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214: Monastery of the Holy Face, Clifton, New Jersey, USA
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Monastery of the Holy Face, Clifton, New Jersey
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: Monastery of the Holy Face, Clifton, New Jersey, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The chapel, which is situated on wonderful grounds filled with various trees, is clearly a converted hall. The exterior is plain brick. The inside may be classed as "devotional grotesque" – the sort of nightmare one might have if one mixed pasta with garlic and oil from the shrine of Saint Anthony and ate it right before bed. Cramped with large statues of saints, and featuring a dreadful mural of Christ's burial and full size reproductions of the Shroud of Turin behind the altar, the tacky spray painted altar rail with its intricate grapes and vines nearly looks smart.
The neighbourhood: Clifton is a large, industrial city, mainly working class – though the particular neighbourhood surrounding the monastery is composed of expensive homes. The hill on which the monastery sits is directly next to a major highway, and the New York skyline is quite breathtaking if one gazes across the traffic. The grounds are a testimony to Benedictine hospitality – visitors are welcome to bring picnic lunches, children to play games.
The cast: Not stated.
What was the name of the service?
Vespers and Benediction.

How full was the building?
Quite full – mainly elderly people and the young with families.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No – it seemed a mass exodus from the grounds to the chapel was in progress.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, standard.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A mite distracting – neither silence nor lectio divina possible, since a group was reciting the rosary aloud.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The hymn will be a hymn in honour of the Holy Face of Jesus. Now we say Vespers all together..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Simply a leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. I had the distinct impression that the organist was "playing by number", if not by ear, with key signatures or tempo being an unknown concept.

Did anything distract you?
The overabundance of devotional statues, the mural and the replicas of the Shroud left me wondering if I might have already died, and gone to a section of purgatory reserved for Anglo-Catholics who place undue emphasis on the aesthetic.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very pre-Vatican II, "Tuesday night novena" devotion.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was a brief reference to the Holy Shroud.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – with the devotion to the shroud that is clear in the displays in the vestibule, literature racks and replica, one would leave here doubting Carbon 14 rather than the Shroud of Turin.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The suffering of Christ reflected in the wounds on the shroud.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing the clear devotion of the worshippers.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Musing that, where Italian ecclesiastical furnishings at their best can be heavenly, when good taste in same fails, it plunges to depths Dante alone could describe.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A visitor asked me if I had a copy of the five-day novena (five prayers, five times) to Saint Therese.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Average coffee in styrofoam cups and slices of cake.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – not at all my style. But for someone who loved the devotional atmosphere, it could be a godsend.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. There was a rather comforting, homely aspect that, combined with the clear hospitality, made everything seem very soothing and accessible.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The pleasant atmosphere of the grounds and seeing the families relax near such a friendly church.
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