During my first visit to the city I now call home, I participated in a bus tour that drove past various landmarks and popular destinations. As I saw sculpture gardens, art museums, theaters, and other well-known sites, I remember telling myself, “This city has a lot to offer. If I end up moving here, I should definitely go to all of the places on this tour.” A week later I received the job offer that brought me to the city as a resident, two months later I moved into my first apartment minutes from downtown – and fifteen years later, I have been to a mere handful of the locations I passed while sitting on that bus.
Clearly I have not taken full advantage of everything available to me in this metropolitan area; however, this 101 in 1001 project is helping to remedy that unfortunate situation. Indeed, several of the items on my 101 list are places that I saw on that tour back in 1997 – including the Basilica of St Mary.
Big churches hold a special place in my heart. Growing up, my mom took my sister and I to church every Wednesday and Sunday, as well as for a myriad of special events. When my mom practiced with the adult choir during the mid-week church visit, my sister and I were left alone to do pretty much whatever we wanted. As a result, I spent many hours roaming the very sizable church structure, peeking into every nook and cranny simply because I was curious to see what was there. I ran my hands over massive fabric tapestries that covered the walls, listened to my shoes click down the marble sanctuary floor, felt the jagged edges of the enormous stained glass window that was the hallmark of the building – and spent considerable time sitting in one of the many church pews, content to rest in still, quiet, reflective meditation (though as a child, I didn’t know it was called that). I talked to God (just like I would talk to any friend), then simply waited; and often felt a calm, loving presence enter my torso, and a sensation like a soothing balm was being applied to my racing mind.
My affinity for empty church spaces continued into college and through my 20s. On days when I was feeling particularly stressed out (big exam coming up), anxious (big job interview on the horizon), nervous (big first date a few days away), tense (big life responsibilities bearing down on me), or just uneasy or sad (sometimes for an easily identified reason, but sometimes for no clear ‘reason’ at all), I would find an empty church, quietly slip into a pew, sit or kneel, perhaps light a candle, and breathe. Talk to God. Maybe cry. Listen. Wait for a response. And no matter what happened during these visits, I always left them feeling better than when I arrived. Sometimes I remained somewhat stressed/anxious/nervous/tense/uneasy/sad, but I also felt heard. Soothed. Loved.
I’m not Christian any more (I’m actually not sure that I ever was – but that’s a whole different blog post for a whole other time), but churches still soothe me. Any place where people go to intentionally cultivate love and peace is a healing space for me.
This past week, I received very tragic news about a former work colleague of mine, and it shook me deeply. As I reflected on which 101 item I should complete next, #58 called out to me. Of course. So yesterday I drove to the basilica, wondering what I might find during my visit.
As I walked across the parking lot towards the massive church, I was struck my how inviting it looked, even in spite of its formidable size. Though the outdoor temperature was in the single digits and the wind whipped furiously, I couldn’t help but take several exterior pictures of the gorgeous structure and the peaceful grounds on which it stood:
When the wickedly cold air finally got to me and I could no longer stand being outside, I walked up the steps to the main entrance of the basilica, pulled on the heavy wood door, and stepped inside. Immediately I was struck with the smell of ‘church’. Nearly every institution I know has a very distinctive smell (hospitals, schools, libraries, nursing homes, court houses…), and Catholic places of worship are no exception. Walking just inches beyond the front door, I inhaled the aroma of candles and smoke, old walls and marble floors, remnants of incense and holy water. As I drew in my first breath, my soul started to be soothed.
After simply standing and breathing for several seconds, I walked over to one of the founts of holy water, dipped my first two fingers into the clear liquid, and blessed myself. I then pushed on a second set of wooden doors and stepped inside the main sanctuary.
Immediately I was taken with the majesty of the space. It was amazing. SO much art, glass, intricacy, and symbolism filled the vast area; my eyes could barely take in everything they were perceiving. Everywhere I turned a beautiful artifact patiently waited to be seen, a peaceful scene calmly waited to be received. I was almost overwhelmed with the beauty and serenity of it all.
I stood in front of the back door of the sanctuary for several minutes, truly unable to move until my mind processed at least some of what I was seeing. A man entering the church nudged past me (as I was literally standing in front of the main door), and his presence jostled me back into the earthly here-and-now. I apologized for being in his way, then slowly started walking around the church, taking pictures of all the various things that caught my eye:
The images I was able to get on film simply don’t do the space justice. I’m a pedestrian photographer, and the lighting in the church was difficult to work with – so the pictures you see here are mediocre representations of what the basilica is really like. Hopefully they convey a flavor of the space; but I think the only way to truly appreciate both the human craftsmanship and the holy energy of the place is to experience it first hand. At any rate…
Once I had circled the perimeter of the church, I got a self-guided tour brochure and attempted to read through the various sections within it as I maneuvered through the church. However, I gave up around item #4. My whole being was fighting the notion that this experience should be a cognitive one; my thinking mind, my heart, and the essence of my unconscious/subconscious/‘the one who knows before I do’ all wanted me to simply take in the beauty, emotions, and spirit of the space. After several minutes of struggle, I slipped the explanatory brochure into my purse, and immediately felt better.
Leaving the primary sanctuary, I walked down a gentle spiral of stairs and discovered a small service occurring in a mini-chapel (which looked more like a large library reading room than a church space). A piano played gentle and happy music, young parents with small children chattered in hushed voices, and a greeter shared an authentic smile with each person who entered the space. It was a lovely scene. While I didn’t want to stay for the service, I did linger for a few moments outside the door, content to be a part of the experience from afar.
I continued walking around, then behind, the mini-chapel – and arrived at a balcony overlooking a multi-purpose rec room. In the space below, 20-30 homeless men, women, and children stood and sat. Some people were waiting in line for something, others were eating cookies and chatting, and a few were sifting through a table that held various articles of clothing. As I stood looking at the scene, a volunteer walked past me; she told me that a shoe ministry was occurring, where needy people could receive a voucher for a new pair of footwear. Wow.
I returned upstairs to the main sanctuary, and it was quiet. (The tour group that was present earlier in the morning had moved on to another part of the basilica.) I sat in a pew in the middle of the vast space, and looked up at the virgin mother who was gazing peacefully down at me.
I thought about how she must have felt those many years ago. I thought about all of the millions/billions/trillions of people who have come before her since then, seeking solace and comfort. I allowed her benign presence to replenish my languishing spirit. I breathed, I prayed, I mourned – and after a while, I gently smiled.
I ended my visit by lighting a candle, then kneeling before another beautiful, peaceful sculpture. I stayed there, steeped in silent meditative contemplation, sending prayers of metta to my departed workmate and to all of the people whose lives have been touched by her passing.
“Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:8