The cathedral was impressive for a class of Protestants used to severe church interiors and looming pulpits. It had the ornate vaulting we had just studied. Mass was just being completed way up front at the high altar. Busy Vancouverite office workers were entering the cathedral for a quiet moment away from high-stress jobs. We sat near the back, trying to look inconspicuous as we gawked at the unfamiliar scene.
A bump-bump and a mutter from behind us. . . . We resisted turning our heads. Then peripheral vision caught a dumb-founding sight: a man on his belly on the aisle floor. Bump-bump and more of him came into sight. A large man moving forward on his elbows made the bump-bump. The muttering was a plea for God’s mercy, a Kyrie. And so he continued up the long aisle. We looked away, embarrassed, perhaps vaguely ashamed for him. We did not go and do likewise.
Thirty-five years later I was once again in a cathedral, this time for Christmas. Most of those in attendance sat in the right and centre sections of pews. The low altar was decorated as a crèche and flanked on the left by a decorated Christmas tree of hope. Up a couple stairs was the choir. Beyond them, almost so far away as to require opera glasses, was the high altar with attendants: a dean, a priest and an archbishop.
Most of the congregation was seated but a few late-comers filed in, either to back pews or seats reserved for them by friends and family. One of the late-comers walked slowly up the aisle, looking about, apparently for a seat or invitation. He was dressed in informal winter outerwear: insulated shiny nylon coat and snow pants. No cap, mussed hair. As he progressed towards the front he looked at each full or partly-occupied pew. He did a lot of smiling. His gait was unusual. It was a slouch, with a limp, or a list, to the left. Finally he found an empty pew at the front left, by the tree, and sat down alone.
The Christmas Eve service continued. Spirited singing of Christmas carols was accompanied by a professional trumpeter, inventive organ accompaniments and soaring choral descants. Then a sermon based on Luke 2.
And finally the Eucharist. As the archbishop chanted the prayers and invitations, I felt a sense of expectancy. Soon-soon we would move to the rail at the high altar and celebrate the feast. Soon-soon was not enough for the limping worshiper. He walked past the low altar up the steps and was about halfway to the high altar when an usher rushed hurriedly from her pew, took his arm and escorted him back to the main seating area. She returned to her pew. Back to his empty pew he walked with a slouch, limp and a list.
When it finally came time to go forward in an orderly fashion, he stopped at the tree and pondered, reaching out to touch a branch. “He’s looking at the tree,” someone whispered behind me in what sounded like amazement or slightly disdainful pity.
Eventually he proceeded in order, received the sacrament and proceeded back to his pew. As for me, I got in the wrong line and had to circle back to my pew through the side chapel and past the Christmas tree. This meant I would pass by the man with the slouch, limp and list. As I got near he looked up and I held out my hand. We shook hands and I gave him a blessing. He blessed me in return.
We finished our liturgy with more songs accompanied by organ, trumpet and choir, led and blessed by a mitred archbishop with crozier. Meanwhile, someone walked out the back door to a cold winter street, which accepted him without order, form or seemliness: a man with a slouch, a limp and a list.