My brother-in-law, as I’ve mentioned, is French. We were at his house for his daughter’s christening, and one of the guests brought him a book: A French grade-school history textbook from 1919. My French is rudimentary, but I can fumble my way through, so I picked up, turned to a random page, and found a description of some long-forgotten battle. “The soldiers were fighting against the king,” it said. “How brave our soldiers were!” I pointed this out to my brother-in-law, and he said he’d found a better quote: during the Crusades, a Pope went to the French and told them of horrors wrought on the Holy Land by the Turks. He appealed to France to help: “I ask you because France is the bravest of nations!”

My brother-in-law looked up and grinned. “I love this book,” he said.

The baptism was held at a church I’ve passed daily for eight years. I always wondered what it looked like - it’s a gigantic postwar cathedral with Cinerama stained-glass windows and a stark modern bell tower. Churches of this vintage may be the finest unmolested examples of postwar 50s / 60s design; the urge to remodel and replace doesn’t plague churches the same way it does commercial architecture. No one stops going to a church because someone built a better-looking church a few blocks down the way.

It was built in 1962, and it shows. The floors were paved with salt-and-pepper terrazzo; the bricks were light red, the railing around the altar was the black-and-white marble you’d find in the lobby of Perry Mason’s office building. The altar space was immense, and empty - a blank screen against the wall, a canopy floating in the middle of the space (its eyebrow shape seemed designed to capture prayers and deflect them back down) and a tiny crucifixion scene hanging in the air, a potent jot of symbolism in this empty Empyrean expanse. Very 1962. Oh so 1962. You could imagine the congregation back then - narrow lapels, thin ties, shaved necks, a faint ghost of Vitalis and Winstons hanging over the men. The women had nylons that skrred when they walked; sensible Republican cloth coats, Patsy Cline hair that had been aqua-netted to the brittle consistency of frozen cotton candy. This place must have seemed extraordinary to their eyes, at least compared to the old church - no more the suffocating jumble of Gothic iconography, the cold wind shooting in through ancient windows, the creaky pews, the heavy timbered roof. This was the future. You might as well have carved LATIN NOT SPOKEN HERE over the door.

I kept expecting the gigantic screen to slide up and reveal a bank of Univac computers, busily computing the ideal homily to keep the people believing in Landru.

I understand the concept - rather than stuff every corner with some sad-eyed disapproving saint, rather than have every square inch radiate HISTORY and OBEDIENCE and MAJESTY, the architects pared it down to the essential details: the stained-glass window with its triumphal expression of Mariology put the church firmly in Catholic territory, and the lone small Christ hanging in mid-air concentrated the worshipper’s mind on the essentials. I grew up around modern churches, so these places don’t leave me cold. But there’s something forlorn about the churches whose modernism now feels dated and failed. In the old churches your faith was reflected in the splendor around the altar - the faces, the symbols, the details of stone and wood that tied this place to centuries past. Here the great void over the altar swamps and swallows the tiny little Christ. The architects, in effect, made people pray to something hanging off a charm bracelet.

I was the videographer for the baptism. To my horror the Mass began with a small ritual at the end of the church, and I sprinted back cursing myself for not being in place. It seemed as if the ritual was the baptism itself; it was over in a minute. I was stunned: that’s it? Good Lord, if you can’t depend on Catholics for some substantial ritual, who can you depend on? But that was just the warm-up. The main event came midway through the service, and I faced a great dilemma: in order to properly film the event I would have to ruin it. To get the good shot I’d have to block it off so the congregation couldn’t see - in effect, treating their religious ceremony like raw material for a home movie. Plus, there’s the instinctive need to be reverent - it’s not as if we’re in a Subway restaurant here. I ended up kneeling on the floor on the approach to the altar, camcorder in one hand, camera in the other, moving around as if I was doing a fashion shoot.

When it was over I left by a side aisle, and I wanted to say sorry sorry sorry sorry. There’s something about Other People’s Churches that makes you inordinately sensitive to giving offense.

I wandered around the building during Communion, feeling that ancient sense of naughtiness instilled in me from birth: when you’re in church you’re in church - sitting, or singing, or standing, or taking the sacrament. You are not walking around the building. You are not using the bathroom. You are not in the narthex perusing the free literature. You are not on the stairs admiring the vintage 1962 lighting fixtures. If you are in church and church is going on then you are in church, and one of the defining characteristics of being in church is that you are not wandering around while the homily drifts from a loudspeaker down the hall.

But I had to explore. In the basement some kids were loading the steam tables with pancakes and sausages. Each table had silverware and a clean glass pitcher of syrup. Silver urns of coffee could be glimpsed through the kitchen window.

The sweetest three words in the English language: Church basement breakfast.

When the Mass was over Gnat was capering around the narthex, showing off her happy frilly purple coat. An old woman in a walker paused, beamed, and said well. Aren't you lovely? Aren't you just the sweetest thing? Shave 40 years off me, and you have my daughter; add 40 years and you have this old woman. Had she walked through those doors in '62? No idea. What counted was this particular Sunday in this particular place. Someone pushed open the door to the world outside, and we all walked through it together.

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