“Your sacred cities have become a desert;
Even Zion is a desert,
Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and glorious temple,
where our fathers praised you,
has been burned with fire,
and all that we treasured lies in ruins.”
The first time I remember stepping foot inside a cathedral, the incense burned my eyes.
“Why’s it smell so funny?” Joe asked me.
I blinked a few times, trying to wash out the stinging scent and restore my sight. On the bus ride over, Mrs. Bauchspies had told us girls to bring sweaters because we weren’t allowed to go inside Église de Charolles with our shoulders uncovered.
“But it’s 98 degrees outside!” we had said.
It didn’t matter that we had to wear uniforms at our Christian high school, that we were used to long sleeves and skirts past our knees—we still put up a fuss. She’d said something about reverence and history and other things we didn’t hear. Even at school we would roll the belts of our skirts up, lifting them higher on our thighs, trying to be grown up and sexy. She sighed.
When I walked through the heavy doors that day, my feet tapped stones shaped by the thousands, maybe millions that had come before me. I shivered. It may have been the hottest French summer of the decade, but the stones still trapped the coldness of the dusty earth, and I buttoned my cardigan. Our group had fallen silent, everyone tipping their heads back to look up, lips yawning apart. Above us, angels danced in the cracked frescoes.
“A heavenly disco,” Joe whispered loudly, elbowing me and pantomiming his idea of an angelic Macarena.
“Good one, Joe,” I rolled my eyes.
* * *
I looked around. A few people dotted the pews. They wore dark colors, blending into the musty darkness of the cathedral.
“Who turned out the lights?” I whispered to myself.
Some candles burned on the sides of the church, and some burned on the altar. Light echoed on the cathedral walls and floors, bleeding through windows of Moses receiving the Law, Jacob wrestling God, Saul’s conversion, the apostles, Mary holding Christ, Peter’s confession of the Lord. Shadows stretched onto the floor from the rafters.
“This way, this way,” said our French host, ushering me back into darkness and toward a door at the front of the cathedral.
She herded us past marble columns, sculpted tree trunks that held up the heavens. Reliefs showed us heroes of the faith, chilled faces carved into the memories of the congregants. They stared at passerbys; I avoided eye contact.
We went through a small doorway that led to a building adjacent to the sanctuary.
“You can warm up here,” said our host.
I squinted—the afternoon light winked back at me through large clear windows, contrasting with the eerie darkness of the sanctuary.
Before warming our voices, we changed into our concert clothes—black silk dresses for the four altos and four sopranos, black and white tuxedos for the four tenors and four basses. For the first time in our year of performing as a group, I didn’t feel overdressed. We matched our setting, and our attire suggested reverence for its Catholic past.
Truth be told, we were Protestants. We went to a Christian school where we held chapel services in a large gymnasium. We sung choruses with childish hand motions and timed whooping. We used electric instruments and had discarded the liturgy of the past, carving our own from experience and preference. We sat in plastic chairs with the lines of a basketball court beneath us. Here in Église de Charolles, martyrs lined the floors with their graves. The somber setting filled me with awe and made me wonder— should we be mourning something?
* * *
Before the concert began, we made a semi-circle in front of the altar. Candles made me squint at the crucifix in the dark space, reminding me of a fifth grade field trip. We had gone into the depths of the earth to see stalactites and stalagmites, limestone fangs within a cave. The rocks had dripped. Our guide had turned out the lights so we could feel darkness. I had waved my hand in front of my face and saw nothing.
After the cave excursion, my class had made candles. We had slowly dropped our strings into a vat of blue wax hundreds of times until the residue stuck. I now wondered if the glow of that candle in the darkness of the cave would have felt like the candles in this empty church. The wooden Light of the World rested in His place at the front of the church, and yet it was hard to see anything clearly in the cathedral. We sang, “O nata lux de lumine, / Jesu redemptor saeculi,” and I wondered if all the congregations in Europe lit their cathedrals like this one.
