The police launch came closer, signalling. The man at the helm switched to neutral, the propeller stopped turning, and the pleasure boat came to a halt. The holidaymakers sitting on the upper deck sunbathing in the summer sun stared indignantly from behind their dark glasses at the policemen coming alongside their vessel, catching hold with some sort of hook and then the officer jumping aboard the covered deck. He saluted with polite correctness, addressing the man at the helm: "Good day to you, citizen, the purpose of your trip?" - "Recreational, captain, sir" said the helmsman. "An excursion into the submerged remains of the church of St Hilarion - Xylona, national enterprise." - "The boat is hired?" - "No sir, captain, it belongs to the firm, the Union." - "Do you have the papers to support that?" - "Yes, if you please, right here". - "Hm! - and - the navigation papers - you have all that?" - "Here, if you please." - "May I see your Citizen ID?" - "Certainly". - "Very well, that seems in order. No need to check the whole party - but I hold you responsible for them, you understand. No illegal fishing, or things of that nature - no nude swimming. There are laws, you know. So, enjoy your recreational outing - good-bye!" The captain saluted, climbed over the railings into his launch -"launch off" - he told his crew - and they spurted off, leaving behind a band of foaming water.
The man at the helm of the pleasure boat put it into gear and the vessel moved off again. It was a kind of box-shaped boat, about ten metres long. Below, there were two rows of bench seats, following the long sides, facing each other. Above this deck proper was a more-or-less flat roof, which left a small platform free at the back above the propeller and rudder. From there one could climb up a ladder onto the flat roof, and all the holidaymakers from Xylona, numbering some fifteen persons of both sexes and various ages had done so, that particular summer Sunday morning.
At the front end was a kind of bridge, accessed by a short ladder, where the driver or helmsman stood among his levers and ship's wheel.
The broad lake of the dammed-up valley resembled the ocean - it stretched almost as far as the eye could see, only here and there was the horizon marked with some distant treeline, rather like fur stretched flat on a surface. The waves evoked the illusion of salt water, the white gulls above also looked the part.
They tended to fly circling around a tower, which emerged from the artificial lake - the evident destination of their excursion - the submerged church of St Hilarion. The boat neared the tower - it was getting bigger at a growing pace. At the helmsman's behest, his assistant, a lad of about seventeen swung the anchor, which caught in one of the submerged tower's windows, below the water. The helmsman switched off the engine and the boat was now just rocking silently on the waves. The pleasure-trippers started down from the roof and poured in to the covered deck. The assistant opened the door to some cupboards, taking out flippers and masks with snorkels, and passing them around the assembled company. It was clear that they were experienced at this, for it seemed that each had his own numbered set, calling out the numbers in turn and the young man pulling out of the heaped rubber and passing to them their own, individual kit. The holidaymakers were putting on the flippers and masks and one after another jumping in to the water. The youngster, the helmsman's mate stayed with the boat, climbing up onto its roof. The helmsman, also wearing the mask and flippers was treading water, his right arm raised aloft to draw attention, indicating the others should follow him as their guide.
The water was curiously clear: a holidaymaker lying face-down, breathing through the snorkel tube outlet pointing behind his head, i.e. straight up in this position could see the submerged church building through the front glass of his mask with uncanny clarity. The walls were covered with growths of green and brown algae, all set in a green-blue twilight, everything below the water noticeably broader and further apart. Shoals of fish were to be seen grazing on the algae on the walls of the flooded building. The church seemed to be gothic, though it may have been merely the gothic of the nineteenth century: the statues in the alcoves which would have settled the matter were unfortunately too eroded and overgrown with algae.
The group of holidaymakers floated slowly along the church walls, observing the peculiar idyllic scene. The church had stood on a hill, hence the tower rising half out of the water - but the engulfed village around it in the valley below slipped from sight into a green-blue abyss. The roof-timbers of the main aisle of the church had long since collapsed - the walls also protruded somewhat, a touch over two metres above the surface, the interior of the church forming a sort of pond or swimming pool. The helmsman swam right up close to the main aisle wall, found a foothold on some ledge, and stood up. Once again he raised one arm above the water, with the other arm below the water as though beckoning the swimmers towards him: Without a murmur the holidaymakers formed a procession, one behind the other. It seemed they were experienced, practised, knew what they were doing. The first man drew a deep breath, making the tube gargle a little, kind of hopped up in the water and dived straight down like a duck. Fiercely kicking his webbed feet he dug down under him with his hands. He grabbed hold of some gothic brace on the outside of the building and pulled himself hand-over-hand down into the deep. The diver now reached a large gothic window, no longer glazed, and swam through it to the interior. He surfaced quickly, blowing water out of his breathing tube like a dolphin. He swam further in to the middle of the church aisle, to make way for the other holidaymakers, who followed him through the window. Finally, the helmsman joined them.
