Relics of Faith in Secular Lands
A dozen or so people had gathered in the ancient stone church in Toledo, Spain. The church itself seemed all rough stone; it felt like being in a cave. It is as if my wife and I, on vacation, were back in the church’s early ages, meeting furtively in a catacomb.
It was Viernes de Dolores, the Friday of Sorrows, before Palm Sunday, April 15 of this year. Except that two thousand years ago, one feels, Christians were eager and enthusiastic, waiting for Jesus to come back any day now. In 2011, however, we shuffle from station to station as the priest intones the story of the passion. From what I can see, not only are we all middle-aged or elderly, we are none of us especially well-dressed or striking. Is this all that could gather to remember Christ’s suffering?
A few weeks shy of my 60th birthday, I was painfully aware of the limits of life’s energy and strength. I found myself wondering how a much more elderly church can survive—and that goes for all the Christian churches. I think about how not only are the churches seemingly ill-prepared, we Christians seem to be even unfit for the job. In a world so filled with ugliness and triviality and sordidness, it would seem impossible to keep the Church from being polluted or permanently stained—and of course, many would say it has been.
As reading material on the plane, I brought Pope Benedict XVI’s second volume of Jesus of Nazareth. He wrote about Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: “Because he is the Son he sees with total clarity the whole flood of evil .... Because he is the Son, he experiences deeply the horror, filth and baseness that he must drink from the ‘chalice’ prepared for him: the vast power of sin and death. All this he must take into himself, so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him.”
In that stone church, surrounded by gray and balding heads, the challenge seemed overwhelming. As Jesus must take into himself the filth of the world, so the Church must ingest it. We feeble, faltering people must swallow the toxins, the poisons, the filth, the viruses, the carcinogens of our time:despair, joylessness, ennui, dread, angst, horror, pain, pointlessness, ugliness, sterility, narcissism. The pope also writes that with Christ, for the first in the history of homo sapiens we have freed from the rule of the clan, the chieftain, the king or the emperor. But, I couldn’t help thinking, in 2011 we find ourselves freed like a convict set free from prison and alone on the streets, with $10 and a cheap suit, adrift in a hostile and lonesome world.
Toledo underlined our plight. Touring the old city, one sees vacant buildings, and many signs proclaiming “vende” or “se alquila “ -- for sale or rent. And there were few children in evidence, apart from those tagging along with their tourist parents. It was reminiscent of the decaying city of Gondor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga:
Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt with ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footstep rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.
For we saw few children. For, as is well known, in much of Europe the birth rate has fallen below the replacement rate of about 2.1 births per woman. In Spain, the birth rate is 1.47. Religious belief and practice are also in steep decline. A fifth of the Spanish list themselves as atheists or non-believers. Of people of faith (mostly Catholic), more than half say they never or almost never attend religious services. Simply by the numbers, it seems that the Europeans must die out, or if they survive, they will count few believers among them.
Yet the promise is otherwise. The Gospel reading for that day, from John 10, included Jesus answering his persecutors: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, You are gods’?”
And even here in this old stone city, alone, there are reminders we aren’t lost in the catacombs. On the wall of his own parish church, Iglesia Santo Tome, El Greco painted his first masterpiece, “El entierro del Conde de Orgaz,” “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” As the nobleman is about to be interred, St. Augustine and St. Stephen miraculously appear and gently lay him in his crypt. At the same moment, in heaven, Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the whole heavenly entourage is there to greet the Count as he rises to heaven, his body now electric with the great energy El Greco imbues figures with; the Count seems to flicker on the borderline of the perishable and the immortal, the fleeting and the unchanging. The figures on earth—noblemen, mostly—also seem to pulse with a more subdued yet palpable energy, as if they too will suddenly spring free from the earth and join that chorus. Heaven and earth are not separated, but are two lungs of the same creature, both throbbing with life.
Yet, looking at it, it also seems a moment of terrible suspense. The moment of entombment has a doppelganger: the moment of judgment. For even the Count, noted as a philanthropist, must face that blast furnace of judgement. Yet that only underscores the value of the earthbound, for as commentators mention, El Greco’s composition links both realms. The painter refutes the notion that heaven is someplace far away and alien to the earth; in this painting, the two work in tandem, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, heaven and earth dancing together, linked and inseparable. The moment of death is not the final futility of a life trapped in a bag of skin; it is the culmination of a cosmic struggle; it is not the end, but only that brief moment between acts.
