Shivering, cold, and sitting on a hard-wooden pew, I checked my watch once again. How much longer would I have to sit here? A mere four rows of pews ahead of me and one behind. All filled with people, people much more joyful to be there than me. The stone walls were making it feel like I was sitting inside of an ice box. A dinky hand-carved crucifix was hanging from the uneven stone. Parishioners filed in all looking at me intrigued by my presence. Slightly annoyed, I stared right back. Quietly observing as every single one of them greeted each other by name. They asked about their weeks, their families, and greeted each other like friends going to see a movie. And there I was, sitting down next to Ana, a cold outsider trying to take it all in.
This was my first experience of mass in Spain. Coming from the United States I must admit that I had grand expectations for mass, for churches, and for the whole experience. The steeple ouside was covered with a bird’s nest and as I stepped foot inside that ancient building my heart fell a bit more in disappointment. Being the optimist I am, I was determined to make the most of the service and try and experience it like a local. Miserably failing at my optimistic goals, I couldn’t stop checking the time and wondering how in the world this could be Ana’s favorite church. Ana Gonzalez, a León local, has graciously taken me under her wing as I’ve immersed myself in what it means to be catholic in Spain. Like me, she’s a craddle catholic. Unlike me, shs seems to have this whole Catholicism in Spain thing a little more figured out. It’s basic knowledge that Spain is filled with jaw-dropping gorgeous churches. Strangely, Ana’s favorite church is an itty-bitty church that you wouldn’t know existed, unless you had the insider in. Throughout mass there, desperately trying to keep my mind off how cold I was, I kept thinking about the people surrounding me. For these people this gathering made their week. They looked forward to seeing each other and worshiping their God, like other communities look forward to their neighborhood block party. It didn’t matter that they weren’t in the grandest cathedral in Spain, it’s all the same reading anyway. That’s one of the greatest gems of Catholicism; Seattle, Spain, and churches in the middle of nowhere, it is all the same mass, giving thanks to the same God.
After mass Ana introduced me to everyone. As expected, everyone was curious how this young American girl found her way into the tiny church, in a village with only thirty full time residents. It has become a running joke with Ana that I should wear a sign around my neck that says, “I’m from the United States”. Many people asked what I thought and told me not to forget a jacket next week. On my quest to find the famous romanticized churches of Spain I said they probably would not see me next week, but maybe another time this spring and definelty with a jacket.
Since this week, Ana has taken me to a different church each week. We went to the León Cathedral on Easter, churches with lots of kids, churches where I was the kid, churches with stain glass, and churches with only stone walls. They all have beauty in their own way and there’s no doubt the famous ones are famous for a reason. On Easter as the distorted light shone through the stain glass down onto the pews of the Cathedral, I was mesmerized. More people than I could count were cramming into the church. No one gave me a second glance as they quietly took their seat to experience the celebration of the Risen Christ.
Looking at those around me, I found that nobody seemed to know each other. Everyone was strangers. When mass ended, Ana didn’t introduce me to anyone, nobody knew who we were, and nobody was wondering if they’d see us next week. It suddenly all made sense why Ana cherished mass inside those stone-cold walls. The warm colors that shone through the stain glass couldn’t quite compare to the warmth of her community. I was foolish to be disappointed by the stone walls and to be checking my watch. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about the elegance of the buildings or the size of the statues. Rather, going to church is about the people inside, the feelings they fill us with, and the endless celebration of God’s love.