I LOVE old churches. It doesn’t matter what kind. Gothic cathedrals with stained glass and soaring ceilings, Protestant chapels with plain board exteriors in various states of repair (or disrepair), and old adobe missions all elicit the same joy and passion. Wherever I travel, I’m always on the lookout for an old church to wander through. I love the sound of church bells (so much so, that it’s become a running joke between my husband and me). Several of my fondest travel memories involve the sounds of church bells.
On the other hand, I don’t care much for modern churches. (I have made an exception for La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, but that’s a very special case.) To me modern churches mostly appear to lack beauty. Frequently they are utilitarian spaces that serve multiple purposes and are indistinguishable from warehouse or community center space.
I’ve heard many of the arguments about the old cathedrals being a waste of money and investment, when those resources would have been much better used to meet the needs of poor people in the community. I agree with much in those arguments. I’m aware of some of the hardships and downright abuses that were entailed in building these structures and don’t want to lose sight of that human cost. Even the unassuming adobe missions exacted a toll, paid with the lives of the indigenous people who were pressed into service to construct them. The beauty of these buildings, however, continues to fill me with awe, and I continue to be drawn to these places where generations of people have pursued relationship with and knowledge of God.
Yesterday I wandered into a Catholic church in Victoria, BC. As church buildings go, it isn’t all that old, built about 100 years ago. There were soaring Gothic ceilings and lovely stained glass. About a dozen worshippers had gathered for a mid-day mass. As I sat and listened to the ebb and flow, call and response between the priest and the people, I was struck by their sincerity in following the same forms that have been part of that tradition for hundreds of years.
I’ve been asking myself what forms do I follow because they’ve been part of MY tradition and religious heritage. Processing these questions was part of my impetus for starting this blog. I want to identify the forms and discard them, and clarify which actions have substance and invest myself in those. I want to make sure that I’m following Jesus and not religion, or even culture for that matter. I don’t want to be so ruthless that I don’t allow myself to retain those practices that are beautiful to me, even if some of their meaning has been lost. I just want to make sure I recognize when something is truly following the pattern that Jesus exampled and not just something I’ve inherited from my spiritual ancestors.
So I plan to keep searching out old churches and enjoying their beauty. I am certain I will continue to pause any time I hear church bells and drink in their sound. I’ll even be arguing to maintain these structures as part of the heritage of humanity. However, I won’t be contributing to build new ones. I’ll be looking for those opportunities to reflect God’s image around me that follow the example of Jesus, and out of those actions encourage others to pursue relationship with and knowledge of God. This is, I believe, the type of “cathedral” we need now.