Secular Confessions

(Written for Mint  on July 8, 2016)


I push open the door of dark, weathered wood. There are always a few seconds of suspense before you enter an unfamiliar church. What exactly is on the other side? A magnificently ornate façade can often belie the interior: a simple vaulted ceiling and a sedate altar. There could be sudden wafts of frankincense, kaleidoscopic beams shining through a window, or a full choir at practice. I feel that I’m prepared for most eventualities. But on this occasion, the surprise is of an altogether different kind.

I’ve been wandering through the streets of Padua in northern Italy, a city that is ringed by the Bacchiglione river and at whose ancient university Galileo was once appointed the chair of mathematics. There’s been a June shower and the scent of jasmine that trails through the city has become even more potent, the wet blossoms covering trellises, bowers, hedges and shrubs almost everywhere you look.

I enter the Basilica of Saint Anthony and am stunned by the interior: the height of the soaring pillars, the bronzes in the many chapels. But a few moments later, I am distracted. In front of me, a woman dips her fingers into the holy water font, her eyelids fluttering with anxiety. She makes the sign of the cross and looks up at a relief of the Madonna. Her lips move, but rather than a set prayer or incantation, this feels like a conversation. She sighs and seems to whisper. The correct thing to do is to look away and move on, but perversely, while I now feel I shouldn’t even be in the church, I continue to look at her. She gesticulates, pauses and murmurs again.

This is a conversation, but it is also an intense communion, and it feels distinctly wrong that a few seconds ago I was wondering if I might Instagram one of the stained-glass windows. There is a sort of transcendence, an experience that surely none of us secular interlopers should be witnessing at such close quarters. It feels as though I have clambered into bed with a couple who are discussing their future together, or settled on to a psychotherapist’s couch during a session with a patient.

Why should this bother me? In India you’re never far from a public expression of faith. You can barely get to the supermarket without an azaan blaring into your ears or someone trying to smash a coconut at your feet. But in the confines of a place built to honour the sacred, the intensity and intimacy of her prayer makes it feel different from other such quotidian practices. Should non-participants really be taking up place here?

The Prato della Valle

The Prato della Valle

I walk up the nave, away from the woman, realizing that I am looking for some reassurance that I can stay. I spot a couple in the front pew, pleasingly attired in what was once known as “Sunday best”. The knot in his burgundy tie is perfect, her handbag is secure in her lap. They look straight ahead with an air of expectation and seem to be there for a specific reason. No mass, however, was timetabled at the entrance, and there are no signs of any clergymen. I glance down the rows, but no one else seems to possess their sense of purpose. I sit down in the same pew, and they glance at me with approval. This is what I need: a sign that I have not committed a terrible blunder, that I am doing something right. I feel, in some half-baked way, as though I’m pitching in.

The three of us stare at the altar. If not mass, perhaps we are waiting for a visitation or a miracle. Of course this is unlikely, but I stay where I am; if I miss my one chance to witness some kind of revelation I will never be able to forgive myself.

Minutes pass. The man gives me a half-smile and the woman pats her handbag. I am less sure now. Maybe this is what the couple does every day, dresses up and sits in this pew until a fatigued church official tells them they are closing for the evening. Rather than participating in some important ritual, I may have signed up for some meticulous eccentricity. The pew is hard, I have a frog in my throat and I think I need to pee. More minutes pass. Finally, I nod at the couple and shuffle away. They don’t nod back and continue to stare straight ahead.

I have a choice in the matter, don’t I? This is a place of worship built to inspire awe for the divine and to herald the power of the Church, but it is also a public sanctuary, a construction of breathtaking beauty, filled with transformative art and, often, glorious song: entreaties that serve to move the godless as well as the faithful.

There are several pews in the north transept, and here a young man kneels in obvious supplication. His hands are tightly laced together and his head hangs low. He is oblivious to all the activity around him: the tourists who are peering at the memorial to a famed 15th century mercenary, the guide flapping his brochure. He bows his head even lower and now there is a visible tremble to his hands. It is a sight too much.

I walk out into the piazza, where children race past on scooters and pigeons hop on to café tables in search of crumbs of piadini (flat bread). A woman in a silver bob shoos one away, takes a tiny pair of scissors out of her bag and begins to cut an article out of a local newspaper. As I turn into a cobbled alley, there is a loud crack of thunder and the red brickwork takes on sudden hues of grey and brown. Market traders begin unrolling sheets of plastic over their crates of purple onions and speckled borlotti beans; buskers pick up their guitar cases and run for cover. The first drops begin to spatter and I take shelter in the nearest possible place. It is, of course, another church.

The light in the Chiesa degli Eremitani (Church of the Hermits) is dim, and the frescoes on the walls and ceiling reveal themselves slowly: a sinewed arm, a jewelled robe. According to a coin machine on the wall, it costs a euro to turn on the lights above the frescoes. A man in khaki, dressed for a safari in the Kalahari, mulls this over and eventually slips a coin into the machine. The lights flare into action and the scenes unfold as they were meant to: a knight mounting a silvery horse, winged angels playing violins and harps, a crucifixion. A group of tourists scurry forward and start taking photos, hurrying before the euro’s beneficence runs out. Its former owner is unamused; glowering, he does all he can to ensure a part of his body is in each photographer’s frame. There is divinity all around us, but it is certainly not here. After the very personal displays of faith in the previous church, this comes as something of a relief. I have been spared my unnecessary but apparently unavoidable secularist contortions.

At that moment we all spot a little girl who is entirely unconcerned with these preoccupations. She takes the church as she finds it. She approximates a few steps of hopscotch on the ochre tiles, dips her fingers into the font, tastes the water, makes a face, stops to riffle through a hymn book, slides her hands down the sleek wood of a pew, twirls into one of the cloisters, blows a kiss to a dead saint, attempts a discreet peek into the confessional, lifts her head right back to take in the majesty of a candelabrum, does a loping sort of curtsey to a painting of baby Jesus, and finally throws open one of the church doors.

In that moment, whether we are of faith or not, we all blink: The spot where we stand is flooded with a cool, clean light