On Sacred Spaces: My February Confession

 I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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We, just the two of us, went to Italy. It was a feast for the senses–the language was music and the food was earthy and elegant. Interesting details were everywhere, from moss on stone in the Colosseum to Jesus’ face in a painting by Michelangelo being the exact same face on a Roman sculpture, to train station cafes that served sandwiches and wine, and boasted more elaborate espresso machines than you’d find in any Starbucks. People in Venice, leaning out of their windows, hanging sheets out to dry. Hopes for resurrection etched into the stone walls of winding catacombs. Empty wineglasses on windowsills outside canteens. A small piece of the arrow that is said to have pierced St. Sebastian. Plain whipped cream (the real stuff) lopped on top of melone gelato, cutting the sweetness perfectly. Tiny spoons for stirring sugar.

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We ate what we wanted and walked almost everywhere. We bought things to bring home: bottles of wine, limoncello, a stovetop espresso maker, a pair of babysoft gray suede shoes, biscotti, magnets depicting pieces of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not really possible to bring the spirit of a place home with you, but we all try.

After a few days, the churches and the exquisite art within started to seem almost common. They’re simply everywhere. Armed with a guidebook, we took in as much as we could without rushing and defeating the purpose of vacation.

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In Rome, we spent plenty of time admiring the scope of things as well as feeling uncomfortable with the scope of things. Both in the secular and religious realms, it all seems to be about excess and power, but my sensitivity is to the religious. (My Protestant is about to start showing, but no variation of religion is free from the love of power.) While the art is precious and the craftsmanship well-worthy of admiration, the places that house them hold the silent echoes of stolen riches and trampled innocents. Hollow, not hallowed. “Think of what they could do with all that money,” I vent to Ricky over coffee and pastries after touring St. Peter’s Basilica. “I bet Peter would be completely uncomfortable in there, embarrassed even.”

I imagine Peter grilling fish on the beach with his Savior, wrestling with the call of do you love me? then feed my sheep and wanting Him to stay forever. Alone, hanging upside down, dying in love for the Person who changed it all for him. How does a simple message of love turn into a power structure? Maybe his bones lie down under the enormous altar, but it’s that moment on the beach that matters. How do you contain that in a building? Even on vacation, I cannot escape this constant dialogue with religion and spirituality. It fascinates or wearies, depending on how much space I have for it.

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Last month, I wrote this:

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long.

I wish I could find a way back to that beach, too.

Surely there must be a space in this world, in our lives, for art and beauty and sacred spaces. And our various tribes understand those things differently. Give me a cathedral of pine trees and birdsong over marble and organ anyday, but I must understand if you would rather have the marble and the organ. I must try to imagine, if that is your beauty, what you would feel in a basilica such as St. Peter’s.

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As we were moving to leave, a Mass began, with hauntingly beautiful voices singing in Latin. It didn’t matter what they were singing; all could understand. They were singing devotion and longing. They were singing human things in a human place that speaks of all the humanly complicated intersections with divinity. The singing made it beautiful–not the gold or the carvings, the relics or the prestige. The singing–filling that huge empty space.

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Is feeling and seeing beauty what makes feel “the rapture of being alive”? Details of beauty were everywhere in Italy; they are everywhere here too. Aimee’s unbelievably long eyelashes, Nicky’s tight hugs, Silas’ warmth and humor, Ricky’s steadiness, and my own sensitive mind, looking for clues. The people we share our lives with, that fill the empty spaces. I’ve rejected a lot of things that were once precious to me, but I remain in wonder of things old and new. This is my baseline: wonder. Perhaps I can build upon it, but I can always burrow my way down to it.

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In the cathedrals of New York and Rome

There is a feeling that you should just go home

And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

-Jump, Little Children

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On Sacred Spaces: My February Confession

  1. Norissa

    Keep writing, Emily. This nourished my soul today. I definitely relate with the fascination/weariness tension you describe. And I, too, keep circling back to beauty and wonder, and you have expressed it so very eloquently here.

    (and since you mentioned your own sensitivity, I wanted to add a link to an essay that helped me see my sensitivity in a spiritual sense and was so helpful to me. hope the link works, if not I’ll email it): http://us5.campaign-archive2.com/?u=2c0dadb363ee9e3ce1cf0dee3&id=c47d4ec9e9

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