Later today, my wife and son and I are getting on a plane to fly to Minnesota for the next few days. We make this same trip every year, and I couldn’t look any more forward to it. For some people, the thought of intentionally flying into the teeth of all that cold seems foolish; for me, it seems like a welcome chance to escape and re-connect with family. And the cold? It’s invigorating.
It may surprise some of you to learn that one of the things I’m most looking forward to on this trip is attending mass on Christmas Eve. Last year we visited the Catholic cathedral in my wife’s home town of Crookston, and this year we might be heading over to Oklee to join family at St. Francis Xavier. (Side note: I cannot type or hear or say those words without singing, at least in my head, Patty Griffin’s totally hot song “Wiggley Fingers.”) Oklee has a population of about 300 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I’ve been in the church there before, but only for the sad occasion of my wife’s grandmother’s funeral service. I can’t wait to see the place full of a very different feeling.
It know this might seem like an odd revelation on the surface. I don’t share a single belief—okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get it—with the Catholic church. I’m tremendously offended and angered by a great deal of what the institution and its leaders have done, from the protection of priests who rape children to the beatification of Mother Theresa, who ain’t all she’s cracked up to be. Heck, I’m still not really over the whole Galileo debacle, either, and that was 350 years before I was born. (Eppur si muove!) But the institution isn’t the same thing as the actual building, full up with actually wonderful Minnesotans, that I’m actually going to be visiting.
Going into that building with my family that night, I have to tell you, is actually really nice. Everybody is so happy to see everybody; everybody’s cheeks are flushed from the cold, so everybody gives everybody else a warm greeting. The songs are somewhat familiar, and the sermon is somewhat familiar, and even a raised-Jewish secular humanist from the east coast feels like he can keep up with what’s going on. Oh, and nobody cares what I believe or don’t believe; even when they offer the Eucharist (or ask for money), I can simply step aside and not take it (or not give it) and nobody pays me any mind. (It is the Midwest, after all—not making a big deal is one of the things they do best.) There’s a sense of belonging and welcome that can’t be beat. So I don’t try to beat it—I join it.
I wish that going to the theater was like that. Some time ago, I wrote a much-discussed post contrasting theater and religion, and this is yet another way in which the two institutions are different. I go to a lot of theaters to see a lot of shows, and (with the exception of opening night, when a lot of the same folks tend to present themselves) the crowds I encounter mostly feel like strangers ignoring each other. I wish like hell it wasn’t the case, but it’s true. This is one of the only two ways in which, in the comparison between theater and religion, I think religion wins. The other is the money: religions have a lot more money.
I have, however, come close to this same feeling at one particular cultural institution: the Grand Theatre in Crookston. A former opera house long since converted to a cinema, the Grand is one of my favorite places to see a film in the entire world. (A few of the others: The Senator, the AFI Silver, The Charles, and The Avalon.) Waiting in line for tickets, you recognize half a dozen people, at least, if not twice as many, on any given night. The concessions are modest in exactly the right way—all the classic candy favorites, plus popcorn and soda, and none of the nonsense you find in the modern multiplex—because the focus is on going there with friends to see the story, not eating. Best of all, the formerly-beautiful space retains just enough of its classic architectural elements to retain a sense of meaning and importance… but it’s still rather intimate, which means that (visually speaking) the most important thing in the room is the larger-than-life story unfolding before your eyes. You and your fellow cinema patrons have a transformative experience together. That’s as it should be, don’t you agree?
We’d be tremendously fortunate if we could create that same feeling in DC. Until we do, I’ll look for it in Minnesota… and be damn grateful I can still at least find it somewhere.