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I collect churches.
I know I’ve said I don’t collect things, but I do. I collect churches. Inspired by my art history professor at Columbia who set out to map all the Gothic churches in northern France, I now need to visit churches when I travel and to photograph them the way other people take pictures of their traveling companions. I find, when I get home, that I have a half dozen pictures of my children, my family, my friends, but I have dozens of shots of arches, vaulted ceilings, galleries, and, my personal favorite, flying buttresses. I don’t even operate under the pretext of “Stand over here, honey, and I’ll get you in front of the church,” but rather, “You go on ahead while I get this shot of the church.”
This seems cold. The buildings will be there, for the most part, but do I actually lose a few more happy moments with my children in order not to miss the way the light streams through the clerestory? This is my real passion, or one of them, at least. I get completely wrapped up, I don’t want to leave, I need one more angle, one more view, and I even asked a security guard once if he would look the other way while I climbed the scaffolding in the back of the church to get a closer shot of one of the sculptures over the doorway. He declined. I didn’t get the shot.
Like a lot of fascinations, obsessions, if you will, when I write about this, it sounds pretty loopy. But when I turn the corner or come around the plaza or make that last curve on the train and a medieval church fills my view, I can’t get my camera out fast enough. I thrill at the site of towers and portals and I marvel that medieval churches were built by hand and simple tools and that
they have stood in that space for a thousand years.
So how do I know I am getting this across to my children? Even after years of visiting cities and towns all over France, Spain, and most recently, Ireland, I’m not completely sure I have translated this craziness to them. I take them to Paris and we go straight to Notre Dame, sometimes right from the airport. In fact, I actually have My Spot which means, whenever you don’t know where I am in Paris, you can pretty much count on the fact that I am on my spot, just in front of the cathedral, to the right, sitting on one of the stone blocks in the front. And the real craziness is that I know full well from being in all those art history classes that the facade of Notre Dame, pretty much the whole thing, is a product of the mid-19th and not the 13th century. I don’t care.
There are a couple of nice shots where my children strayed into my view finder. I really like those. Those shots probably won’t make their way into picture frames that I have now started to put up on my walls, but they remind me that this is one of the random things that I can give to my children. They won’t inherit much in terms of finance or property but they will know how
much I loved, … churches.
When we go out to see a church, and we have seen quite a few together, it’s my chance to tell them the stories that have captured my attention for so many years. I can tell them how Gothic arches were invented and how people reacted to stained glass when they saw it for the first time, how a Roman wall was destroyed to build the chancel, or how towers were used as defensive locations. And then, maybe they will be able to tell their children, “You know, my mom loved this stuff,” and that will
be really wonderful. They probably just don’t want me to know they were listening all these years.
That’s it, isn’t it?
Burgos Cathedral, Burgos, Spain
Real Colegiata, Roncesvalles, Spain
St. Vincent Ferrer, NYC
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain
I’ve finally convinced my children that it can be both informative and restorative to visit cemeteries. Is this a major accomplishment and testimony to my superlative parenting skills? Yes, most definitely.
My daughter and I paid a brief visit to Michiana over the weekend. Michiana is that difficult area that is part Michigan and part Indiana and completely difficult to explain to New Yorkers. You fly through Chicago or Detroit and change planes to South Bend but my family didn’t live in Indiana even though I went to high school there and my dad worked there. So, sometimes I say I’m going to Chicago – lots of people have heard of Chicago. Other times, I say I’m just going home and then try to field the questions about where exactly that is. But if you grow up in this no-man’s land, you get really used to moving back and forth over the state line so often it tends to blur. It’s Michiana and it’s where my family is.
This trip we decided – yes, we – to visit as many cemeteries as we had time. We started out at Notre Dame (pictured above) to visit the graves of my twice great grandparents who came to South Bend in 1880 to help build the first Catholic university in America. They are both buried here in a cemetery on campus that used to be the parish graveyard,
I stepped out of the car to visit their graves, leaving the window on the driver’s side open. When I got back, there were two leaves on my seat. I took that as a sign.
The next day, we left early to find a cemetery farther south near Culver, Indiana where my 4th great grandfather and his wife are buried. This was a beautiful, very old cemetery but it was in wonderful condition and their stones were quite beautiful. I took some photos and got back into the car and saw the trunk light “open” light was on. My daughter assured me I had somehow pushed the trunk button and she got out to close it and we drove on.
The next graveyard was in Argos where my great grandparents and their siblings are buried. I have a twice great grandfather who was a Union soldier and his gravestone was donated to his family by the US government. There’s a metal marker identifying him as a veteran too. While I was standing there, a ladybug landed on the back of my jacket.
I took that as a sign too.