And if faith seems aged and tired, yet tradition offers a lifeline. It is often derided as mere tradition, as the rote recital of things no longer felt or believed. Yet if there is truth in that, there is also the truth that tradition can keep at least some faith going, as an intravenous tube can keep a severely ill patient alive in the hospital. For Palm Sunday services in the Toledo Cathedral, there was standing room only as platoons of choir singers and ranks of priests filled the ancient space. Stone vaulted high above us, arcing like rockets, yet solid as mountains. The gold grillwork foamed and leapt up toward that sacred space; as in a counterpoint, the retable flowed up above the altar.
The photos and the guidebooks can’t give you the scale. Sometimes the critics imply the cathedrals were meant to exalt the hierarchy. But one visit shows the opposite is true. The cathedrals don’t celebrate human power; they are a rebuke to it. The bishop and priests were dwarfed in that immensity. No robe or suit of armor can make a man look big in that huge towering space. No collection of bishops—or even kings and knights, back in those times—could dominate that space. For a human being, to walk under those towering arcs is to be humbled, if not in our hearts, then in fact. The cathedrals and churches, even if largely empty, remain. And they will be ready—when, and if, we are ready to make that leap to the eternal.
But do we of our age want to undergo that transformation? One hypothesis is not merely that we fail to be changed, we do everything in our power not to be changed, fleeing from even the possibility. Paris on a Wednesday afternoon on a chilly April day, at the site that draws the most tourists, is a place for questions about whether modern people would like Christianity even if they believed in it.
It was 6:15 p.m. on the Wednesday after Easter in Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris. Vespers were being sung, prior to mass. The church was still packed with sightseers. How could mass be held then and there? The man at the ticket counter gestured. I walked ahead, and in the nave found people listening as a cantor led them in singing vespers. My wife and I found chairs, and sat down, as the chanting went on. We should have known that the church slogs on even amid hubbub and distraction. The printed sheet led us in the Psalm:
“Le Seigneur l’a jure dans un serment irrevocable:
‘Ut es pretre a ‘jamais selon l’ordre du roi Melkisedek.’
A ta droite se tignt le Signeur: il prise les rois au jur de sa colere.”
“The Lord hath sworn, and he will not repent: ‘Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.’ The Lord at thy right hand hath broken kings in the day of his wrath.”
How easy it was to feel that for a moment in Notre Dame! Above us, stone arced like skyrockets; though instead of light turning to smoke and dissipating, stone in some inexplicable way mimicked motion and light; the stone itself seemed to change, be transmuted in action and energy. Centuries before Einstein, these people of the High Middle Ages understood that energy equals matter multiplied by motion. If this was an ancient, storied Catholic church, at that moment it seemed it must be true of any church, whether a basilica or a white clapboard church or a house church or a Bible study in an apartment somewhere. It is a place and a process, turning words into reality, and reality into the Word; promoting the material into the spiritual, and letting the spiritual gently condense into the material.
For the life of faith moves outward, to God, perhaps, but perhaps just outward, in time, in society, as well as in the universe. Maybe that’s why religious people have a higher birthrate: In moving toward God, they move out of their time and their skins, and creating a child, like laying the cornerstone of a cathedral is like that: moving beyond yourself, creating something beyond yourself that likely you will never see the culmination of. To go outside of yourself, however, there must be a space to go to. The geysers of stone gushing above us created such a space, a kind of free range where we can roam, if we can just begin to move that direction
Yet, who were we to even dare to imagine this? Several dozen people had taken seats in the nave. It was hard to tell who was there to worship, and who was just resting tired feet from a day of sight-seeing. There were people of all ages and a wide variety of ethnic groups. We sat there, most of us looking a bit out of place or awkward—if only because a sluggish crowd of tourists flowed by on both sides, taking video and still photos incessantly. In doing so, of course, they didn’t capture the cathedral, but lost it. For it is the space that is important. A camera can’t catch that; The lens crushes the space into a flat glossy plane. And, obviously, that’s what we modern people do: We do all we can to cut extra dimensions out of our lives, to flatten the world so it is easily stored on a flash drive, a flat, innocuous souvenir.
The tourists trained their lenses and computer chips at us, a straggling band of believers. We were transformed into participants at a tourist attraction, like the costumed cartoon characters at Disneyland. It’s the 6:15 show at Religion Land! See the re-enactment of ancient rites! Marvel at how primitive people paid tribute to divine beings! And remember ... please don’t feed them!
The priests and choir forged on. “Comme des beliers, bobdissent les montagnes, et les collines comme des agneaux.” How quaint, must think any gawker who knows French. Do believers really think, “The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like the lambs of the flock.”?Well, they believe God, whatever that is, became a human being, so no surprise they think mountains can skip.
Yet there in Paris, even the faithful must sometimes fear that perhaps this church—or any church, for that matter—had become a mere relic for the tourists. Were we, some dozens of worshippers, merely like Civil War re-enactors, dressing up on weekends in antique costumes and mimicking long-ago battles—except with blanks, not live ammo?
