Friday, November 28, 2014

Thoreau’s Catholic Moment

In September 1850, Henry David Thoreau spent a single afternoon in Montreal. Thoreau’s visit is striking both for its brevity and for the only activity he reports in any depth: He entered—and amazingly admired—a Catholic church.

He spent five hours in the city and wrote six paragraphs* about it. Four of the six paragraphs were about the church. And not just any church.

Notre-Dame Basilica, dedicated just twenty-one years before Thoreau’s visit, was then “the largest ecclesiastical structure in North America.” He estimated that it could seat ten thousand and noted that “the groined ceiling is eighty feet above your head.” The picture above will give you some idea of what Thoreau saw, although it is hard to imagine the impression of this holy space illuminated not by electric light but, as Thoreau reports, by tin candles filled with oil.

“The church,” he writes, “was too poor to afford wax.” But not too poor to be built in the first place, a fact Thoreau does not mention.

The author of Walden was no fan of organized religion. His preconceived notions about Catholicism are on stark display in A Yankee in Canada.* Priests passing him on the streets gave him “the impression of effeminacy.” Nuns with “cadaverous faces” looked “as if they had almost cried their eyes out.” A group of Canadians entering the basilica “in their homespun” looked to him like “cattle,” as “one and all kneeled down in the aisle before the high altar.”

His prejudice is obvious, which makes his awe all the more striking. Entering the basilica Thoreau is suddenly caught between his own predisposition against religion and the undeniable first impression:

Coming from the hurrahing mob and the rattling carriages, we pushed aside the listed door of this church and found ourselves instantly in an atmosphere which might be sacred to thought and religion if one had any.  

In spite of himself, the author of Walden performed his own small act of reverence: 

We walked softly down the broad-aisle with our hats in our hands. 

After observing the entering group in their homespun, he judged that the Catholics he witnessed were too crude and dumb for the faith they professed:  

These Roman Catholics, priests and all, impress me as a people who have fallen far behind the significance of their symbols. It is as if an ox had strayed into a church and were trying to bethink himself. 

But still he was struck by the worshipers he witnessed: 

Nevertheless, they are capable of reverence; but we Yankees are a people in whom this sentiment has nearly died out, and in this respect we cannot bethink ourselves even as oxen. 

Anyone entering such a holy space in the middle of a great metropolis must experience something like what Henry David Thoreau experienced, no matter what their religious affiliation or preconceptions: 

I was impressed by the quiet religious atmosphere of the place. It was a great cave in the midst of a city; and what were the altars and the tinsel but the sparkling stalactites, into which you entered in a moment, and where the still atmosphere and the sombre light disposed to serious and profitable thought. 

The Catholic “cave,” he adds, 

. . . is worth a thousand of our churches which are open only on Sundays, hardly long enough for an airing, and then filled with a bustling congregation,—a church where the priest is the least part, where you do your own preaching, where the universe preaches to you and can be heard. I am not sure but this Catholic religion would be an admirable one if the priest were quite omitted. I think that I might go to church myself sometimes, some Monday, if I lived in a city where there was such a one to go to. 

Thoreau’s gripe, then, seems to be more with Catholic priests—his image of them surely—than with the Catholic faithful. He would have hungered more for such an experience, except that he lived in Concord. There, he wrote, 

. . . we do not need such. Our forests are such a church, far grander and more sacred. We dare not leave our meeting-houses open for fear they would be profaned. Such a cave, such a shrine, in one of our groves, for instance, how long would it be respected? for what purposes would it be entered, by such baboons as we are? 

In the end, Thoreau concluded that any town, any home could have such a space in it, if only we all had a bit more imagination. 

I think of its value not only to religion, but to philosophy and poetry; beside a reading-room to have a thinking-room in every city! Perchance the time will come when every house even will have not only its sleeping-rooms, and dining-room, and talking-room or parlor, but its thinking-room also, and the architects will put it into their plans. Let it be furnished and ornamented with whatever conduces to serious and creative thought. I should not object to the holy water, or any other simple symbol, if it were consecrated by the imagination of the worshippers.

Reading this passage, I wondered how many non-believers have experiences like Thoreau’s—entering a Catholic church, grand or simple, pausing inside the door, and muttering aloud or to themselves, “How beautiful!” 

Then, ignoring the direct prompting of their hearts, how many of these “non-believers” turn away in deference to some thought in their heads? 

* A Yankee in Canada, published in book form posthumously in 1866

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