A Sense of Place, Part III: Churches of Europe

Perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve found myself gravitating toward churches while traveling. There is something about the majesty and peacefulness of a church that brings a quiet tuning down to my soul. Although it’s been more than 20 years since I attended mass on a regular basis, I still love the feel of a church, or more accurately, how the church makes me feel once I enter into its stone embrace. This is strange, because for the most part I’ve founded churches to be cold buildings lacking life. Yet, the cold, the dim light of flickering candles, the smell of incense, as well as the quiet murmurings of the people passing through, is calming. One doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate the beauty, the achievement that a church or basilica represents.

Whenever I am in Europe, which is frequently, I always make time to visit as many churches and basilicas as I can. For one thing, a great number of European churches also contain some of the greatest art collections in the world. One can spend hours leisurely strolling along the darkened alcoves and corners of churches examining the artwork. I remember seeing my first authentic Titan in a church in Florence (I think it was Florence) and being amazed by its color. When in Rome I spent nearly an hour staring at Michael Angelo’s Pieta. This was a significant event in my life because the church I grew up attending, St. Mary of the Assumption, had a replica of the Pieta that had preoccupied me for much of my childhood. The same year I visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome I also visited St. Peter in Chains, which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s astounding masterpiece Moses. Last spring I was in Milan for a conference. My hotel was steps away from the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the building that houses Leonardo’s Last Supper. I attempted to get tickets to see the painting but was informed that tickets had been sold out for weeks. In 1998 I walked into Norte Dame for the first time, overcome by its majesty and history. I’ve seen the jawbone of Saint Anthony in Padua and the hand of Saint Stephen in Budapest. I’ve climbed to the roof of Milan’s celebrated Duomo, and studied the tomb of Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. One cold evening in November as I made my way up steep fairy tale-like streets to the castle in Prague I stopped into a small church while mass was being said. I sat there alone and quite content to be in the midst of so many believers. It was the first time in decades I attended mass. IMG_2802

We tend to think of churches as a celebration of God’s majesty on earth. Yet, I’ve come to believe that these grand buildings represent all that is divine in human beings. The church, as I think of it, is a metaphor for human achievement and, above all, imagination. God, the ultimate man behind the curtain, is a ruse we convince ourselves of in order to aspire to such divine heights. Without God these magnificent palaces of human imagination would be the ultimate in hubristic self-love. So we need God to help us feel as if we were celebrating His grace rather than our own accomplishments. Yet, the churches across Europe are indeed works of art and testaments to the human imagination and spirit.

In each of the churches and basilicas I’ve visited I come and gone like a ghost. No one looks at me or talks with me. In fact, most of the people speak with no one and sit in their solitary prayer and contemplation. Even on the hottest days the churches offer a cool, almost damp air. In each of the churches I’ve visited I’ve always lit a votive candle. I don’t do this out of any particular religious obligation or feeling, but instead believe that the lighting of a votive is a way of leaving my presence in the building, at least for a little while. Lighting a votive candle is always the last thing I do, and as the smoke rises from the thin wooden stick I’m always reminded about my own insignificance.

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