“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Penny Plain or Tuppence Coloured?

Do you like your religion penny plain or tuppence coloured? In Christian terms, I would guess that if you are Protestant, the answer is likely to be the former, if Catholic, the latter. This difference was brought home to me yesterday evening, when we went to a light-show at Amiens Cathedral, which ingeniously projected colour onto the very elaborate facade, to make it look as though it was painted.
Oh. My. It was breathtaking, incredible, awe-inspiring. As my husband commented, just imagine being a mediaeval person arriving here on a pilgrimage to see John the Baptist's head (which rather grisly relic is kept in the Cathedral) or on your way to St. Iago de Compostela. Imagine the awe and reverence this building would inspire. Then, walking into that lofty vaulted space and participating in the high mystery of the mass, with its chanting and incense and bells. It must have been a mind-blowing experience.
And I was not unaffected. I can recall feeling similarly blown away the first time I saw a video of the Hindu festival of Diwali - it was all so bright, so rich, so vivid, and yes, so awe-inspiring.
And yet, so very unlike the usual monochrome, non-ritualistic Unitarian, words-based hymn-sandwich type service, where the closest we get to ritual is the lighting of the chalice at the beginning of the service, and maybe a few candles of joy and concern.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating loads of symbolism and ritual in the average Unitarian service, far from it. We come from a very different religious tradition, where it is considered to be important that the congregation is intellectually engaged with the service. And that is good. But as I have said in another blogpost, there is nothing wrong with engaging the heart and the senses too; perhaps a little more light and colour and ritual on occasion would not do us any harm.
There was an interesting coda to all this. Today we visited Laon Cathedral, which inside is much more austere and much less highly decorated - there was less gold statuary around the place, and the nave soars upwards towards the beautiful vaulting, and forwards to the magnificent rose window in the east end. The effect was light and airy; and I felt so much more at ease. Although I can be thrilled and awe-inspired by light and drama, too much fills me with unease. The light and austere interior of Laon Cathedral was much more to my spiritual taste than the decorated glory of Amiens.

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