Monday, February 4, 2008

Religious Experience

Last week, I received my bulletin from the D.O.T. saying that alternate side parking would be suspended on Wednesday and Thursday “for holiday observance” (Ash Wednesday and Chinese New Year). Normally, I would go out on Sunday morning at around eleven, hoping, trusting, willing myself to score a half-hour Monday-Thursday spot. But because I am leaving town on Wednesday, and have to visit the mechanic to make my car road worthy on Tuesday, I would be going against the grain: looking for a Tuesday-Friday spot, preferably one that would permit me to sleep in on Tuesday.

It was harder than I expected. For one thing, on my way to the car, which I had parked expertly, if I do say so myself, between two S.U.V.s on Saturday night, I detoured into a Catholic church to see if St. Blaise Day was still observed with the blessing of throats. The priest, big and self-satisfied-looking, in a brilliant green vestment, was winding up his sermon. He was a dramatic orator—too dramatic. I found a bulletin in the vestibule, which told me what I wanted to know: that there would be a communal blessing of throats after Mass. That was disappointing, and the Mass was nowhere near over—they were only at the Credo—so I fled to my car and started cruising for a space.

Many spots were near misses: too much of the car overlapped into a Loading Zone, or someone had got there just ahead me, or there was a heap of railroad ties alongside the curb and a sign that had been altered from “No Parking Tues. & Fri. 11:30-1 PM” to “Temporary Construction Zone—No Parking.” In one perfectly respectable spot a man was sitting in his car as if to pull out, but when I pulled alongside and rolled down my window to ask if he was leaving (the window works again, by the way, though it has a hitch in it), he wouldn’t speak or even turn his head in my direction. Somebody came up behind me and honked, so I drove on. I felt as if I’d run into that character Tepper, from the Calvin Trillin novel, and he wasn’t going out. I was getting a little desperate when I happened by a shiny black car that was just pulling out of an ample Tuesday-Friday spot, and I claimed it. Amen.

On the way home (and I was quite a ways from home at this point; the walk to and from the car is my main form of exercise), I got sidetracked by a little church tucked into a public housing project and dwarfed by a Con Ed plant. It was called St. Emeric’s—really—and its most prominent feature was a quonset hut in a parking lot. I went into the church in the spirit in which I visit churches in Europe: as a tourist. I know it’s rude, but I do it anyway. Mea culpa.

The service was in Spanish, and there was a large and gregarious Latino congregation. A band was playing, and a singer was crooning. There were two priests, a young one in green, who looked like a matinee idol, with lots of thick black hair, and an older one in white, partly bald. The Mass was almost over, but it still took a long time—there were marriage banns to be pronounced and such. Finally I caught the words San Blas and understood the invitation to stay after Mass and get our throats blessed. Along with everyone else, I crushed up to the front, where the mob gradually organized into two lines, one for each priest. Which one did I want to bless my throat? Women always go for the younger, charismatic priest: a harmless vehicle for romantic fantasy. But the people on the matinee idol’s side had to leave by the far aisle and go past the band. The people on the veteran’s side got to go past a side door and pop out into the sunshine. Isn't age and wisdom better than good looks in a priest? And might not this older priest have more of a connection with the tradition of St. Blaise? I chose the old guy.

While waiting in line, I studied the stained-glass windows. On one side, flooded with light from the direction of Con Edison, were the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. All the figures had unusually large hands, and Christ looked like Cro-Magnon man, particularly at the Resurrection. Of the four figures on the other side I recognized only St. John the Baptist, though another was a bishop and one of them had to be Emeric. Of course, I would go straight home and Google St. Emeric and be amazed at the points of intersection in our lives. St. Emeric (1007-1041), the son of Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary (and also a saint), died tragically in a hunting accident, killed by a wild boar (evidently, he was not under the protection of St. Blaise). The Prince was offered a share of the spoils when the Holy Roman Emperor wished to dissolve the diocese of Bamberg, the bishopric later occupied by our friend St. Otto. There is a Church of St. Emeric, with a Hungarian congregation, in Cleveland, not far from where I grew up. I never saw the church, or even heard the name Emeric, unless that was the name of Spencer Tracy's computer in “Desk Set.” It turns out to be from the Latin Emericus, which gave us the Italian Amerigo, as in Amerigo Vespucci, for whom all Americans are inadvertently named. St. Emeric (feast day November 4th) is the model and patron saint of young men. Though groomed to succeed his father and betrothed to a suitably royal young woman, Emeric led a monastic life, and she was going to be very disappointed.

Finally, it was my turn in line. The old priest clamped my jaws between the candles—tallow, with red ribbons—and blessed my throat in the name of St. Blaise. Of course, he was speaking Spanish, so I didn’t understand. It was just like the good old days.


erieblue said...

Wasn't that Emerack? Is St. Blaise the fishbone saint?

MJN/NYC said...

Perhaps that computer was named Emerack. And perhaps Emeric is accented on the middle syllable. It is Hungarian.

Yes, that's St. Blaise of the fishbone. Just one of those miracles he performed on the way to martyrdom. He is the patron saint of veterinarians, by the way.

lucette said...

I do miss the Latin sometimes, although I have no right to a preference since I never go to church except for weddings and funerals.

Hans said...

Sorry I am so late to this trail but was just googling St. Emeric and found it. A few pieces of nostalgia...I grew up in one of those projects, went to St. Emeric's school (k - 8th grades)and church and attended many affairs (school lunch and programs) in the quonset hut. Some other stuff...lore has it that the "church" was originally intended as the gym and auditorium for the elementary school - therefore its "box like" nature. The Archdiocese found the need to open the church much sooner than one could have been constructed within the school yard or on new land and the gym became the church. My family was one of the original sets of parishioners of the church. In fact my father started and kept up, as long as he was able to, a flower garden that bordered the quonset hut and small brick structure (the kitchen for the quonset hut). I just passed recently and saw the garden flowering, was reminded of my youth and started my googling. Knowing that the Archdiocese had shuttered the school a decade plus ago, I was surprised to see the church still open.

Enuf history for now....