The Interlude: Like a Tennis Ball

The worst part of coming back from a trip is that you don’t get any rest. Somehow there’s always managed to be a pile of bureaucracy that has found its orphaned way into your mailbox. Sometimes I wonder what would become of our modern existence if we didn’t have piles of bureaucratic mail to sort through. I fill out and sign forms, therefore I am. At least as far as certain organizations are concerned.
This is the interlude because although I’m back from one trip, I will be off for a wedding in a couple of days. However, that trip will only be a handful of days compared to this last one. Although it certainly won’t be as enlightening and thought-provoking.

I was able to see many beautiful churches. That’s the great thing about Europe (or parts of it). When you turn a corner there’s a surprisingly beautiful church there. And often the small village chapels have amazing surprises in the way of artwork or even relics. Although I must say that baroque is really not my style. I could take or leave chubby little angels. Still, there were definite treasures. The artwork on the ceilings of the churches conveyed an amazing perspective. It seemed as if I were staring straight up into (Baroque) Heaven. And, as I said, there were a couple of relics. One basilica had a relic of the Holy Blood. And speaking of weddings, this particular basilica had a wedding going on at the time. It was certainly a perfect place for it. At capacity it could seat 12.000. I don’t think there were so many at that wedding though…

On a more physical note, I was able to get in some beautiful mountain hikes. I now have a great hand-carved hiking staff that I half-joking/half-serious call my “pilgrim’s staff.” I was able to replace my rosary that I gave away a while ago. And because I forgot my razor I accumulated an elegant display of facial hair.

All in all it was a great journey and it really comforted me to see little village chapels everywhere. What was even more surprising was stumbling across tiny buildings that could fit maybe two people and yet had a small altar, candles, and some icons. The next step down in scale were the occasional wood carving figures of Jesus with some candles around the base. I saw a few of these devotional stations (?) on my hiking trips.

There is perhaps one bittersweet train of thought I am taking away from the experience though. Most of these churches fell into one of two categories. There were the churches that are apparently large tourist attractions and so were thronged with people wandering around and taking pictures. I could find no quiet in these churches. I don’t begrudge the tourists (especially since I was one in some ways too), I hope they take away something from these experiences. I’m just saying that peace was more elusive in the more visited churches.

The second category really just fitted one particular church and maybe it gets a category because it strikes at a worry I’ve had. One Catholic church had a beautiful old sanctuary with icons all around, a beautiful pulpit, and the body of a saint encased in glass and displayed prominently. This church was called the “old church.” Next door was the “new church.” How do I put this delicately? The new church’s exterior was an offense against good architecture. Dark browns and greys. Tiny windows. A style that looked as if, at some point in the 1970s, someone dumped a blocky mass of concrete next to the “old church.”

All I can say of this “new” church is that perhaps the architect was quite clever in his plans because it really induces you to go inside. That’s the one safe place where you don’t have to look at the outside of the church. The inside was much more beautiful. The small windows were clever at catching the light. So, okay, maybe the outside is more functional than fitting a form. I can accept that. The main problem is that this was a Catholic church. I stepped inside and my first thought was “Where is the altar?” I couldn’t figure it out. I still can’t. On top of that, I had to ask myself “Where is the Tabernacle where the elements are stored?” There was a sort of thing next to the pulpit (which was front and center instead of off to one side) that might have been the Tabernacle. It had some strange and unfamiliar artwork on it, but nothing to distinguish it as the Tabernacle. Part of me wanted to open it just to see if it was or not, but of course I didn’t because if it was the Tabernacle then that would be the wrong thing to do.

Really, there was not much of anything to distinguish this “new” church from, say, the Unitarian church I once visited except for one painting of the Virgin Mary on one of the side walls. Nothing in this church was immediately distinguishable as Catholic. No candles to light anywhere for personal prayers. No water to cross yourself with on the way in. No icons (save the one). Nothing that could be distinguished as an altar. Unless the large baptismal font in the front doubles as an altar? That was obviously a baptismal font because there was a thin wood covering over the top. No Tabernacle. I don’t even remember a crucifix, but in the interests of fairness there may have been one and I simply forgot or didn’t notice because my mind was otherwise occupied.

My experience with this particular Catholic church in many ways represents one of my biggest concerns about Catholicism. I can’t help but feel that Catholicism is in something of an identity crisis. My blogfriend Jess wrote in a recent post (as I’ve been trying to catch up) about how she visited her local Catholic church and was informed by the priest that someone with Marian devotion and Traditional Catholic leanings would be a bit out of place in this particular church. I know the local priest in my home city is somewhat similar. As someone who fell in love with Catholicism through my medieval studies, I can’t help but feel that there is a disconnect between the Catholic Church I fell in love with and the Catholic Church today. Now you may say that that’s only to be expected. The medieval era was a long time ago. Some may say that’s even a good thing. Perhaps in some ways that’s true too. I’m not entirely sold. Perhaps the Catholic Church has thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

I keep thinking of the old saying “As the Church prays, so the Church believes.” Stories of liturgical chaos seems all too present. And as the liturgy is the great prayer of the Church, what does that say of Catholicism? In a church stripped almost entirely of icons, and the familiar images of altar and Tabernacle, and the physical stuff of devotion (candles, holy water) what kind of beliefs are being expressed?

So that seems to be the bittersweet irony of my journey and visits to Catholic churches. Many of the churches are beautiful and I’m happy to have a rosary again. Yet, I find myself leaning ever more back toward Orthodoxy once again. I still love so much about Roman Catholicism (especially from my medievalist perspective), but I’m not sure there is a place for me there. And I don’t want to make this all about me and how the Church needs to accommodate me or something, because I don’t want to be focused on my self. But, to put it simply, the liturgy is important. The “stuff” of Church is important. I can’t help but feel that Orthodoxy has done a better job of maintaining all that. When I look into Orthodoxy, everything just fits.

I suppose the consolation prize for this bittersweet train of thought is that (as I saw mentioned in an Orthodox article a while back) it is important for reconciliation to have Orthodox thinkers who know Catholic thought and vice versa. So even though, like a tennis ball my meandering path wends once more into the East, my love of Catholicism can perhaps be an important tool at some point.


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 7, 2012.

3 Responses to “The Interlude: Like a Tennis Ball”

  1. Good to have you back. Yes, I think we just need patience. Catholicism is so much larger in its global embrace, and therefore so much more diverse in terms of practice. I’m happy for the moment to wait and be guided – and I hope your journey continues to be blessed.

    • Different practices I can understand. But some of the things I mentioned are pretty foundational regardless of culture. The lack of an altar or Tabernacle for example?

      As I mentioned this church was rather in a category of its own. My other experiences were uniformly good. This particular church merely sticks out because it represents one of my biggest worries about modern Catholicism.

      And it’s funny, but I just keep coming back to Orthodoxy. I deeply appreciate and respect Catholicism. I find the saints deeply inspiring and I find Catholic thought very interesting, but Orthodoxy… I don’t know how to describe it. It just fits like a key meant only for this lock. That’s why in my bittersweet moments I remember that even if I become Orthodox, my respect and fascination with Catholicism don’t have to end. It can still be an avenue of study, inspiration, and perhaps even unity some day…

      • Yes, in the end we can only follow where we are led. There has been much in the Catholic Church which has gone wrong – but who am I to judge? But like you, my heart and head are often in conflict šŸ™‚

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