* * *
The dead wood of the pews smelt of varnish, and our listeners had scattered themselves on the hard seats. When we’d first entered the sanctuary, I had wanted to stomp and clap as loudly as I could to test and stretch the echo. I thought of our gymnasium, packed with disinterested students and eager parents. We had brought some of our biggest fans with us on our European tour, and they crowded into the first two rows of the church. Yet the rest of our audience barely filled the cavern with the reverberations of life, their half-hearted applause echoing the emptiness of the cathedral. We sang, “Dignatus es pro perditis,” and I wondered, where were the French worshipers? French martyrs lined the church walls, while tombstones tiled the floor and caskets held local saints. I tried not to step forward or backward, fearing that my feet might rattle the bones of those beneath. The church was filled with American tourists and the dead. History had lived and died in this cathedral.
Even the Latin, the language of the Church had died. We sang, “Nos membra confer effici / Tui beati corporis,” yet I did not know what the words meant. What did it mean to be part of Christ’s body? Would we, too, have to die martyr deaths with these local saints? What about the shrinking congregation of this church? Latin felt foreign as death itself to me, as did the Catholic liturgy we had spoken at Mass the day before. Here, it seemed that Catholicism, too, had become part of what had always been done, what had always been, unmoving, unchanged; it had become its own liturgy. The marble floors in this cathedral had once seemed to make its foundation secure, and so the dead took refuge in its strength. Yet who remembered them now? Who prayed before their graves, who prayed before Christ at the altar, who lit candles in memoriam? I could count all the locals on my fingers. At the end of the concert, I found myself searching for light switches to flick upwards with two fingers, to illuminate the dark spaces of the cathedral. What hid in the shadows? I expected a bat to fly out from some unnoticed corner of the church, his wings fluttering around my face and close to my eyes, and the panicked thought momentarily blinded me. I wanted to light every candle, to burn the place with fire—anything to bring back life. No one could see Christ on the altar. Instead, I turned quickly and ran through the dark to catch the coach bus.
* * *
Years later, I entered a second cathedral, and this time my eyes burned from the memory of thick smoke and charred remains. I had come to England to study, and as part of our education, the director had decided to take us to Coventry Cathedral—or what was left of it. The Nazis had bombed all of Coventry in World War II, refusing to spare even the Cathedral of St. Michael, destroying with it the remnants of medieval Christianity. The wooden vaulting fell first, as the roof collapsed inward. Then, the hand-carved sandstone columns fell on their sides and crumbled into pieces. Colored glass blew out of stone window frames. Walking through the cathedral over fifty years later, I half expected to crunch glass beneath my sneakers.
The dust rose from the floor of the toppled monument as my feet led me through ruin. Fire had eaten through flying buttresses and frescoes, saints and tradition. The memory of the destruction of this open air cathedral hung above me. A light rain wet my face. I looked up, and suddenly all of England became enclosed in Coventry’s fluid walls; all of Europe burned in its memorial flames. I scanned the area and noticed most of those present were tourists with cameras and tennis shoes. Not one local sat in dust and ash to mourn. The church had died, and I could find no grave stone.
Yet I noticed a new cathedral across the sidewalk. Its builders named the 1960s construction an “act of faith”: the faith to build new walls of sandstone, modern columns, colored glass filled with the light of the Holy Spirit. I peeped inside. The sanctuary held as few parishioners as Église de Charolles, filling barely a quarter of its space, but its very presence renewed hope.
The foundation of the new cathedral lay in the faith of its dean. After the bombing had ceased, he had picked through the remains. He had touched the embers, mourning their heat and light, grimacing at the cracked pillars, jagged panes and open graves. He had found two blackened pieces of wood among the rubble and had held them in his soot-covered palms—“were they once pews or rafters?” he had wondered. He looked up, noting the light; ironically, the Nazis had chased away the shadows. Then he had tilted them perpendicular to each other and had bound them together, putting them in the altar’s place. Then he had squatted and inscribed the sand with the words “Father, forgive.”
I blinked the new light of day as I left on the coach. The director’s microphone bellowed instructions for our next stop while I sat quiet in my seat. Coventry had been the first cathedral built since the Reformation that had received global attention. As journalist David Douglas put it, “The world peered over his shoulder to see what green shoots could [be] coax[ed] from the ashes.” Memories of each cathedral played through my mind. Caves and skies mixed in a jumble of dark and light. I thought of basketball courts and stained glass, candles and microphones. Below the noise of the loudspeaker and the chatter of companions, I found myself repeating and repeating again, “Father, forgive us all.”
Elizabeth Graves is a senior English writing major from Stevensville, MD. She attends Church of the Resurrection and finds it to be the perfect mix of tradition and life.