Our next stop was at a nearby cemetery in Plymouth where the pioneers of my father’s family are buried. The stones are broken and very difficult to read, but I have the cemetery records and can identify the occupants of each of the plots in the farthest and oldest section. When I visited this site a few years ago, the cemetery officer who took my phone call was kind enough to post bike flags on the graves so we could know which were our family’s graves. And he took and sent me photos which was a tremendous kindness.
When I got back in the car, again the trunk light came on and again my daughter closed it, reminding me not to hit the trunk button and we went into town to shop a bit and get lunch. We found ourselves in the midst of the annual Halloween parade with kids and grownups alike in costume. It was wonderful – not at all scary. Just wonderful.
The next day, we stopped at the cemetery where my mother is buried and laid small stones on her grave to let people know someone had been there, someone cared. I found the grave of one of my best friends who died in the 8th grade and placed a stone there as well. It seemed the thing to do.
But it was only on our way out of town, back to the airport, that I needed actually to open the trunk to put something inside. To get into the trunk – triggering that warning light – I had to pull up hard on a lever near the bottom of the driver’s side door. This action releases the lid and you can get things in and out – but it’s just not a button you could graze with your jacket. It’s a handle. And you pull it back until you hear the trunk lid pop open.
I think I have to take that as a sign too. Creepy? Oh yeah. But wonderful? Most definitely. The spirits are with us these days.
My three favorite holidays are Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, which is also known as the Day of the Dead. I have to come to appreciate these days more in recent years for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my new-found hobby: family history research. This hobby has brought me in and out of a dozen wonderful cemeteries since 2010, both here in the US and in Ireland, and through these visits, I find myself now coming around to an understanding of a single line in a prayer I learned in the second grade.
“I believe in the communion of saints.”
I have recited these lines, from memory, in complete oblivion all my life. They are nestled in and among some lovely words that I memorized in grade school, along with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Girl Scout Oath. The line never meant anything to me other than a suggestion of a certain reverence for the holy men and women who have been identified by the Catholic Church as saints. These are the people, all dead, who have made a spiritual impact on the living. They are remembered by their followers, their neighbors, their town.
But I have always thought of saints as separate from me, different from me, and better than me. Isn’t that why we call them saints? They work miracles, they were strong, or devoted, or saintly in ways to which I can only aspire. In my dreams, I could be like a saint.
I visited the cemetery just a few weeks ago to see where my mother is buried. It’s a small town cemetery that I have always had a fondness for because I recognize most of the names on the headstones. These are the graves of the mothers and fathers of the children I went to school with. It’s not a particularly fancy place. There aren’t any impressive monuments or large mausoleums, but my best friend from the eighth grade is there, so every time I would drive by, I’d think of her and smile, remembering how we spent time sledding in the winter or sharing bags of popcorn at the local movie house.
When I started collecting information about my father’s family, I located a document that listed that very cemetery as the final resting place of his great aunt and her husband. I found their graves and added photos of the headstone to my family tree, all the while thinking how nice it would be if someone had photos of them so I could get to know them a little better. My aunt died in 1938 so I considered the exercise a lost cause.
Then, I thought, it was time I left some flowers as a tribute to my slim connection to this woman and her husband. I had given up the idea of every knowing what she looked like and I knew very little about her, but I decided that pink carnations might be a fitting tribute. The color looked great against the grey stone, so I took another photo and left. The next day, I was looking around for old photos of the town and I stumbled upon a collection online of the lake resort my aunt and uncle had owned where so many of my relatives had gone to dance. The photos were labeled “grandmother.” It was her.
It would be easy for me to say that her spirit led me to find this marvelous online collection of photos of her and her family. I could say there was some creepy force that motivated me to go to this particular site, looking for photos of the town and finding the very thing I had looked for, but that’s not what this is about, I don’t think.
Slowly, I am coming around to something my cousin said when I told her what had happened, how I had left the pink flowers and suddenly found the photos. I had given up ever finding images of this aunt and now, in a single flash, I had a dozen of them. She said simply, “I believe in the communion of saints.”
And there we had it. Finally, and without realizing it, I had embraced the communion of saints. This communion is why I am drawn to cemeteries. This communion is why I find cathedrals and churchyards to be so peaceful and so calming. It’s much less about the Church and that prayer that I recited for so long and more about identifying the immutable connection between the living and dead. The departed souls we celebrate on the Day of the Dead are a real tangible part of this more abstract notion of a communion. We are all bound together by experience, by family, by loss, or by joy. We are knitted together with similar threads and in that moment when I am standing in the midst of the dead, whether it is in that lovely small town graveyard, or an antique churchyard on a hill overlooking the Irish Sea, or the civic cemetery next to my bus stop in Manhattan, I can feel it.
The dead cannot judge you or hurt you. All that remains is the communion.
I believe in the communion of saints.
If you would like a sneak peek at my next book, it’s here on Wattpad, a feature in Non-Fiction.
