exists for the purpose of power and pageantry, they win hands down. Yet, while the shtiebel is packed to its rafters, this hall has very few attendees for all its splendour.
What they do have in common though, is that within both, those all important divine rituals seem strangely anthropomorphic, simple, and human in nature to an outside observer. In shul that observer would be an observer observed by many curious observers. Elsewhere he is welcomed by a few and politely ignored by many more.