I was about ten years old. Perhaps eleven. Certainly not twelve, yet.
By the age of twelve, certain sophistications begin creeping in; a growing understanding of science and logic, and the myths begin to fade. Before that age, mysteries still share the world with adult reality. It is a precious and dangerous time, when monsters or angels might confront you as easily as policemen or teachers.
In those days, I remember being taken to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC's Brookland neighborhood, for Catholic holiday services... High Mass, you might call it. At this particular cathedral, with its fantastic architecture, it was quite a HIGH high mass. It's perhaps the grandest church in DC. The pipe organ embraces your head from nearly all sides with its tonal mood swings; from whispers to full-on explosions of sound.
It was during those explosive moments of organ music that I locked eyes with that fearsome dude behind the altar: not the priest, he was tiny by comparison. The human priest was a mere insect beneath the truly Fearsome Dude, who lined the convex arch of the North Apse with hands wide, eyes burning with challenge.
What was this crazy, monstrous thing? It was like praying to a savage, feral Sun God who threatened to bitch-slap the entire congregation with one mighty sweep of its bloody palms. The power of this mosaic image was shocking, at a time when childhood still had faith in magic things...
Needless to say, we all made it out alive, and I have since lost my irrational fear of angry gods with the face of Donald Sutherland. But one need not be a Christian to appreciate their churches. They are still quite transformative places. Particularly this shrine; its vibe is still quite potent after all these years.
While browsing the gift shop, it occurred to me that they would do well to design a t-shirt that says "naw, I'm not a christian, I just dig the buildings..."