Greed and curiosity are a dangerous combination. After careful consideration and planning, I decided to attend an organ concert at St. Augustine Church in the heart of Vienna’s tourist center, near the Hapsburg Palace. The palace is a messy complex of buildings that have been extended over 300 years. Spaces between buildings have been filled in, and arcades and passageways were added for protection from inclement weather.
After locating the church yesterday and inquiring again today to make sure that there was a concert, I felt pretty confident I was at the right place at the right time. The priest at the door advised me that I should make a donation at the end as there is no charge for the concert, and I thought that was pretty fair. As I entered just a few minutes before 11am, I was surprised to find that the church was full. I quickly found a single spot in a section full of visitors.
The organ music started promptly and the priest and his entourage entered. Hmm, I thought. Pretty big regalia for a concert. Only then did it enter my mind that this might be a “Mass”, and not just an organ concert. It was, after all, Sunday, wasn’t it?? Shortly after the introductory music stopped abruptly, the priest began reciting a lot of words very slowly in German. Initially I revelled in the high German spoken so eloquently and the few words I could recognize, “Heiligen Geist” and “Jesus Christo”. It was a Mass!, and not just an organ performance! Uh Oh.
A few hymns and stand ups-and-downs later (I even hummed along), I realized that those around me weren’t the expected tour groups or even individual tourists that I had been accustomed to tolerating at performances. They weren’t even the smattering of Italian or Spanish couples and their families I had seen gesturing and heard rolling their R’s on the U-Bahn. I was in the midst of German-speaking devotees, who could recite the verses on cue and sing all the hymns unprompted.
As I started to sweat uncontrollably, I decided that I should just tough it out. Make myself obscure. The sermon wasn’t any different from listening in English, only better. The music was lovely. It was a complete Sensurround experience, with the best operatic voices I have ever heard in a church. The high ceilings and refined arches were a cross between a Lutheran Church and Cologne Cathedral. All the senses were covered. The incense swung at the beginning, creating a waft of mystic trance. The music, which was my purpose in attending, was truly heavenly to your ears. Everyone there touched the sacred ground the church was built upon. And, if you are baptized, you get a little wafer at the end.
Unfortunately, my only exposure to Catholic mass in the past has been very limited, so my apologies to those believers reading this. The last time and only time I went to a mass was at Mission Delores with Gee Kin’s niece from New Zealand maybe ten years ago. That was in English and it was still intimidating, so I don’t think it’s the language issue. It’s when everyone gets up, kneels, and goes for the wafer. So you stay seated, admitting guilt for your sins? Or do you go get one and fake your devotion? Obviously I opted for the former, feeling that I should get mileage points for honesty and bravery.
I had been to plenty of musical performances in churches in Leipzig, Paris and elsewhere. Boys’ choirs and concerts were normally held in the afternoons or evenings. I had failed to take notice the “messe” word in the German program. And despite Gee Kin’s niece prompting me at the mass I attended with her, it was a long time ago and I was a bit rusty on the protocols.
Maybe all the Germans there were only mimicking each other for the same reason I was there? It really wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable in any way. You just want to know what’s going on and what you are supposed to do. How did I manage myself into a situation like this? Was it greed, curiosity, ignorance, or all of the above? I muttered my regrets between my breath. This was an experience equivalent to a Vegan showing up at a Chinese wedding banquet and not knowing that meat is on the menu.
In the end, it was quite a respectable ceremony. The music was beautiful, and obviously why so much classical music was created for and from the Church. (Haydn, Mozart, and Bach were on the program). The size, shape and proportions of the cathedral were perfect acoustically and better than any symphony hall. The operatic singers could project their voices and make the music more godly and beautiful for everyone. Despite my mishap, I came out glad to have been there. But I have to remember what happens sometimes on a Sunday morning.