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” I felt like all I had seen for the last week was churches and monasteries, abbeys and basilicas, chapels and cathedrals. That’s what you get for coming to France with your family, I thought. Next time, be sure to come with your friends instead. Then you can just hit up the bars and clubs. The church was a crumbling old edifice, Romanesque or Byzantine, I think, made out of some pinkish-tan kind of stone. It huddled between pharmacies and boulangeries at a corner of the bay of Marseilles. I don’t even remember what it was called. On the outside, it had almost no markings, quite the contrast from the usual elaborate adornment of statues and bas-reliefs. We walked in through a small wooden door—I almost had to duck not to hit my head—and the inside was just as plain. Balding tan stone with black candle grime build-up, and a few humble wooden crosses here and there. I took one quick look around, decided that there was nothing to see here, and trudged over to a random chair on the middle left side. The chair was small, hard, and wooden; it hurt my butt as I waited gloomily for my mother and my sisters to finish praying. What did they have to pray about, anyway? They had just prayed three hours ago in a different church. Thankfully, our stay in this church was relatively short. We had other sides to see; this was just a quick side-stop. We left and walked across the street toward the little booth where they sold tickets for the tram ride up to the basilica. It was right next to the docks and smelled like fish from all the guys gutting and filleting their catches right on the sidewalk. The forest of sailboat masts stood behind us against an overcast sky as we bought the tickets. While we waited for the tram, it started to rain again. I realized I had left my umbrella on the seat beside me in the church. “I’m just gonna run over there and look for it while we wait for the tram.” I crossed the street with my brother’s umbrella and entered the church again, but when I looked around where I was sitting, it wasn’t there. It’s here for five minutes and somebody takes it. That’s Europe for you, I thought. There were a handful of other people in the church, wandering around, but I didn’t see any of them holding my umbrella. I didn’t want my family to miss the tram, so I gave up and crossed the street again. “Guess I’m gonna have to go umbrella-less for the rest of the day,” I told my brother, handing him back his own. We took tram, a chain of little blue cars filled with tourists, which was pulled by a car made to look like a choo-choo train engine. I wondered if they had stolen it from Disneyland. The cars had glass panels on one side only, so we all scrunched toward that side while the rain blew in from the open side. Rain also came in through the cracks between the glass panels. It was getting gustier and raining harder now. The train made stops throughout the drive and a loud voice over the speakers pointed out historic sites in three different languages; when it wasn’t doing this, it played annoying little ditties that were supposed to sound like medieval music, I guess. Finally we got to the top of the hill. The basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde dominates the city of Marseilles. It sits atop a point overlooking the city and the ocean, jutting out of the hill like a rhino’s horn. The Byzantine architecture is strikingly different from your typical cathedral or basilica. Instead of the highest point being a bell tower and steeple towards the back of the church,
this basilica has a large square tower at the front of the church, culminating in a gigantic golden statue of the Virgin Mary. Even I was impressed. This St. Mary “of the Guard” looks out over the ocean, watching ships coming in and out of the bay. Standing on the high porch of the church, lashed by the wind and the rain, I looked out at the stormy bay and saw the sharp rocks cropping up out of the water, where many a ship had been dashed in the past. Inside the church, hundreds of paintings of ships hung from the walls, and wooden models of ships dangled from the ceiling, gifts from the grateful townspeople for the Virgin Mary’s protection. I wondered if Mary ever actually saved anyone, or if it was just a superstitious myth. The church was beautifully decorated, about as ornate as the last church had been plain and ugly. I wasn’t much of a praying person, but in a place like this, it was hard not to feel a little superstitious, so I kneeled down for a minute and said a Hail Mary. When everyone was finished, we took the tram back down. It was raining all the way. Down by the bay again, we got a late afternoon snack at a creperie. Then we were planning on going to the little marketplace in the center of town. We had to walk by the old church again to get there, though, which reminded me of my lost umbrella. When I had been in there, I had seen a tiny office at the back of the church, but I hadn’t gone in to ask for my umbrella because I didn’t know French, and because I didn’t want to be late for the tram. But now I figured we might as well check, since we were walking right by the church. My dad knows French, so I asked him if he could go into the office and see if there was a lost and found. He did, and my whole family followed us into the church to get out of the rain. An older, pudgy black lady was working at the desk when we came in. My dad said something to her in French, and she said something back and produced the little black umbrella from under her desk. Apparently, she had picked it up right after we had left the church the first time. She handed it over, smiling, and then said something else to my dad in French. He turned and relayed it to my mom. “She says they’re about to have Mass, and we’re welcome to join them.” My mom thought about it for a second, and then decided, since it was Saturday and we’d be on the plane all day tomorrow, that we should stay. My heart sank. I was forced to go to church every Sunday when I was home, but I hadn’t been to church at all since I went to college. I tried my best to be a good person. I was old enough to know by now what was right and what was wrong; I didn’t need to take an hour for