Christmas in Lisbon, and a particular form of religion

When I was small my family briefly became religious, and every Sunday morning made me put on my least attractive clothing and bumble along to Sunday School in a hall that smelt of floor polish, cardboard and dust, adjacent to the main church of St Margaret’s Presbyterian congregation.

I never enjoyed Sunday School much – the prettiest girls from my school seemed to be Methodists, and I was stuck there with the Renyard twins and the innumerable Kemp children with their permanently running noses – but supervision was gratifyingly lax (I don’t think Presbyterians have very high expectations for the souls of their small children) and there was a good climbing tree behind the hall. I always assumed that the real action was happening inside the church with the adults. That, surely, was where deep feelings were being felt and powerful experiences shared.

This illusion lasted until my first Palm Sunday, when the kids are allowed into the main service with their parents.

Now I realise that Presbyterians are a special case – we didn’t approve of strong emotion. People who sang hymns with any kind of enthusiasm were subject to side-eyes and our congregationally trademarked pursed lips. But as I scanned for signs of life in the sepulchral faces around me, I think I had the inkling that some opportunity was being missed here. Surely the point of a church is people? Even if you’re a believer, presumably you can believe just as well if not better on your own, so surely church is to give people the solace of other people, the sense we all need of not being alone?

I don’t think I’ve been in a church since, but late on Christmas Eve I found myself awake in Lisbon and decided to find a midnight mass. I put on a coat and scarf and walked from Rato, up Rua Avares Cabral, then through the dark, peaceful Jardim de Estrela, where I paused to finish my drink, to the Estrela Basilica.

I had been there in daylight and liked it very much. The windows on the dome aren’t stained but clear glass, giving onto the beautiful clear Portuguese air, and they reminded me of the last lines of the Phillip Larkin poem:

“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

The origin story of the basilica is one of those fine tales that seem to sum up human experience. Queen Maria vowed to build a church if she gave birth to a son. By the grace of her God in 1761 she did, to Joseph, Prince of Beira, and faithfully ordered construction to begin. She wanted to build it big to celebrate her faith, but it was so big and wondrous that it wasn’t yet completed in 1788, when Joseph caught smallpox and died, aged 27.

Still, it looked very fine and grand on Christmas Eve, a vast well of space lit only with candles. I didn’t really understand the service or the songs, which were in Portuguese and Latin, but that was all right: I was there for the people. By midnight the place was full, mainly with families, and you wouldn’t really say that anyone was finding being in church at midnight on a Tuesday an ecstatic experience. The dads held the small sleeping kids, which was smart because they could stay seated all the way through and not have to stand and sing at sudden inscrutable cues from up front. The bloke beside me was alone. He was middle-aged and unshaven and wore one of those beige jackets with elasticated wrists. He was a real irritation.

He shifted and wriggled, he plucked at his sleeves and shuffled his feet. He sniffed constantly. Sometimes he coughed. You couldn’t accuse him of showing excess piety – he was almost as bad as me at catching the cues to stand and sit, and he didn’t sing at all – but my inner Presbyterian was awakened. I cleared my throat meaningfully and rolled my eyes in annoyance. I can’t swear I didn’t purse my lips. People, I thought, shaking my head. People are the worst.

I couldn’t follow the sermon, but at the end the priest gave some sort of encouragement, and everyone in the basilica turned, a little awkwardly, and shook hands with their neighbours and the people in front and behind. As I was politely shaking the hand of the guy beside me, hoping I didn’t catch his cold, the priest said something else, and he must have expressed some dissatisfaction with the level of engagement, because the whole congregation started laughing, and changed their handshakes into hugs. Before I knew it, the guy and I were hugging, and it was weird at first, but it was also good.

And then it was time to stop hugging, but he wouldn’t let go. He held me very tight, and his body was shaking and I couldn’t see his face over my shoulder but I think he was crying. I didn’t know what to do but I stood there holding him and the people in our row saw, and the people behind us, and some of them put their hands on his arm and his shoulder, not to tell him to stop, just to tell him that they were there, that we were all there.

The Times, 8 January 2020