Art Pact 94

As I bowed my head and entered the narthex, the sound of whispering grew to a great ocean of sibilance, echoing, bouncing, reverberating from the inside of the cathedral's stone walls. The sound was recognisably the whisper of autoprayers, but unlike outside the sheer density of prayers trapped by the shell of the building enhanced the sound and shifted parts of it so that it seemed to fill the whole range of my hearing. For my first few seconds inside I could barely concentrate enough to keep walking.

It was nothing, though, compared to the sound as focused within. I turned left to take the commoner's route around the baffle at the back of the narthex and made my way into the nave proper. The great circular area of the nave was one hundred and fifty chains across, technically larger than could be covered by a hemispherical dome, but I knew that some clever trickery of the architect's art allowed the dome to be taller than its radius, which somehow allowed supporting structures to be constructed within it that would spread its load in a way that the cathedral's thick stone walls would allow. Nonetheless it looked like a perfect hemisphere from this side, and for a moment, looking up, I was at the exact point where the abstract paintings of clouds and suns that lined the ceiling was visible as something else - a trompe l'oeil in which one could see, just for a second, the stern countenance of God looking directly at one. I shivered, thinking both of the spirit itself and of the uncountable weight of stone that separated us from it - then the disturbing corollary, that the dome might collapse with me beneath, and so also be the agent of reunion with God as well as division from it. It was rumoured that in backrooms in the cathedral there were autoprayers focused on the structural integrity of the dome, and I hoped that was so.

I put such thoughts from my mind, though, and stepped in, following the commoner's aisle towards the grand opening at the centre of the Nave. As I should have expected from the sheer volume of prayer, the building was packed - pilgrims in the centre, milling about and taking in the sights and sounds, the local devout arrayed in one of the dozens of rows of pews that grew ever smaller as the aisles between them converged on the raised dais that formed the focus. It was empty, but I doubted whether with so many autoprayers present even the most faithful could withstand more than a few seconds there without being deafened. Even outside the focus the sound was so thick in the air it was almost like soup, a dense sound that I could taste on my tongue as a sort of sour copper sensation, the concentrated flavour of holiness and one-upmanship. I twisted a bit so that I could reach the dial on my own autoprayer. The machine, made by a firm in Cordyline, had a little safety on it - a button that you had to depress while turning the dial to allow it to access its final setting: SELF. A special feature added by some sanctimonious designer who reasoned with false pride, no doubt, that none but absolute paragons would seek out and buy his autoprayers. That no self-respecting, god-fearing person would ever have any reason to tune their autoprayer to SELF, and so although it must by law be included on the dial, the user should have to take extra steps to activate it - since they would almost always surely mean simply to turn it to the penultimate setting: FAMILY.

I was no paragon, though. I held down the button and turned the dial to its final position. The last prayer ended and the machine began to whisper its petitions for my health, for the success of my goals, for the betterment of me as a person that I might bring greater glory to God above and other such things, all equally unlikely to be realised at any time in the foreseeable future. It made me feel somewhat better, though, knowing that if there were any way to distinguish my machine's selfish pleas from amongst the seething broth of supplication for the good of families, villages, cities, nations, then there might be some slight protection or blessing that God could bestow upon me, allowing my mission to succeed.

I was prepared to be disappointed, but it seemed that God (or someone) had indeed that power of discernment, for at that moment the sacristy door - high up in the east wall - opened with a distant clunk and the bishop emerged.

I took a deep breath, and began to thread through the crowd towards him.


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