The question kept coming up, and not just in churches.
At the Louvre, tourists crowded around Michelangelo’s famed sculpture “Captif, l’Esclave rebel”/”The Captive (The Dying Slave.)” The captive writhed, stone as flesh and energy all at once: flesh and spirit united in one moment of tension and terror and hope. For that is all of us, struggling for an instant out of anonymous atoms to become human, there thrashing and fighting to ... we hardly know what, whether to surge beyond the earth and stone existence we emerge from, or to give in and sink with a sigh back into dead but restful marble.
And almost all the tourists had cameras out and clicking away. Having come perhaps thousands of miles, and stood in line for probably an hour in that cold April day, all to see great works of art, this one they didn’t want to see at all. The camera would do all the seeing for them, as they’d hire someone to mow their lawns or take care of their children. I’ve seen photos of “The Captive” in art books. But none can convey the presence of the white marble. Taking a picture is not a way of preserving memory; it is a way of preventing memory. It goes into a chip and stays there. The photographer need confront neither the beauty nor the anguish. In another of the experiences that demand we feel awe, many of us don’t even feel curiosity. We feel some awkward duty to record where we have been, just as a Facebook posting is an ersatz encounter with a living friend.
For our entire age is like that. We are like those people who have lost their sense of smell, thus their taste. We too have lost our taste—for beauty, for struggle, for tragedy, for glory. Have we lost our sense of awe? Are we like that?
Or maybe we don’t want to think about the price we might have to pay.
La Iglesia del Santa Maria del Salvador is on the main square in the old village of Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón (in the province of Albacete) in Spain. The floats from the Easter procession were in the church, for the procession later in the day.
They reminded us of the accessory pain of Christ’s life, thus of the pain that is an accessory to a Christian’s life. On one float, a dagger protruded from the breast of the Virgin Mary. We comfortable modern, Western Christians read of the holy man’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, but this tradition understood it far better than we do. On another float, Roman soldiers flogging Christ long ago lost their whips, but their faces still wear a frenzied eagerness to punish him. Most stunning of all was the Christ carrying his cross. He wore a plush purple cape. Yet on his face was a look of bewilderment—the look of a man lost and stunned. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Why, why, why?
A modern gibe at churches is that they exist to give easy answers. Perhaps, however, they exist to ask painful questions.
At the Prado hangs Velazquez’s “Crucifixion of Christ.” It possesses a stark, almost modernist design, all pale skin and black background, that makes even more shocking the blood splattered on and dripping down the cross. Maybe that’s why we don’t have faith; we are afraid of the cost.
And no one is immune to that fear of faith. Another terrible thing for me was to read the plaque by the painting and see that Velazquez painted only a half dozen or so religious works in his first years in Madrid, then none for twenty years. How could that happen? Did his faith wither? Or did painting portraits of the nobility just pay much better? Either way, if a man who could create that masterpiece can in one way or another lose faith, like one might misplace a watch or one sock, how easy it would be for us to lose ours.
Yet the yearning in our hearts for that nexus of the human and the god-shocked remains. That’s on display at Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The Impressionists are popular; but perhaps the real reason is not their works’ beauty or prettiness or color, but because they too hint at how close we are to transcendent beauty and power. Perhaps we like them more because we can pretend they are merely beautiful, so we can pretend we don’t have to think about what they mean.
Take Monet’s “Femmes au jardin.” A woman’s full skirt is billowing in the sunlight; it is whiter than any bleach could make it, transfigured from mere cloth to pure being. The leaves are greener than any vegetation can be; the whole scene seems ready to take off and vault to another level of an intensity and freedom we can’t even grasp. Perhaps we admire the Impressionists most of all because they do not remind us of nice days we’ve had, but hint at brilliant days we’ve only vaguely sensed just out of our grasp, yet available if we but reach a millimeter farther.
Or consider Van Gogh’s “L’église d’Auvers-sur-Oise.” In it a church suddenly surges to life, like Lazarus come back from the dead. It swirls in a vortex of energy, its stones as fluidly in motion as a mountain goat bounding from crag to crag. It flickers on the frontier between existence and being, a portal from each to the other, the stone more alive than many of us as we slog through our modern times. Again, we are not reminded of churches we have seen; we instead get a vague apprehension of a church we have encountered in mostly forgotten dreams.
The same goes for Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen. Some traditionalists scorn modern art for not portraying things as they are. But the Monets are not of any cathedral that ever existed or can exist. They are as impossible as a cubist or surrealist work. The Monets depict a cathedral that we want to exist, we hope exists. Like a Saturn rocket igniting on its launch pad, they are an explosion of light and power, on the verge of blasting off out of our world altogether.
