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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Religious Tourist

After a very deliberate circumnavigation of the quire and high altar of Exeter Cathedral, I decided it was safe to declare to the welcoming gentleman "I'm here for Evensong." I said this with a nearly imperceptible raise in pitch on my final syllable.  If noticed, the questioning tone would protect my ignorance and give me an out should I be completely wrong in my reconnoiter. I was right and so I entered.

First I sat in the front row, but I had no idea where the show was going to be.  I saw a woman enter on the aisle across from me and go way up to the top row.  Hell yeah.  I turned to survey my side of the quire and saw a beckoning vacant row and made a move.  I sat by myself, top row, in a high-backed, built-in chair.  My left-hand armrest was the carved head of an archaic, religious gentleman with a hooded head that I never touched.  However, my right-hand armrest was a gorgeous little dragon and I did not hesitate to give a loving stroke to his head.

A group of Italian visitors sat the row in front of me until they were gently removed by a native who let them know that is where they choir sits.  Shit.

"Excuse me, am I okay up here?"  I asked worriedly.

"Of course, you are the last row."  The native comforted but to no true sense of consolation.

So for a few neurotic minutes I was concerned that I would be behind the stage, looking at the performers' backs for the entire show.

The entire show.  I used that word again.

That's right, I was looking at this religious ceremony as a show.  And that is when it hit me.  I am a religious tourist.  I take the highlights from everyone's religion and cherry pick to my heart's content.  I love Evensong because who can make out the words? I can enjoy the music and the voices in the beauty of an ancient structure because the words and their intended message and indoctrination is obscured.


Nearly 20 years ago, living in New York City, every Friday a group of goy girls would go to temple in a church with a Jewish friend for Shabbat.  The temple did not have its own space and, being reformed, used the church's space on Fridays and Saturdays.  Naturally, Sunday belonged to the Christians.  Shabbat was the most beautiful and peaceful way to transition from the work week to the weekend. There we'd sing in phonetic Hebrew having no idea what our words meant and not worrying either.  Even before that time,  I fixed a mezuzah to my apartment door and touched it with kissed fingers for a while coming and going.  My friend said it was to protect you on your journeys.  Eventually, I realized the mezuzah and Shabbat didn't really belong to me.

I was not faithful to any religion I dabbled in.  Just before my Judaism sampler, I was introduced to Wicca out in California. It came at the right time for me.  My mother had just died and I realized once and for all I was not a Christian.  That is not to say I threw myself unreservedly onto the coven because I really didn't want to go to this event that I perceived to be a freak show.  But it was through attending a Samhain festival that I realized that I lacked rituals and meaningful words to be spoken, traditions to be kept.  I got to honor my mother's life there with many others celebrating the lives of their newly lost, too.  We got to share our pain and turn it into celebration.  We helped the wheel of the year crick forward and it felt joyful.  I was given a "handbook" or two on paganism and styled myself a Wittan--an Irish witch and that lasted for a few years.

I see no reason to change the habit of a lifetime.  I will always be a religious tourist picking and choosing my itinerary and the proper accommodations for my traditions.  I guess I just never had a term for it before now.  As long as I'm not an Ugly American, I figure all is fair.

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