someone to remind me every week. Besides, I usually just fell asleep. And the priests always sounded the same, wherever I went; couldn’t they at least mix it up a little bit? But my mom had decided, and now we had no choice. It meant a lot to her, so I just had to put up with it. We sat in a row in the hard little wooden chairs, just about where I had sat before with my umbrella. A few people trickled in; there were about thirty people in the church when the Mass began. A middle aged priest, starting to go bald but still with a good deal of wavy hair left, walked up the aisle in his green and white robes. The choir consisted of a bug-eyed old lady on the piano, squinting through her huge round glasses at the sheet music, and another old lady singing with a wavery voice. They had passed out thin paper song booklets, really just a piece of paper folded in half with the lyrics written on it, and everyone sang the French words softly, even if they didn’t really know them. The effect was twenty different unsure melodies going on at the same
time. The priest, who was tall and kind of paunchy, had a soothing, low voice. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word he said, but his voice poured out like butternut squash soup, or resonated in my ears like a tenor saxophone. I should have fallen asleep, because I hadn’t gotten that much sleep over the last week, but for some reason all my tiredness was gone. Once the priest got started with his sermon, it was like I was hypnotized. I got that little tingling in my brain, down my spinal cord, the kind you get when you’re listening to someone who just has that kind of pleasant voice. The candles flickered. I looked at his eyes and could see that he was deep into something; he knew what he had to say, and he meant to say it, with passion. I wished I could understand what he was saying. I got the feeling that it was something of the utmost, most vital importance, from the low, penetrating, almost glowering look in his eyes, and from his tone of voice. His voice wasn’t raised; it was still calm and low; but it sounded like somebody sharing the deepest secrets he had learned in life right before he was about to die. The whole church was swimming in my vision and wavered like a mirage. After he stopped talking, I gradually came out of it over a minute or so, and the traces of it disappeared when we had to stand up for the Nicene Creed. I looked around. There was one young lady in front of us, but besides that everyone looked old. Half of them looked homeless, too, and the rest looked like they could use a little more income. There were so few people. I wondered how the priest felt about that, how he could devote so much time to writing sermons that only a faithful few would hear. I imagined him as the priest in “Eleanor Rigby,” darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there. There were several old women sitting by themselves who could have been Eleanor Rigby. A beat-looking, scrawny old black guy sat in the second row with his younger but no less beat-looking white companion. Their clothes were battered and dirty; I wondered where they slept at night. Maybe in here. In front of them was another guy who looked tattered and half-crazy, but in a friendly way. He didn’t seem to really know what was going on; when everyone was standing, he would sit, and when everyone was sitting, he would stand. During the soft, dragging songs, he would try to sing, and sometimes he’d even move his body a little, like he was dancing. At one point, an old lady who seemed to be involved in organizing things for the church came over to our family quietly after the creed and whispered something in French. My older sister translated: “She wants to know if you two will take up the gifts,” motioning to my brother and me. We looked at each other skeptically. “Fine, I’ll do it,” my sister sighed. She told the old lady that she’d do it with my little sister. The old lady beamed. She also asked the younger lady in front of us. When the time came, I watched my sisters and the young lady proceed up the aisle with the bread, the wine, and the basket with however few Euros the congregation had managed to scrape together. They handed them over to the priest and sat back down. During the Eucharistic Prayer, I was amazed at how much of the ritual came back to me, at how much I could actually recognize even though it was in French. At Communion I went up and got my wafer just like everybody else. I took some of the wine too, to wash it down. It was just like old times. Then I went back to my seat, rested my head on my clasped hands, and tried to think of something to say to God. I really could only think of those weather-beaten people around me, so I just prayed that they would be ok.
By the end of the Mass, in the last song, I was feeling a little more light-hearted. It was probably because the Mass would be over soon, and I could get back out into the world. The people around me were singing; some of them smiled, and they all seemed kind of happy somehow. I guess even poor, old, and homeless people have things to be happy about. After all, they’re still alive; they can still eat and drink and laugh; they probably have their own old or homeless friends, like the two guys in the second row. I even tried singing a little, although I messed up on the tune and didn’t quite know how to pronounce most of the French words. When Mass was over, the old lady who seemed to work for the church came over and thanked my sisters for helping with the gifts. My dad and older sister conversed with her a little in French, and then she gave us these little plastic baggies filled with brown rice. My sister told me they were to “spread the good news to every land,” or something like that. We were supposed to take them home and sprinkle them around everywhere or give the grains to a bunch of people or something. I put my bag in my pocket. Finally we left that old church. I emerged into the fresh, ocean-smelling air and the giddiness of city lights and babble all around me. I looked up and St. Mary de la Garde was lit up like a flame on the hill. It was still sprinkling, but I didn’t care. I had my umbrella back now.
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