As a temporary resident in the European Union, for the past nine months I have visited a large number of Christian churches: medieval churches, modern churches, round churches, churches-turned-Soviet-museum… lots of churches. Like with anything in large quantities, it is easy to become desensitized to what a liturgical space actually is. “Oh look, another pietà… and for an extra £5 we can climb the tower!” As a Catholic for whom a church is a sacred space, alarm sets in when I feel a creeping, jaded attitude toward visiting churches. Recently I was in York, England, and ambled around York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe. Yet, after about ten minutes of walking around I turn to my travel partner and say, “let’s go?”
I think Westerners, myself the exemplar, tend to amass experiences similar to how we consume material goods. Although it’s trendy these days to say “experiences, not things”, the distinction between an experience and a thing is not clear when both are the object of consumptive habits and constitute a market.
Churches in Europe are woven into the travel industry. What has surprised me in my travels is the great variety with which different liturgical spaces assume their identity as tourist sites. When I visited Notre-Dame Cathedral, I immediately thought, “this is a holy space:” a youth group performed an Advent dance at the entrance, seminarians greeted visitors and answered questions about Christianity… the overall impression is that of a living church; a vessel of a community of believers.
In contrast, inside the Duomo in Florence, I overheard an English-speaking tour guide explain to the members of her group, gathered around her with curiosity as she gestured her hand toward the pulpit, “this tall structure is where the priest used to read from the gospel, the books of the Bible that contain the life of Jesus…” I felt sad: in the eyes of many, liturgy is a past-tense activity, the relics of which are best suited for museums and historical reflection. For the rest of my time there, I traipsed around thinking, ‘is this a church or a museum?’.
When I teach my eighth grade students about the history of Christianity, our first unit of study is called, “What is the Church?”, and the key vocabulary term I ask them to remember is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία): the Greek word for the popular assembly that was central to Athenian democracy. Literally, ekklesia means to draw out, implying the drawing out of the public from their homes to participate in public life. Latinized to ecclesia, this is the term the early Christians used to identify the Church as the assembly of God’s people. As I repeat to my students: the church is not a place, it’s a people drawn-out from themselves.
As much as I sometimes take a slightly evil, self-righteous pleasure in reveling in my bitterness towards the commercialization of liturgical space, it is a good reminder that the church is a boundless community for which I must take some responsibility. As beautiful, historical, and holy as they are, these spaces are merely buildings that pale in imitation of God’s grandeur. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return: it applies to the most impressive churches, too.
Feature image of the Duomo, Florence.
Inserted image from Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.
Both photographs taken by the author.