In the 14th arrondissement of Paris, I once discovered a nineteenth-century church standing at the split of a road. Organ music was wafting through the front doors out onto the street below. I walked in to candles burning at the back of the sanctuary, flickering with prayers for great-uncles and grandmothers. I took my seat, signed the cross over my chest, and surveyed the happy young faces in the pews.
The cantor took his place at the stand. He was serious and wide-eyed, his scarf wrapped tightly around his neck so that it appeared he might faint at any moment. When the hymn began, the organist struggled to keep his partner’s tempo, and he raced up and down the keys with all the spirit of a startled mustang.
The music stopped and everyone’s shoulders loosened. A priest, small and silver-haired, came and stood before us. He was calm and unmoved as he read the evening’s scripture.
“Mon royaume n’est pas de ce monde,” he said.
I noticed a tall man in front of me with a long umbrella hanging from his arm. He was watching the priest and listening. When we began the preparations for communion, the tall man threw himself onto his knees. No one else did so, as there was nothing but a stone floor to catch us. I saw an old man standing to the right of me. He bent his knees a little but did not dare stoop down.
Just when we’d paused, our mouths nearly forming the word “Amen,” a phone rang. Not a snappy little jingle like you often hear these days, but the imitation of a real telephone, loud and shrill. It had come from the pocket of the old man next to me, and as all eyes locked in on him, the man fished through his clothes, picked up the flip-phone with a shaking hand, and searched for the off switch. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. I saw a pant leg, red and wrinkled socks, an ankle laid bare.
We began singing of God’s supreme holiness, and the phone rang again. The tall man in front of us turned his body quite slowly, and he stared with a pair of blue eyes at the old man.
Next we recited the Lord’s Prayer, and during the passing of the peace, we smiled and shook one another's hands and said in four words, (sometimes three for economy) how happy we all were to be there.
The priest had blessed the elements, we'd bowed our heads and performed the necessary rituals, and finally, he held up the Body to invite all of us, every last one, to the altar. There was a silence as he gazed at the sacrament in his hands and then looked at his parishioners.
“Heureux…” he began in a quiet, confident voice.
And for the last time that night, the phone rang. The old man thrust his hand into his pocket and said in a voice as loud as the cell phone—
The word bounced off the walls, the organist’s keys, and the coats of the children who were standing with their elbows perfectly placed on the pews. It ricocheted off the priest's alarmed face and finally became one with the Body of Christ, where it was absorbed and extinguished.
The priest didn’t move, but his hands were trembling, still holding the Host over our heads. The cantor's wide frog eyes moved from priest to parishioners.
“Heureux les invités au repas du Seigneur!” the priest said. And as the Mass continued, I turned and realized that the old man next to me had left. He was walking out of the back door, and in a few minutes he would no longer be seen nor heard.