Yet we shouldn’t be deceived that this will be easy. Cezanne is the artist who shows this. “Les peupliers” depicts poplars as alive and vibrant as anything in the art, but their struggle is more intense, thus more poignant. The trees, straining upward, yet are caught fast in the world of time and decay, the world of autumn and winter. We too want to reach out to that more vital world, yet often we are trapped in this one.
Consider yet another painting at Musee d’Orsay. Eduard Vuillard’s “Jeanne Lavin” depicts a woman sitting in what could well be a modern office, sans computers. She looks out at us, trapped in that plane. Can we get out? Does the world we have fashioned trap us here, as an air-conditioned office keeps out the weather? For the secular world seems intent on doing so: on sealing out any hint of being.
Yet perhaps secularism itself will prompt a revival. One afternoon found us in the Spanish village of Madrigueras. We entered the church of Saints Peter and Paul, La inglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo. It is said to have been the scene of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The Republican forces used it as a barracks and canteen. Over the years since other “improvements” covered over a structure that dates back to the 14th century. Then about a dozen years some teenagers snuck up the stairs to the bell tower for a party and to shoot off some fireworks. In putting out the resulting fire, plaster was broken down. Long-forgotten windows were revealed; ancient stone came into view.
The reconstruction work has proceeded since then. The structures that once housed the Republican troops are slowly being taken down, as finances permit. Slowly a church that held its first baptism in 1385 is emerging. The grave dignity of the stone church is emerging slowly. It can only be hoped that the vandals who run our society will set off a fire that will burn away much of the junk that covers our sacred history, and that we recognize its beauty and are moved to restore it.
That hope remains. On Easter Sunday, we went to the village of Hellin in Albacete province. Since Thursday, thousands of people had been drumming in an ancient tradition. They wore black robes and red kerchiefs and marched through the village, drumming, drumming, drumming. They were like a black and red army, drumming drums with vigor and evident joy. Many were children or young people, with earrings and the occasional stud in evidence. For once, it seems, being involved in a church activity seems cool. Following the army of drummers were the floats. Up to 40 men (and a few women) lift them on their shoulders and lug them down the streets. There is the life of Christ, with the moments of glory and hope, and of pain and suffering. The streets are packed with participants and onlookers.
Are all the thousands taking part fervent believers? That’s doubtful. Yet they carry on the tradition—literally. That is a reminder that our fate depends not entirely on our fickle emotions and moods. It depends in part on tradition and rites that get carried on even if not all the participants understand or place cosmic significance in them. Sometimes tradition is indeed just that intravenous line that keeps the church going until it can recuperate.
As the mass went on at Notre Dame, three days later, eventually the tide of tourists began to ebb. My French was adequate to let me guess at the readings. Also, it was the Wednesday after Easter, so you don’t have to be fluent to figure it out.
Peter and John were headed to the temple for prayer in the afternoon. Around them are out-of-towners, in the big city, crowding around. A beggar calls out to them, and “Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.”
Then we hear of the two disciples headed to Emmaus who meet a stranger. Astonished when it turns out to the risen Christ,”Then they said to each other,’Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?’ So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem ….”
We cannot predict when the glory will break out. Nor can we predict which undistinguished group will graced with his presence. We may be walking about on our daily chores then, suddenly, the glory will be right there beside us, or right there in our hands. And the works of art, and the cathedrals of Toledo and Notre Dame de Paris, and the churches of Chinchilla and Madrigueras, all remind us that this yearning for grace and glory is unending. Sometimes faith may exist only on life support, as traditions people carry on out of habit, or because there’s not a lot to do in a little Spanish village, or because the tourists keep coming. Yet the yearning for a more brilliant life continues; not only in stone, but in artworks and other signs that seem remote from belief; then in tradition, belief moving on through the centuries, from times of belief, when masterpieces were painted on church walls, to times when the walls were plastered over by enemies, and yet someday may again shine forth.
By the end of the mass, most of the tourists had gone. It was quiet and dark in the cathedral. The sunlight in the hazy Paris sky dimly illumined the great stained glass window on the west side. The remnant of the worshippers began to slowly move toward the door. There was nothing spectacular about us: I doubt any of us could claim to be as brilliant as the women in a Monet painting, or even as charitable as the Count of Orgaz. We could only hope and pray that, like a little group of fishermen and a tax collector and perhaps a few well-connected youths, we can bring some brightness and joy to the world, if that task is entrusted to us.
At the door my wife and I stopped. The sunlight pouring in was blinding after the dimness of the cathedral. Then we slowly walked out into the plaza, where sightseers still abounded.