Imagine a place where you can be alone with your thoughts. A place to get away from whatever’s bothering you. I’m still interviewing churches and I am finding some very interesting things about these places. I am fascinated now more by the people than the architecture.
To be fair, it was the architecture that brought me to this quest in the first place – not looking for spirituality really or the answer to The Big Questions, but rather I was looking for galleries, stained glass, chancels, transepts, vaulted ceilings, and clerestories. I’ve studied churches for a very long time and it’s comforting that I can remember the terms and the dates of the different bits that go into Gothic and Romanesque churches.
And now? I want to know who is sharing my quest. My daughter told me when we were in Spain in July that it’s the women who go to church. The men go to the parks. And she’s so right. In churches in Spain, you will be surrounded by women of a certain age, all praying together, singing together, and chatting or gossiping together afterword. And the men are all catching up with their friends as they watch children chase balls and dogs while the mothers chase after them.
So whenever I find the opposite is true, that men are in church or older women on benches in the park, I like to watch them. I know both are public places, where anyone can sit and sort, and I also realize that most people keep walking, not noticing who is sitting where. But these people are all characters in my day’s drama and even if we never interact, they are still a part.
If you would like a sneak peek at my next book, it’s here on Wattpad, a feature in Non-Fiction.
I’ve been looking for a place. I need a place where I can sit when I need to shut out whatever is chasing me. So I have started interviewing churches to see if any one of these lovely buildings has what I am looking for. It’s a longshot because I am not really sure what I am looking for, but I thought maybe I would line up the things that appeal to me in churches to see what my place looks like, at least.
That’s a start.
These were taken at Blessed Sacrament Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s a 1920’s jewel box of a church, designed by an architect with a degree from Columbia University, who fashioned the upper gallery after La Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
Like the very best Gothic churches, this one soars. You sit on that wonderful warm wood and you can’t help but look up and that lightens me.
This historic Michigan church is where I was baptized, where I made my First Communion, where I was confirmed – it will always be sanctuary. But the difference here is that I am surrounded by ghosts in this church. I find it hard to concentrate because I look up to the gallery and remember singing in the choir, or I look at the statue of Mary wearing the May flower crown and a handful of grade school May processions surround me.
The parish itself goes back to the first French missionaries who came to convert the Pottawattamie and Miami tribes in this area of the north central Midwest.
Sometimes it’s just a detail that provides me with the calm or the solitude or the cover I need. This stunning staircase is one of a pair in St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia. The tiles are by the Guastavino tile factory which provided a clever medieval solution to decorating with brick.
And sometimes it’s the fabulous stained glass that lends the feeling of calm, of comfort, of mercy when I need it, like here at the Church of St. Thomas More on the Upper East Side.
We are so fortunate in New York to have such a vast variety of holy spaces – even when they are under construction, you can find sometimes, just what you are looking for. Even if you can’t put your finger on it. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is in the middle of a very serious renovation, both inside and out.
Another jewel box is this very solemn, very serious St. Vincent Ferrer, just south of Hunter College. This is one of the few places where I focus on a particular thing when come in and sit down, when I want to slow down and get into better focus – it’s that wonderful reredos, the wood screen in the back of the altar.
Some New York churches are very large, like St. Bartholomew on Park Avenue. It is remarkably consoling, extending a very gracious welcome to me every time I go there. This photo was taken on Holy Saturday when I just needed to drop out of sight for 10 minutes.
The banners, the stone and wood floors, the system of arched openings, and the glass backdrop make this a place to examine at some length. I am fascinated by the interplay of surfaces and the way they feel when you touch them – the stone is cold, the wood warmer, and the smell of the thin paper and ink in the prayer books make for a more sensory experience here. That’s the thing about the fancy places – they have so many different materials and important items that taking the inventory can be more distracting than anything.
And then, there is that one place that sets the bar for every other place. For me, it is a cathedral in Spain that I would visit every day if I could. I step in and can feel its history. St. Francis of Assisi came here and left his walking staff. It’s part of one of the columns up front. And the remains of the Apostle James are housed here in the crypt. It is the focus of over a thousand years of pilgrimage across northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela where I attended a Mass in the evening where I saw the woman with the white mantilla.
But since I am describing churches, I feel obligated to identify my favorite. I come back to this church whenever I am in Paris and it’s always the same. I walk in and up the side, with tourists and visitors from all over the world and I feel like it’s my church and they are just looking. I get this place. And I think it gets me.
The rumor is that if you are a political refugee or criminal, you can run into a church and claim sanctuary so the long arm of the law – if it finds you at all – will find you just out of reach. You can’t leave, of course, but you can’t be taken either. I think that’s comforting.
I keep that in the back of my mind. If I am on the lam, I will look for a church. One with a nice bathroom and air conditioning in July and August. In the meanwhile, even though I can’t really say what it is I am looking for, I am finding it in these beautiful spaces.
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