They were now lying on the surface with their arms and legs outspread to keep their balance against the ripples, like a flock of peculiar frogs. They were facing down, breathing through their snorkels and gazing into the flooded church. On the floor the remains of the collapsed roof timberwork lay scattered over two rows of oak benches. The sun's light played green-and-gold over the outsize objects. Statues of the Saints on the pillars and the side-altars were slowly overgrowing with mosses and algae. The large crucifix, green, seen foreshortened from above, resembled the well-known painting by Salvador Dali. Apart from a degree of wildness and unkemptness everything was almost identical to a normal, unsaturated church, though there were no flowers, excepting the tin lily held by St Joseph, darkening with oxidation and greening with algae.
Shoals of fish chased one another through the main aisle of the church, taking cover in the nooks and crannies of the altarpieces and under the church benches. Through the broken windows the uniform turquoise of the lake looked on. Here and there some fish came and went through them. The swimmers felt they were levitating in the air under the roofbeams of an ordinary unflooded church, feeling weightless, relieved, postmortal. Everything remained as it had been left by the inhabitants who had been evacuated in such a hurry, before the valley was flooded, for the sake of the hydroelectric power plant. Only the church organ was absent, most likely it had been dismantled and sold off elsewhere, before the church was submerged. They had also taken away the bells.
The helmsman now swam off toward the back door, and dived down there. Scissoring his frogs-leg flippers, releasing bubbles through his little tube and descending slowly to the bare organloft. Once there he reached for some iron bound oak casket or chest and opened it. He reached in, withdrawing a small but quite chunky book. It was evidently the kind of book used by divers in tropical seas for identifying fish on coral reefs, printed on pages of plastic, immune to water. The helmsman emerged holding the book, blowing a small fountain out of his snorkel, then treading water for a short while, resting, with his mask up over his forehead and the snorkel mouthpiece out of his mouth. He then put the mask back on, bit into the tube mouthpiece and adopted the familiar face-down position. He leafed through his book, marking places with pagemarks, ribbons, evidently also made of plastic.
One by one the holidaymakers dived to the open chest, each taking a book and rising to the surface again. The last one shut the chest after him and latched it.
For some while after that, nothing happened. Only the sloshing of the water against the walls was to be heard, the cries of gulls nesting in the tower, and the gurglings of snorkel pipes of those holidaymakers who had not managed to blow all their water out of the U bend after their dive. Their kit was old and not of the best, the masks did not fit closely.
Then, suddenly, in a place where a brown-black shadow had reigned supreme on the floor of the church, a paler green-blue band appeared. A smaller side-door must have opened. Almost instantly the centre of the band grew darker again, as the figure of a diver entered wearing an aqualung, commonly known as a scuba diver in today's international parlance; a diver equipped with his Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. The diver wore the usual close-fitting garment and mask. Less usual was the cross painted or sown onto his hood and on his yellowy scuba gear. In his hands he held something that looked like a chalice covered with a veil, as borne by a priest readying to serve Mass. The first diver was followed by another, also in scuba gear. The divers swam slowly toward the main altar.
They were indeed a priest and his acolyte, who had made their way to the church in secret, underwater the whole way, using a diving scooter. This they had left parked outside, among the headstones of the flooded graveyard, and had made their way inside to serve Mass in secret, as permitted by the Papal encyclicon Elementis non obstantibus.
You see, when in the year X the Soviet empire bloodily put down the latest Polish uprising as organised and orchestrated in the spirit of Catholicism, there followed cruel persecution of Christians, notably Catholics across all of Soviet vassalia, by then encompassing a significant part of the globe - but Man intends, God amends: It doesn't look all that hopeless these days. To counter this new wave of oppression, the Church had extended the scope and means of conducting services to the utmost: more and newer modalities were being invented and approved, to each revelation by the communist police drawing a countermove by the Church. Needless to say that in this, as in all similar situations, it was the Brootherhood of Jesus that thought up and organised the bulk of these strategic and tactical moves, and the Vatican approved them almost without exception and without delay. One of such strategic decisions being that Holy Mass may be served not only as conventionally, i.e. on the ground surrounded by air, but in outer space, under water, up in the air, i.e. using gliders etc., all of which is covered by the aforementioned Elementis missive. In theory, services could be held in ovens and inside volcanic craters etc. (the so called Officium trium puerorum), but the special-purpose suits needed were too expensive and so beyond the reach of most believers. Having thus spiced up commonplace services with lashing of adventure, there was an unheard-of resurgence of spirituality across the whole Soviet empire, people deciding to get involved for a host of reasons, such as for the fun of it and to thumb their noses at their lords and masters.
