Earlier this year, I got to go to Europe for the first time, for a whole month with my family. While I was there I had the chance to see many, many, many churches. Though they looked different from country to country, they were absolutely everywhere. A lot were Catholic, some were Protestant, all were old – very, very old.
Walking into a building like Westminster Abbey, packed with history and built with grandeur is a feeling I can’t quite describe. The first Cathedral I saw was the one at Koln (Cologne). It is a huge, ancient Gothic Cathedral from the 11th Century. It took my breathe away and when we walked in I spent much of the time just in awe.
I saw a wide variety of churches – from Milton Abbey in Dorset, England, to Notre-Dame in Paris, to St Mark’s Basilica in Venice to the Duomo, St Stephen’s in Vienna (I even climbed the bell tower of that one), to the Basilica di Santa Croce and the San Lorenzo (the family chapel of the de Medici family) in Florence, as well as St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Some were ornately decorated (the ones at the Vatican were decorated and draped and gilded and scented to the point of excess) and some were filled with memorials and burial monuments.
In some we were herded as tourists to obediently look around at the memorials and move on, in some we were hushed for the daily mass and in others we were invited to join in the prayers. The phenomenon of churches as a tourist spot was entirely alien to my Australian self who has worshiped more frequently in school halls and modern auditoriums and theatres than a building that is heritage listed.
But to be in those places – to stand in a spot where generations of rulers and royalty, men and women, priests and pastors and laypeople and sinners and the redeemed have stood and to hear the prayers they have prayed for a millennium – was something I’d never felt before.
I’ve recently become somewhat attached to the Book of Common Prayer. I bought a copy of it online a few years ago on a whim, in a time when I was finding praying with my own words very difficult. To have familiar, gospel soaked words to repeat and pray when I couldn’t summon the words myself was so comforting and faith-saving for me in that time. There was something special about reading the words of prayers written by believers so many years and centuries before me, words that have been repeated and echoed and adapted down through the years since.
It’s a similar feeling to what I experienced when I walked into those chapels and cathedrals and churches. In these buildings made to last, made to declare God’s glory, I stood before God, but also before the legacy of believers, of reformers, writers, readers and preachers. All these people entrusted with the gospel; and it’s passed on to me.
At one point in my trip, I found myself inside the Milton Abbey chapel, entirely alone. It was cold inside and calm and silent – and I found myself thinking how nice it must have been to come to a silent, empty chapel in a beautiful old building everyday to pray and think. Sometimes I can’t help wishing this was life God called us to. Wouldn’t it be simpler? Always using the same words, the same prayers, at the same hours everyday. No people. No mess. So simple.
We don’t build buildings like that anymore. A life of religious seclusion has gone out of fashion. Both of these things are good – the buildings we are building are a lot more functional, for one thing. But more importantly, we are called to a life in a family – God’s family, newly created of all the people he is adopting to himself. It’s hard to be a family when we’re all isolated in beautiful cathedrals. We aren’t called to a life of solitude, as much as us introverts might sometimes wish we were.
Church is the people, not the place or the building, and I see that so clearly when I gather with my jumbled mix of a church family who meets at a theatre company every Sunday morning. That feeling I get when I walk into a chapel or read the words of the Common Book of Prayer – that unity with the family of believers – that’s the feeling that echos back when as a church family we sing words, some written long ago and some written recently, of God’s glory together. When I get up to pray in my own words and then read God’s word aloud I feel that trust of speaking the words of truth, spoken aloud so many times, in so many languages and places and situations, to my own church family.
Visiting those churches helped me clear my head and heart and reconnect to the history of my faith – the priesthood of all believers, passing the gospel from generation to generation. Beautiful buildings are beautiful. But the family of God, no matter where it meets, is even more beautiful.