By Elaine Knudtson
Sacred spaces create an impression that resonates with the Spirit within us. Paying attention to these promptings connects us with “groans that words cannot express” (Rom. 8:26). The following compilation was written as I visited various sites throughout Europe this summer, ending with the return to my own congregation in Cochrane.
Canterbury Cathedral – England
“Good morning, come on in,” she smiled, as she extended her hand at the entrance to the chancel.
No longer a tourist, but a member of the communion of saints who have walked through these gates for one thousand years.
I’m breathless, near tears as I hear in those words the voice of Jesus inviting me in.
Seated just below the high altar prepared for the holy feast.
I am only one in the stream of tens of thousands who have made the pilgrimage to Canterbury.
I can hear the clip clop of horse’s hooves on the cobblestones just outside.
Is that the echo of centuries past?
I am one with them; a pilgrim welcomed into the Kingdom.
“The Sagrada Família is a one-of-a-kind temple, for its origins, foundation and purpose. Fruit of the work of genius architect Antoni Gaudí, the project was promoted by the people for the people. Five generations now have watched the Temple progress in Barcelona. Today, more than 135 years after the laying of the cornerstone, construction continues on the Basilica and is expected to be completed in 2026.” (https://sagradafamilia.org/en/history-of-the-temple)
Sagrada Familia – Barcelona
Vain-glorious tourists stage selfies affront the floral doors.
The niches of hope, love and faith respond in stony silence as voyeurs pass under the 21st century nativity.
Entering the stream, we flow into the basilica, anticipating archetypes stamped in our Gothic and Medieval consciousness.
But they are not there.
Flying buttresses explode into a canopy of leaves and branches, extended in praise to God.
Stained glass shatters into a kaleidoscope of liturgical hues,
capturing each season in shadows on the floor and ceiling.
An organ infuses the space,
inviting worshipers to enter an island in the center of the sanctuary.
Most pass by,
but we are drawn by the transcendent Christ,
floating beneath the canopy above the altar,
eyes lifted to the Father in a sacrifice of praise.
This is a masterpiece of faith
begun a century ago by artisans
offering their vision to our generation.
An elevator ascends the tower,
reminding us that we are in a virginal space,
not yet complete.
It is a throne room fit for the marriage of the King.
What glory to be here on the last day.
I pass through the exit to the Passion facade on the other side.
Looking back I witness a solitary man wiping his eyes in the front pew.
The unseen presence has transformed this tourist into a pilgrim.
St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice has existed since 829 A.D. It is an example of Byzantine architecture with gold mosaics and inlaid marble floors. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse look down on tourists from their pedestal above the front doors. The treasures of the crusades are housed in the treasury as ancient relics of silver and gold. The dome extends 4240 metres above the piazza known as San Marco Square. I looked for a sanctuary in this dark space, but nothing connected with my spirit until an elderly Italian woman sat beside me in a side chapel.
St. Mark’s Basilica – Venice
Rain in Venice?
San Marco fades into a sarcophagus encasing stolen relics of the Crusades:
Dead fingers, broken bones, twisted chalices.
There is no glitter on golden mosaics without the sun.
Faith is mocked.
Hope is dulled.
Love is silenced.
Deftly, I retreat to a side chapel,
longing for inspiration in this dark tomb.
An old woman presses next to me.
“English”? she queries.
The exhortation begins in unbroken Italian.
I am her chosen confessor.
We connect through out eyes by a Spirit that interprets tongues.
A candle flickers.
The spell is broken.
“What was that?” Paul asks, as we return to the rain-soaked piazza.
Just then she grabs my arm from behind,
using me to mount the elevated sidewalk,
before disappearing down the narrow side street.
“I think I just met my angel,” I smiled.
All Saints Anglican Church is an active English-speaking congregation in the heart of Rome, close to the Spanish steps. It was visited February 25, 2017 by Pope Francis as an extension of ecumenical spirit by the Vatican. After visiting the opulence of St. Peter’s, it was renewing to find a quiet space, free from tourists.
All Saint’s Anglican Church – Rome
Ancient temples, transformed to Christian shrines, replace many gods with one.
So many crucifixes,
So many Mary’s,
So many relics.
Among the competing edifices stands a lonely church.
There are no Michelangelo “Pieta”s, or DaVinci “Last Supper”s.
Donatello did not forge a bronze Mary Magdalene as a sentinel to a defeated Christ.
Only an empty cross and six candlesticks grace the altar;
a reminder of the resurrected Lord.
I need to live in the light of Easter morning.
There are too many reasons to be caught in an endless loop of Good Friday remorse.
I need the major chords of the organ to strike the Hallelujah’s of “He is Risen.”,
To walk in the promise of eternal life, forgiveness, and hope.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Walk in the light.
Fear no evil.
Christ has brought us to the other side.
Receive His Spirit with joy;
leap for joy,
So much to be gained by pausing in this Anglican enclave in the city of popes.
Notre Dame is being reconstructed after the devastating fire of Holy week 2019. We visited the site and contemplated again the angst generated around the world when we watched the steeple collapse.
Notre Dame – Paris
Notre Dame sits as a gutted shell; stripped of its history and beauty by a consuming fire.
The foundation, hewn from ancient quarries, stands as a testament to the truth that God’s kingdom shall not pass away.
Light shines on the cross behind the charred altar, reflecting the sun that has been filtered through stain glass for centuries.
It’s raw, devastating, catastrophic.
The treasures of the past have been destroyed and the world sits silently in sorrow, remembering its former glory.
The children of Israel wept when they saw the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem.
The disciples wept when Jesus, the true rock, hung lifeless on the cross.
We cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” when our lives are shattered by pain, loss and disappointment.
Yet, the foundation stands.
And like the phoenix that rises from the ashes, hope will be reborn.
What will be rebuilt will be stronger, more secure, because it has been purified in the crucible.
The church will emerge from the flames of apostasy, scandal, and secularism and worship Christ on Easter Sunday in the shadow of the cross.
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear,
God has shouted from the heavens this holy week the truth of death and resurrection.
He is not silent.
We gather our grief and stand stripped before the cross that reflects the light of the son.
We surrender our lives to the consuming fire of His holy spirit and ask to be remade in His image once again.
Veoy, Norway is an island near Molde, Norway. We were there for a 70th birthday celebration of Paul’s cousin and celebrated author, Edvard Hoem.
“Perspective from Veoy Island “
Iron crosses and moss-covered tombstones recline in the spongy knoll overlooking the fjord on Veoy Island.
I sit silently on a cornerstone, waiting to go inside, listening for Your voice in this strange land of Norway.
Their voices are the background hymn to the joy of reunion on this misty summer day near Molde.
I cannot speak their language, but the tone and posture captures the easy comfort of being together.
It was the home left behind by the immigrants who came to Canada–the place that haunted their dreams and combined with regret and hope in their memories.
Homesteading transformed roses into dandelions, fjords into prairies, and fish into gophers.
Out of nothing they built my life, content to surrender their past for my tomorrow.
Soon the bell will toll and we will file inside the stone church to worship with ghosts from the past.
I am in the stream of pilgrims who responded to an unnamed call to a distant land, stoked by a longing for something more.
I will never again visit this place.
The door will close behind opportunity forever.
But I will remember, just as they did, when I stare across the lonely prairie and hear their voices echoed in my relatives who sprang from their pilgrimage 100 years ago.
We will picnic on the banks of the coulee, remembering the fjords, and the wild roses, and will speak of the greater glory of this day.
But I will be home with you, and we will embrace as the prairie sun sets in the endless sky.
In Vienna, at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Schubert’s mass was sung by the choir from the loft on the side. The priest recited the liturgy from the front, and a schizophrenic beggar echoed his words from the back of the aisle behind us. Suspended in the middle of all this, was a crucifix, lost between the chandeliers. We went there on our 40th wedding anniversary.
“Impressions from St. Stephen’s”
“Get me to the church on time,” we chuckled, holding hands, strolling through the mist on our way to St. Stephen’s.
40 years since our journey began “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, surrounded by the saints who have passed through the veil.
We carry their torch of faith to the next generation as we enter the cathedral.
The high Gothic arches stretch like the fingers of God above our heads, encircling us below in the palm of His hand.
The Schubert mass echos in the hollow spaces between the ornate pillars, chiseled and carved to reveal the cherubs and legends of ancient rhymes.
Candles illuminate masterpieces, positioned like banners on the walls, proclaiming the gospel to the illiterate.
I choose to enter as a child: innocent and open to the presence of God in symbol and sound.
A holy triangle is formed between the altar, choir and madman at the gate.
Each speaks in liturgy, song and words too deep for groaning:
The priest recites
The choir crescendos
The madman babbles
together in union, independent of each other.
I stand at the center, between them, under the suspended wooden crucifix, obfuscated by chandeliers and masterpieces.
His breath unifies us all beneath that cross–the nexus of faith between the priest, the madman and the tenor.
Our eternal praise rises to the throne of heaven, surrounded by those saints who sat with us 40 years ago in our own cathedral as we began our sacred journey.
Ypres, Belgium was the epicenter of fighting during World War One. The town was destroyed and many soldiers were lost in battle, never to return. Each night the Last Post is sounded from the Menin gate, reminding everyone of the cost and horror of war. The cathedral has since been rebuilt.
“Worship in Ypres”
The carillon tolls its welcome to travel-worn pilgrims recalling the days of old when God was silent.
A century to sanitize the memory and rebuild the streets that teemed with soldiers marching to the Western Front.
What prayers did they offer as they passed the dead and wounded carried back from the battle?
Whose side was God standing on in the trenches?
What language did He speak?
Or did He turn His face away in horror at our shame?
He who taught us the love of neighbour stood alone, in the blood-soaked mud beside those breathing their last, while the bullets and artillery scattered all others.
They fought for King and country and a mythical kingdom called home.
Answering the call to preserve their empires, they are silent now while those who fought are immortalized in eternal flames and the last post from Menin Gate.
How can I worship here against the backdrop of catastrophic hate?
The beautiful cathedral has been rebuilt, in homage to the past, rising from the old foundations.
The crucified Christ slouches in the corner, unable to escape our sin as witnessed through the millenniums.
The true king waits, in the tear-soaked prayers of victims broken by the fall.
Thy kingdom come.
It is comforting to return home to my familiar space. I bring all the experiences of transcendence that I have feasted on this year, enriched and renewed. Yet, I remember that this place is not mine, but God’s and there will be visitors who enter into this church who may make me uncomfortable. That is exactly what I should expect. Hospitality is required of us all.
I knew him before his world collapsed.
He shuffled into church alone: needy, poor, broken.
Vulnerability alarms me.
Jesus descends into darkness and stretches his arms to embrace the world.
I approve, but not in this space.
Sickness is death,
Poverty is scarcity,
Mental illness is entanglement.
Keep these away from me.
I will pray for those in the world; I fear them in this space.
Their existence contrasts with my self-righteousness,
Revealing coldness, in-hospitality and fear.
Love is easy when it requires no interaction with the unlovely.
The beggar turns to me.
“The peace of the Lord be with you,” he says as he extends his hand,
Exposing my poverty in this sanctuary.