A similar, though much smaller-scale resurgence in religiousness had happened in Prague in academic circles in the fifties, after it had been proclaimed that anyone lacking the correct Marxist world-view deserves not to be considered a student, and most certainly not a tutor at any level, and that the proletariat will deal with such propagators of dark-age beliefs. - No sooner had these phrases been uttered, and the churches were filled to bursting by students, including the most stubbornly agnostic of their tutors, who all felt it their duty to partake in Holy Mass, to convince themselves and others that they are not diarrhoea-yellow and that they won't let anyone mess around with their consciences and private lives.
The vacationers moved toward the altar. The dome above the altar, featuring the so-called 'lantern-light' (so this is, almost certainly, pseudo-gothic after all) was still holding up. The swimmers dived, swam under the triumphal arch, and emerged in the dome above the altar, where the surface was slightly below the top of the dome, and fresh air streamed in through the small broken windows of the lantern. Here they hung, face-down, forming a circle above the altar, watching the priest's procedures and mystically personifying angels, who likewise, but immaterially, gather in the air around down-to-earth altars.
I can scarcely give an accurate description of how the service went on: Not only had the Church evidently introduced and allowed certain modifications for the purposes of an underwater Mass, as has been done for prisons, for example, but to describe the situation might incline one to humour and therefore, to a kind of blasphemy.
I would like to imagine that by this time the Church had reintroduced the proper Latin Mass, I am drawn to the idea that that the liturgy was sung in that submerged church, I am fascinated by the notion of the priest and choir bubbling their song underwater. The composition I would envisage for this Mass would be Palestrina's "Salvum me fac Deus", partly because it is scored for the cantus firmus, taken from the antiphony: Salve me fac, Deus, quia intraverunt aquae usque ad caput meum - (i.e. Save me or rescue me, oh God, because the waters have risen up to my head) and the music inspired by this antiphony, no doubt by the words, is itself kind of watery, in five parts, with a split soprano: Until then it had been common practice to divide the bass, or the middle, - the divided top tier gives a kind of weird, somehow watery clarity and feeling of pressure in the ears, such as you get when diving. - And now imagine it being sung through the snorkel pipes, muffled and bubbling. - But no: surely it was a silent Mass, swift, no frills. Missa subaquatica would, I expect, leave out the offering of Wine, with the rationale that Christ is wholly present in the Bread, blood and all, there would be no lavabo, and so on.
A competent lyrical talent would get a lot of mileage out of an underwater Mass such as this. He might describe how the fish circled around the altar, describe their species and appearances, how the wavy-frayed light flickered playing over the statue of the church patron buried in the altar chamber, how water-weed banners fluttered from the altar's lattice, how gulls nested in the mouths of gargoyles. Looking down to the altar, the priest and his acolyte hovering in bubbles before it, has its own peculiar charm. One could describe the modified service in its entirety, culminating in the priest, ascending over the altar vertically toward the arching dome, clutching the converted Holy Host (baked from a non-soluble mixture) so that he may accept the Body of Christ here, in the air, how he then offers bread to the floating faithful, as nowadays, into their palms, how they straighten up, treading water, and removing the snorkels from their mouths for a moment, sanctimoniously swallow the Host. One might envisage two options: Either the priest emerging to the apsidy toward them, or they diving down to him, holding onto the altar lattice with one hand while partaking of the sanctified Host with the other - etc.
But let us leave it all rather in the twilight semi-darkness of the sumberged church, or for that matter in the creative imagination of the reader.
I don't know what led me to dream up this scenario:
The idea of a submerged church has some strange appeal and the image of an underwater mass is aesthetically sensuous.
But in my experience whatever I have made up, or rather confabulated, I regularly found in reality afterward, if not in true, objective form, then at least as a fantasy shared by someone else.
Which is why I am certain that the Missa subaquatica is out there somewhere, or, in one way or another, will come to pass.