I spend a lot of time trying to clean up after religion. It has made a royal mess of things in many ways. I don’t feel like I could vouch for its history, but there are some “baby/bathwater” issues that must be delineated for the sake of truth and its endurance to all generations.
I recently visited Germany and was surprised to feel how moved my heart was by the relics of religion. I walked into a cathedral in Salzburg, Austria and stood there paralyzed in prayer. The statues, the crucifixes, the candles, the prayer benches, the stone columns, the pipe organs, the paintings, the confessional booths, the basin of holy water, the hard pews, the hand hewed wooden molding, the stone walls, the high ceilings, the spires…all these things just moved my heart so deeply. At one point I was holding in tears. That’s when I know my heart is being summoned.
I’m learning that religion isn’t all bad. Just because we can get caught up in the surface of things alone, it doesn’t mean the surface of things is meaningless. In fact, quite the contrary. There were so many moments on this trip when I felt saddened at how everything in the States is about three things…Is it cheap? Is it quick? Is it easy? Because of this, we forfeit quality for quantity, aesthetic beauty for basic economy. Religion cares about what things look like, to a fault to be sure, but at least they invested in quality and beauty knowing it represents worth.
Things were expensive. Things were built to last. Things were crafted with pain-staking precision. Why? Because they believed in symbolism.
Everything was made to symbolize something, to represent something. That’s what I miss about ancient religious history. Symbolism. Imagery. I miss liturgical practices. I miss altars and stones of remembrance. I miss phylacteries and recited prayers of forefathers. I miss the cold feel of reverence instead of the warm feel of relevance. I miss the echoing halls of stone and the Gregorian chants. I miss incense and Latin. I miss sackcloth and ashes. I miss adhering to the church calendar. I miss the silence. I miss the stillness. I miss the repentance.
Cheap. Fast. Easy. Comfortable. Accommodating. That’s the contemporary church in a nutshell. And it’s just about small enough to fit into a nutshell. But not the God that they built those towering, monolithic cathedrals for. He couldn’t fit in a nutshell. He was big. He was beautiful. He was exquisite. He was overwhelming. He was infinite. He was awesome and awe-inspiring. He was holy…and wholly other than us. He was too hot to handle, too cold to hold. He was beyond, yet within. He was there, and here. He was ineffable, yet approachable. But you had to kneel before him then. You couldn’t just waltz up to him in a nonchalant manner. You couldn’t just talk to him like he was your little buddy next door. You wouldn’t dare. He was better than that. He was God back then.
And somehow, even with all the gorgeous reminders without and within the cathedrals, they lost him. They worshipped the created things instead of the Creator, but that’s no reason for us to stop caring about created things, now, is it? That’s no reason for us to stop kneeling when we call upon his Hallowed name? That’s no reason to abandon symbols of worship? That’s no reason to hold in contempt church fathers and their patterns of contemplation. That’s no reason to start building crappy churches barren of beauty. That’s no reason to abandon repentance just because we don’t have to hit the parish on Saturday night with an indulgence. Come on. What has become of us?
I was holding back tears that day, because I knew the baby was lying three stories down on the cold pavement badly injured. The bathwater had long evaporated. I felt myself descending the stairs in my mind trying to get to the ground floor of my faith and the place where the baby of religion lay ever so still. I wanted to pick it back up and say sorry. But instead, I just sat there on the pavement looking at it wondering how I could have done such a thing. I’m still staring at it wondering what to do next.
All I know is that religion isn’t to blame for every mishap along the way. Sometimes it’s just ignorant people who need something to throw under the bus to make them feel better for their own stupidity. This I know, it’s not the cathedral's fault. Cathedrals didn’t lead the crusades, people did. Ignoramus people.