Remember that trip to Europe? It wasn’t all fun and games. I laughed at myself, cried a bit, got in trouble with security guards, got lost—and was overwhelmed to the point of tears.
For those of us in the US who—like me—have never traveled beyond our own country (not including a couple of vacations in Caribbean resorts, which totally don’t count), you cannot possibly imagine the sheer enormity of standing in a spot others stood on 2,000 years ago. More, even. You can’t imagine what it is like to walk on the stone floor of a church that is 1,000 years old. How many other feet have touched those stones? Kings, princes, paupers, lepers. The Bubonic plague, the cholera epidemic. Wars, famine, the Middle Ages. THE MIDDLE AGES. Like, with swords and knights and fealty. Death, starvation, persecution.
All and more have happened in churches of every religion in every part of the world. It is simply that, for me, no church in my own country has existed more than 400-500 years. And those that did—Native American structures—are not plentiful.
So. This post is not about religion. I don’t care what religion anyone is, and any comment that strikes me as bigotry will be deleted.
What this post is about is history. Tradition. Connection. It’s sitting in silence beneath soaring stone ceilings, knowing that you are sitting in the same place another woman sat a thousand years ago. A woman who lived, died, bore children. Who made her own soap, slaughtered her own feed. One who probably buried one or more children, and possibly one or more husbands. A woman who got up at dawn to feed the fire and mended her children’s clothes by the light of a candle late at night. A woman who didn’t have aspirin or band-aids, skinny jeans or margaritas. (Because let’s get real about the important things in life.)
I left the V&A Museum on my first day in London, passed by a beautiful church with a gate standing open. Beyond that were heavy, carved, wooden doors.
I went in.
And I cried, sitting there in the silence of the church, basking in a single ray of light through a stained glass window while I contemplated an altar made of gilt and gold and marble.
April 14, 2016
I’m sitting in almost utter silence.
I’m in the Oratory, in a ray of light.
The only ray of light.
To my right is the most stunning depiction of Mary & Christ. Gilt and gold, marble and huge and carved. I have never seen anything like it. I cannot take a photo [per the rules]—but even if I could, I’m not sure I would. It’s somehow too beautiful to be photographed. It shall have to stay in my memory.
There are others wandering here, all quiet. It is like every one of us is holding our breath.
A man just bought a candle, using another to light it. He is praying, as so many thousands have done before. And so many have died for that right. So many have died because of it.
Yet, as I sit here in my sunlight, watching it fade away, I cannot help but think about all the souls that have walked these floors, breathed this air, felt this silence.
There is something peaceful and precious in these walls, whatever religion it is.
Tradition. Love. Respect. History. Whatever else might be part of religion, there are also those four things.
The ceilings here simply soar, domed, high, painted and mosaicked. There is a loveliness that defies the imagination—and a beauty as well, that shocks the soul and draws it in. The corners with saints to pray to, for confessions, for quiet reflection. Each is as interesting and detailed as the last. The memorial to fallen soldiers 1914-1919 features a pieta-type statue that holds so much sadness—and yet grace and peace. I hope those soldiers found grace and peace.
Peace and reflection can only happen in certain places, when the soul is open and ready for it. I was ready for it, as I was again a few days later on Hampstead Heath. (A later post, my dears).
When you travel somewhere alone, somewhere unknown and without friends, you are so much more open to new experiences and new feelings than you are at home while in the familiar. I sat in the church for a half hour, doing nothing but looking. Respecting. Feeling. I can understand the magnitude of faith, of dying for faith. I can almost hear the voices of the thousands of people who have sat there before me. Of those that have come before. Of those that have gone before me.
Almost as if they were still there.
I’ve stepped outside now into noise and bustle again. Cars, people, buses—so much life.
Yet I find myself wanting to step back inside and think about those I’ve lost.
May all of you find peace and grace.
Lovely post. I can almost feel what it was like to sit there .
I think it will be one of those moments that I will never forget, and yet will never be able to recreate.
Oh my gosh, Alyssa. What a beautiful post. You are so right about being open to certain things/feelings/places. I only went on one vacation by myself, and I was open to those feelings. I can imagine what it felt like to be in a church that was over 1,000 years old. The memories that place must have.
I’m so glad you’re still sharing your impressions from your European trip. More please.
So often we just let the business of life consume all the moments–but sometimes we just need to slow down and listen! So very glad you enjoyed your vacation!
Churches are some of the most beautiful pieces of architecture and history we have. Regardless of religion, so much in a community revolved around churches: birth (baptisms), death, marriages, services, public meetings, etc… sanctuary and safe haven. Peace and neutrality. A place of quiet refuge teeming with stories untold.
Thank you for continuing to share your special trip with us.
That is so, so true, Denise. The history of a place is so often recorded in the churches–so many of life’s big moments (birth, marriage, death) occur and recorded there. Some of my favorite churches are the humble ones (just WAIT until I get to Paris!), but you can’t help but soak up the amazing history of the grand churches. It’s like the voices still echo in the air….