The Song of Cliff?

I always say I’m incapable of religious faith. Whatever makes it possible for other people was simply left out of my list of ingredients. That doesn’t mean I dislike religion, I’m very interested in what people get from it and how and why the believe what they believer, but… not for me.

Anyhoo, despite all this, I have had exactly two quasi-religious experiences. Both cases happened in countries I was not living in, both happened in April not long before Easter and both were in Roman Catholic churches. Both also seemed maybe related to deaths (one in the family, the other a friend).

The second instance happened the first time I was in Malta three years ago on Good Friday (Il-Ġimgħa l-Kbira). We were wandering around the old town of Valletta (it’s all old town) waiting for the famous Easter pageant to begin (we were misinformed, it takes place Saturday afternoon…

We looked into a small church on a side street and realized they were just about to begin mass (with the Stations of the Cross) and we decided to stay. The service was in Maltese so I didn’t understand much beyond Alla (God) but the stations of the cross were easy enough to follow.

After they finished the stations a group of men approached the life-sized figure of Christ on the cross about fifteen feet off the ground I had assumed was a normal feature of the church (then I realized it had been set up especially for this mass). They took out ladders and climbed up to him and I realized they were going to take the figure down. Then they unfastened his right arm….. and it fell down to his side…. and I just about had a heart attack. I then quickly realized the arms attached to the body so they would swing free. But despite that a sudden…. wave? …tide? (more like a tide, definitely) swept through me. It was partly something like grief, partly compassion or pity for the “dead” sculpture (as weird as that sounds) and something almost like…. communion? That’s the problem this type of experience is so rare for me that I have no idea what words to use and I have a deep sympathy for mystics who try to verbalize that which has no everyday labels…

The feeling lasted several minutes as the men tenderly took the figure down and laid it on a plank and carried around the church for the parishioners to pay their respects to it before laying it by the altar. It had passed by the time we left the church and soon I was back to what passes for normal.

The rational part of my mind thinks this was a delayed reaction to (or at least partly triggered by) the death of a close friend’s husband a couple of months earlier. But the other part of my mind realizes this wasn’t like normal feelings of grief or mourning. I still have no idea what it was or if it’s what religious people normally or sometimes feel (or how often they feel it). As I said, organized religion is an unknown land for me, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of the coastline, the way a distant island appears and disappears as the ship rises and falls with the waves.

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