A Writer’s encounter with the Catholic faith.
FROM the shade of Bodhi yum-cha restaurant we could see the steeples of St Mary’s Cathedral rising above the bustling lunchtime streets of Sydney.
It was Richard’s birthday, so it was up to him where we spent our city day trip. He’d expressed an interest in going to the Australian Museum, just along the road, but the thought of the cool air inside the cathedral beckoned us both.
I’d also wanted to show Richard the reproduction marble of Michelangelo’s heartfelt Pietà sculpture of Mary and the dead Jesus in her lap, which I’d last seen on a school excursion.
That idea sealed the deal, so we paid for our meal and ascended the steps in the heat of a late summer Sydney day.
“I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.”
I spotted the ‘no photography’ sign at the last-minute, and the memory of numerous cathedral visits in Europe made me think of removing my hat. But there was no sign, and a flock of tourists in hats beyond the threshold, so I shrugged and left my cap on.
The darkness and temperature drop was immediate, as was the sense of calm away from the traffic and crowds. Richard disappeared towards a set of stunning brass gates, as we started our respectful, slow search for the sculpture.
We were soon separated by another crowd of tourists, and I waited in the half-dark by the gates until they passed.
By a door on the eastern side of the nave, I saw a sad sight: an old man, slumped pitifully against a pew, wisps of hair lifted by the breeze. A homeless man, perhaps, or someone so down on his luck that only time in this place of worship could restore him?
His demeanour was so compelling that I turned away, because looking seemed an imposition.
But as I went to move, a sudden jabbing drove into my shoulder from behind.
I turned in shock as a security guard said to me, breaking the calm: “Remove your hat!”
In a bit of shock, I paused, looked at the tourists near me, some of whom had heard the guard, and said: “I will, in a moment,” and turned to find my husband.
“You will remove it now,” the guard said, loudly, “hats are not allowed in the cathedral!”
I turned, looked at the be-hatted tourists, and said: “I will remove my hat, when you ask them to remove theirs.”
I moved off quickly and heard him muttering at my heels. Adrenalin rushed through me, the result of the sudden physical attack on my shoulder, and something about the guard’s attitude towards me in particular.
When I caught up with Richard, his hat in his hand, I ascertained that the original request had been made to him. The guard caught up with us and repeated his demand.
I refused, and repeated my request for hat-removal equality in the cathedral, adding that I would be more than happy to remove my head covering when the same demand had been made of all the visitors.
“Women are allowed,” he snapped, thinking he’d snookered me.
I looked at the group again. Women and men, many of both, wearing hats, a point which I assertively made to the guard, before I turned away and determined to find the Michelangelo reproduction.
His unmistakable footsteps came after me, so I did the first thing that came into my head. Inspired by George Emerson in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, who, when harassed in Santa Croce, slumped to his knees in a position of prayer, I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.
The guard stopped, tutted, and waited. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. We were in a waiting game I’d need to play to its end if I was going to stay prone, so I took my time, finished my ‘prayer’ and stood, before calmly resuming my search.
“I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was.”
My tactic got him off my back, although he kept his distance and tried a new one of his own. He reached for his mobile phone and punched numbers into it as clumsily and implausibly as a comedian would, and said: “Hello? Is that the police? Yes, I have a man here who won’t take off his hat!”
Suppressing laughter, I told him I’d give him a Logie for that performance, and we did a dance of barely controlled energy all the way back to where Richard and I had arrived, my hat firmly in place all the way.
As I left, I turned and saw the guard attempt a dreadful impersonation of a poof. Limp wrist, hand on hip, and a lisped farewell: “Bye-bye, see you laytaaa!”
I laughed. I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was, but when I told my husband outside, Richard stormed back in and demanded the guy’s name.
Holding his hand over his badge, he began a tirade that did not end until we were both ejected through the door onto the steps, the place where thousands, perhaps millions of those in need had sought help from the church: at their door.
Adding to the surrealism of the moment, the poor soul I’d taken pity on by the eastern door came over and joined in the very loud rant about respect, hats, and who gets to wear one and who doesn’t on hallowed catholic ground, saying we could do what we liked in the world, but in the cathedral, it’s their rules. All of it avoided the reality that surrounded us: many men with covered heads, going into the church unmolested.
We were spat out, rejected and thoroughly repelled, but none of it was really about my hat.
As we descended the steps, the Museum in our sights, I asked Richard if he still wanted to go there.
“No, I’ve had enough of antiquities for one day.”
We went shopping instead, and within minutes I’d worked out why the incident had happened.
Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which has taken place annually on the doorstep of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney’s gay heartland – Darlinghurst – was in its final days.
I’d read years before that LGBTIQ catholics from around the world make a point of visiting the cathedral and visibly asking for confession and communion as a form of protest.
Thus the security guards, who, I hasten to add, have very delicate gaydar sensor settings indeed. Richard and I had not held hands or been in remotely close proximity while in the cathedral, but, like most gay men, we have a kind of ‘uniform’ when it comes to clothing.
We wear hats because we’re both rather bald, but the classic baseball cap (as opposed to the truckers’) is probably a bit of a giveaway for security in a Darlinghurst cathedral.
I’ve never been so quickly labelled as gay without opening my mouth.
And I’ve never so mistakenly labelled a soul in ‘need’.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.