Visit downtown’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament for the breathtaking music
No one wants to be at church tonight.
A young girl no older than 5, dressed in her Sunday best, is having a fit on the steps out front of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on K Street Mall. Presumably her father’s the khaki, tucked-in-red-polo-wearing guy doing his best Donald Duck impression. “This is Donald Duck,” he quacks. Like that’s gonna work. She keeps screaming. He looks like he’d rather be on the golf course.
Inside the cathedral narthex there are more stragglers—young infants in fathers’ arms, little girls pacing with moms. The kiddos aren’t loud, relatively speaking, but even the softest whimper resonates like thunder. Doors leading to the cathedral nave are shut. Everyone’s missing Mass. It’s like a dozen parents who can’t get a baby sitter but still go to the movies, only to spend two hours in the lobby.
Me? I’m just good old-fashioned late. I’m not Catholic, so I have no idea whether it’s uncouth to enter a church mid-Mass. I wedge a heavy wood door open, slide through and take a seat halfway down the aisle. Inside, kids’ crying is louder, echoing off the apse above the altar and back through the church. Their chattering competes with the reverberations of Father Steve Avella’s Mass, which for the most part is hard to understand. (That and, again, I’m late, so I have no idea what he’s talking about.)
But the Blessed Sacrament is lovely: Built in the late 19th century and restored in 2005, the modern basilica-style cathedral can seat up to 1,400; tonight’s 5 p.m. evening Mass draws some 500. Father Avella stands at the high altar. The sun has yet to set, light creeping inside through clerestory windows along the nave.
I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and South America and made a habit of sitting in on Mass wherever I go, mostly to relax. A lot of atheists cringe at even the thought of attending church, but for me it’s calming, relaxing. I don’t pray or sing, but cathedrals often have air conditioning. It’s quite cool inside the Blessed Sacrament, and the pews don’t put your butt to sleep.
Father Avella pauses. The pipe organ booms, drowning out any other noise. The acoustics in this place beget transcendent pipe-organ sounds—which is odd, because everything else sounds clunky. But at least the place smells great, like the cosmetics department at Nordstrom. The congregation consists primarily of families, so everyone must have showered and put on clean clothes or something. The attire is casual, but a few dress to impress. I’m wearing flip-flops—sacrilegious?
Father Avella finishes his talk, which grew more and more discernible as my ears adjusted to the cathedral’s acoustics. He commences preparing what I believe is called the Eucharist, or offering. Goblets? Wine and gluten-free bread? Check. Purell? Wait a sec: Does that stuff even disinfect? Cleanliness next to godliness, indeed.
During the offering, the cantor, Lola Krist, and the organist break into song, Psalm 78. It’s a beautiful piece, and wouldn’t feel out of place on a Sufjan Stevens album. The pews empty as parishioners file toward the altar to accept an offering. The pipe organ’s deep tones own me; I just sit and listen. Cantor Krist, it turns out, is celebrating her 30th year with the church. I don’t know how long she’s played with organist and cathedral music director Rex Rallanka, but they’re incredible.
Of course, there’s lots of prayer at Catholic Mass, which means no music—bummer. and while a lot of what Father Avella says shoots right over my head, one instance stands out: “Let us pray for those in Iraq, and for those who have died in this senseless war,” he reminds. Sometimes you forget, what with impotent congressional Democrats and hack journalists, that one of America’s most powerful institutions vehemently opposes the war in Iraq. Now that’s music to my fears.