On a recent visit to Le Havre, France, Joan and I chose to spend part of Sunday morning at worship. The most convenient setting for us was the Church of Saint-Joseph, a Roman Catholic church downtown. We had seen a schedule of Catholic services at various other locations, and saw that most churches offered only one service. Saint-Joseph’s hour fit the “right place, right time” requirement of two Americans on a whirlwind tour of Le Havre and Rouen, a visit squeezed between the ship’s arrival and departure that day.

We do not know much French. Our proficiency is limited to “please” and “thank you.” So we knew that we would be worshipping with little understanding of the words of liturgy, homily, or hymns. Yet, because of the gift of growing ecumenicity among global Christians, the service would follow a general flow familiar to us as liturgical Presbyterians. As we entered the church, walking in among several tourists who were  there only for gaping and picture-taking, we glimpsed a couple of hymn sheets for that morning’s service and saw that some of the music came from Taize. We might know the tunes, if not the French words, and that seemed welcoming.

We did look around at the beauty of that sacred space, and then found our seats prior to the beginning of Mass. There was the usual bustle of activity as folks readied themselves for the service, with tourists still (and always) oblivious to the fact that worship was about to begin. I decided to look for the “men’s room” before the service started, and saw a stairway leading in what I assumed was the right direction. (Not knowing the language, I couldn’t ask anyone. Note to self: next time…)

Downstairs, I looked for some sign of a “rest room,” or some universal graphic that would show the way. I started down the hall, glancing toward two or three women who were busy in a room to my left. I pretended to know where I was going. But one of the women quickly came into the hallway and met me with a question in “broken” English. (That adjective applied to her English language skills puts her way beyond my French language skills, which, as I’ve already noted, deserve the adjective “non-existent.”) “May I help you, sir?”

I had no idea how to explain what I was looking for. Rest room? Men’s room? Bath room? (That one is odd, since I knew there was nowhere to take a bath.) So, for some reason, having come from visiting a British city, I said, “Toilet?” As in toi – LET? She frowned and shook her finger at me, saying in clear English, “No, no, no.  English?” I took that to mean, “Do you speak English?” But she meant, “Are you English?”

“Yes,” I admitted…wrongly. And somewhat sheepishly.  So, she pointed me down the hall to a door marked clearly “W.C.”

A few minutes later I was heading back into the sanctuary and she greeted me more cheerfully, and said, “Hello, again. May I ask, sir…Are you a Christian?” Wondering why she was asking, I said, “Yes!” And I began to pull on the chain of my cross, a Celtic cross that hangs inside my shirt, as if to prove my faith. Silly, I know. And she thought so too, and said (again), “No, no, no.” Or, maybe there were only two no’s this time.

“Would you like to make an act of devotion?” It was a wonderful gesture of inclusion on her part. Not knowing exactly what I was about to agree to, I told her that I would, and she handed me a candle (though she didn’t recall the English word for it). “You take this… this… [‘candle’ I told her]…yes, and after the priest’s homily…you know, homily?” [Yes.] You light this from the peace, uh, candle, and put it on the stand,” she said, pointing to a black metal stand with spikes on which several candles could be placed.

When I returned to my chair for worship, Joan asked what the candle was for, and I admitted that I hadn’t a clue, except it was to be “an act of devotion.” Now I was worried about my “cue” in the service, whether someone might catch on that I wore a Celtic cross and not a crucifix, and that I had no earthly idea what was being said in French as the time came for my “act.”

Joan helpfully pointed out that several other worshippers also had long white candles, and I relaxed a bit, knowing that I could just follow the flock, the ones who would know a) when the homily was over, b) where to stand, and c) what to do.

Again, we knew enough of the flow of the service that though it was all in French, we knew what was happening and could hum and mumble the unfamiliar hymns and responses. “Alleluia” and “amen” are universally pronounced in any language, so we could at least make an affirmative response when the liturgy called for it. We had thought that the use of hymns from Taize that morning might provide a familiar tune or two, but even the music was “foreign” to us. It was evident, however, when the priest had finished his homily, so I was on alert for the candle lighting part of the service.

When I saw some folks rise from their chairs with candles in hand, I followed them to the altar area, and we stood as the priest read something and asked us questions. “Oui,” I responded in unison with the others. (Even if I had meant to answer in the negative, I wouldn’t have had the French word for it!) We lighted our candles, placed them in the holder, and waited for a brief prayer. Then we returned to our seats for the Mass.

It is unfortunate that our allotted time for this visit was running out. We needed to catch a bus to move on to a pre-arranged tour of Rouen. We waited until an almost appropriate break in the liturgy before packing up jackets and cameras and leaving the church. I had hoped that my guide to the W.C. hadn’t witnessed our early leave-taking. What kind of a candle-lighting, devoted Christian leaves before the Meal? We sneaked out the best we could and caught the bus.

Holy Communion would have to wait until the next Sunday, when we were in Copenhagen. And there’s a story there, too.  Another service in a tongue we didn’t understand. And another Meal I missed.  [That will be my next entry…]