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Eglise de la Sainte-Madeleine and the tourists

The landscape began to break up again as we approached Troyes. Hills and valleys of the Aube became more picturesque, with little villages beneath hilltop castles and churches. We drove into Troyes to look at the cathedral and the Eglise de la Sainte-Madeleine, two 13th-century churches that stood a few blocks from each other. They were both French national monuments. It was easy to see why. The churches’ sheer size impressed me. Each spread over a city block. Elaborate stained-glass windows covered the walls and the atria above the naves. Sunlight through the glass created particolored sheens over pillars and floors centuries of worshipers had worn smooth.

Despite the number of tourists, a hush fell on the interiors that reminded me of sitting in the older churches in Kansas City. My childhood church, Christ the King, was built in the 1950s, a modernist structure of brick and glass. The moments I stole alone in the church freed me from the prying eyes of parents, nuns, and priests. I ran the aisles and made yawping noises that echoed up through the seemingly immense space above. I slammed kneelers to the floor and splashed in the holy water in fits of mischievous blasphemy.

Getting away with something in church made my Sundays different. No longer was mass a thing to be endured. After my playful exploits, I schemed as mass droned on. The homily became time to plan my next foray into the empty church.

As Boy Scouts, we frequently snuck into the church from our meeting in the basement. The church at night took on an eerie air, but not frightening or spooky. We spoke in hushed tones, afraid that the monsignor might pop out of the sacristy and condemn us all.

The churches my parents grew up in, Guardian Angels and St. James, impressed me. Their gothic revival interiors of vaulted ceilings and stained-glass induced a reverence that I rarely found in my home church. My Uncle Phil—only six months older than I am—occasionally got away from the church basement where Grandpa was conducting some business, and made our way into the nave. We stood there in silence, almost afraid to make a sound. The streetlights shone through the stained glass, giving the interior a ghostly and mysterious air. We didn’t make a sound but listened as the noise from the world outside filtered into our secret.

As a grown-up, I’ve always found peace in churches. Their walls give me respite from the world swirling outside. I leave that noise and activity and enter a meditative space. Sometimes the quiet disturbs me, as if I don’t want to take an inward look for fear of what I might find. But here, again in Troyes, I found that peace I’d always experienced in churches, as well as the reverence that the old, massive structures produce. It made me wonder about the parishioners who regularly attended church here. What did they make of the throngs of tourists and all the picture taking? While the spaces communicated otherworldly affairs, the tourists’ activities and presences, like ours, seemed on some level profane and ephemeral.

I often long to sit in an empty Catholic church just to feel the quiet. Perhaps, it’s the decades of prayer that make the spaces sacred. But finding a church open outside service times is difficult, unlike France and Germany, where the doors seem perpetually open. When I’ve been lucky enough to steal into a Catholic church, or stay late after a funeral or wedding, the moments of meditative silence ease my burdens. Protestant churches and their stark interiors, I’ve found, don’t possess the same kind of spiritual heft. Something about the ornaments, candles burning in banks before dying and bloody Jesuses on crosses, the serene faces of the marble Virgins induces the kind of reverence I knew as a kid but have long lost as an adult.

At the same time, the old draw of religion escapes me. I don’t worry whether or not a god exists or whether a real Jesus died for my sins. My agnosticism bordering on atheism satisfies my spiritual needs. The ephemeral world and its changing faces provide a kind of solace that, in the end, that religion never provided me.

As I sat in the great nave of the Eglise de la Sainte-Madeleine, I looked again at the faithful, kneeling on the bare floor with their heads bowed. Their meditation and prayer took on a kind of solidity, as if the divine crystalized into matter. I thought of them and then of the times when such transformations happened to me. I was often far from a church, distant from a man-made structure. My spiritual moments happened in forests and deserts, in the clefts of the Ozark Plateau or next to a Wyoming trout stream.

Virginia and Nick sat with me while my friend Udo, a stained-glass master and venerator of the divinely inclined, wandered around the outer perimeter of the church snapping pictures of the windows and statues with his camera. We were quiet, slightly amused with the tourist thronging among the prayerful.

When Udo came back to us, we raised from our seats and slowly made our way back through the front doors. We emerged from the church into the light of a brilliant afternoon. We squinted and walked down the Seine, quiet, happy to be with one another.

I recall the day and wonder about my spiritual self. Have I done enough for other people? When isolated and selfish, I find the best way out is to find someone or something who needs my service. It doesn’t always work. I often end the time with other people feeling much the same as when I started. But I was relieved of myself for the time I did something for someone other than myself.

I have not been in a church since the Eglise de la Sainte-Madeleine. If I never go into another church, I won’t have missed much. The time when Nick is at school and Virginia is sleeping for her night shift or away give me the kind of silence I crave. The house wren twitters its long song outside the side door and the robins sing from the tops of the trees. This is enough.

At the end of the day, the questions of my efforts over the last 24 hours come to me. Did I do the best I could? Could I have done better? Sometimes the answers are not satisfying. My best was not that good. I can try to resolve to do better, but I have found that resolutions disappear in the harsh light of reality, routine, and habit.

I often think of the worshipers in the Eglise de la Sainte-Madeleine and other churches where I sat as a youth and adult. Maybe I want what they have, that blind and enduring faith that helps them through their days. But then I think of family, writing, and poetry. Sometimes, I just have to be satisfied with what I have.

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