(Or more specifically, old and beautiful churches – but cathedrals alliterated and I like alliteration)
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in my last week of holiday in one of the biggest and most historic churches in my city, just praying, and it’s made me think about a few things.
I love old churches, cathedrals, chapels and the like. Two years ago, I was leading a group trip to Venice I’d organised for the university windband (yes, I am a longstanding bandgeek) and it was in this period of time where I’d made the decision to try church again (which to be perfectly honest, was more because I felt I really needed to be getting some sort of moral guidance once a week as I had a pretty full on year ahead of me with a lot of responsability, rather than directly wanting to hear about Jesus) and had gone to what is still my church, a few times, and was feeling pretty confused about the whole thing – what was I getting myself into? Where were all these questions coming from? Were those people as friendly as they seemed? What was a ‘Thessalonians’, and why were there two of them?
While we were there, we visited St Marks Basilica, of course, and I gave the others the slip and had a few precious hours to myself. On thing I remember is hearing that from start to finish, through countless revisions, one family of stonemasons had been working on the mosaicing for about six generations – and that it was such poorly paid work that the family had starved for generations, but been so determined to use their skills to make the Basilica the wonder that it is, they didn’t care. They chose worship over wealth. I remember standing in front of a depiction of Paul’s ministry (at least, that’s what I think it was), and thinking, if six generations felt so strongly about something, there must be something in it – there had to be some grain of truth in there, some quiet absolution that I just did not understand. I was thinking about what that would have meant – spending your life up ladders and in harnesses, painting the Bible in stone for future generations on walls and ceilings, and going home with a full heart but empty hands. That was when I decided to keep going and learning. Mark’s gospel was the first one I read. Not just a pretty face, that man.
I don’t believe at all that God is more present in stone churches than white washed chapels. I don’t believe that he gives His grace in proportion to the number of stained glass windows, or the brightness of the chandeliers, just as I don’t believe it’s dependant on bank balances, or sexual practises, or gender. I don’t believe that a prayer sent up from a tapestried cushion jumps the queue ahead of the those from a plastic seat in a post modern church.
However – I love the solemnity of these older buildings. I love the quiet, mournful peacefulness I feel when I’m sitting in a tiny alcove, under high ceilings and coloured glass, stone flagons under foot and stone pillars to shield me from view. It’s almost as though something intangible gets left behind by everyone who comes to a place to worship, and in these older places with a faith base of centuries, all of those whispered words and heartfelt promises hang in the air, giving it weight, making you stop and gaze and wonder, if there is something you are missing, or someone you do not know. It’s like the difference between singing a hymn you know your grandparents sang and took comfort from, and singing the latest contemporary hit, which is probably heavy on the hand actions, but maybe lighter on the sincerity that belongs to older tunes. It’s the sense of history there, the feeling of tradition and permanence, of the survival and persistence of beliefs and actions. You are worshipping in a space people have worshipped for centuries, how mindblowing is that?
Perhaps it’s because my faith is primarily a solemn one – a quiet friction of my heart and soul against the grace of God, a tremulous, shaky, shadowy belief in a God who holds my hand and guides me tenderly through the rocks, that I am so drawn to these places. I love my church, with it’s ostentatious loving and loud hallelujahs that raise the roof, but sometimes, it’s the wearied silence that I crave, the regal atmospheres of these older places that remind me of the majesty of the Lord, and his endurance through the ages, of his faithfulness, as generations passed through the doors and made their marks on the floors and walls. As the title of this blog suggests, I don’t find peace easily – I am a restless soul, ever on the move, always on the go. When I’m in one of these places though, I do suddenly feel at peace, as though all of my worries are stuck out in the outside world, and inside, with the candles and the velvet hangings and the incense, I am safe. It’s the old tradition of churches giving sanctuary, both politically, but also, spiritually, psychologically. Once you’re inside God’s house, you’re safe. Once you’re on His turf, you’re ok, for the time being. It’s a good, if rare, feeling. I need these places.
Something I love about my city is that when you’re standing on top of the hills that surround it, and look inwards, it’s the spires that form the skyline and break the clouds. It’s easy sometimes, in these times, to feel that we live in Godless streets and loveless districts, that God doesn’t have the presence here He once had, that our modern lives have tidied Jesus away with the rest of our clutter and forgotten him, packed away in boxes with extra plates and surplus bedding – but then, when I look out, whipped by the winds, the sun coming down over the seas, that I see those old churches reaching for Heaven, and suddenly, things don’t feel so bad. If the architects who built these left so strong a mark, then God surely left a deeper one. If the skyline is shaped by the spires, then the city too must be shaped by God.
This is why I like cathedrals.