Of Tourist Traps and Sacred Spaces

The last week has been full of moving and apartment-cleaning and subleasing for the summer (oh how many are the joys), and my mind has fled back many times to my recent trip to the UK and Paris, and how I can’t quite figure out why I got on the plane to come back.

So, today’s post is about some of the numerous churches and cathedrals I saw during my brief sojourn abroad, starting with the one I saw on my first day over there, in Edinburgh. That would be St. Giles’ Cathedral:
The Sunday morning service had just ended, so I was able to go in and see the cathedral up close (though no interior pictures were allowed). Suffice it to say, it was beautiful, reverent, and haunting in its silence. More to come on that, but let me mention briefly some of the other churches I visited.

In London, there was (of course) Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral, both of which had lines out the door of people waiting to get in. There was also an admission fee (not cheap, considering the less-than-stellar exchange rate when I was over there) for both of these London churches, though there was only a suggested donation for St. Giles’.

St. Paul's

St. Paul’s

Note the ridiculous discrepancy between the 5'4" person and the massive doors. Amazing.

Note the ridiculous discrepancy between the 5’4″ person and the massive doors. Amazing.

In Paris, I only had time to visit the two I desperately wanted to see, and those were La Basilique du Sacré Coeur and Notre Dame. Both were utterly swamped with visitors, but because the path/stairs up to Sacré Coeur is significantly longer, there seemed to be fewer people actually inside the basilica at one time, whereas Notre Dame was simply flooded with tourists both inside and outside.

Sacré Coeur

Sacré Coeur

Sacré Coeur sits atop the Mount of Mars, or the Mount of Mercury, which has been revered as a sacred site by druids, Romans, and eventually Christians. When Saint Denis was martyred here, the hill became known as the Mount of Martyrs, which ultimately gave its name to the neighborhood in which the basilica now sits: Montmartre.

Sacré Coeur sits atop the Mount of Mars, or the Mount of Mercury, which has been revered as a sacred site by druids, Romans, and eventually Christians. When Saint Denis was martyred here, the hill became known as the Mount of Martyrs, which ultimately gave its name to the neighborhood in which the basilica now sits: Montmartre.

Sacré Coeur has also been the site of a perpetual eucharistic adoration for over 100 years– I believe the date was since 1885. Even with the influx of people inside, then, there was very much a reverent feeling within the basilica because of this perpetual adoration.

a view of Paris from Sacré Coeur

a view of Paris from Sacré Coeur

Notre Dame, on the other hand, was so congested that it felt like only a historic site (which obviously, it is) but not like a cathedral at all. This was not helped by the fact that there was some sort of bread festival taking place on what is essentially the front lawn of the cathedral. And by bread festival, I mean a massive tent pavilion with vendors and a sound system, music blaring behind me, as I filed into the cathedral along with all the other tourists.


Inside Notre Dame

Inside Notre Dame

Finally, there was the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling, Scotland. There were maybe two or three other people in this stunning church while I visited it, so I was able to spend all the time I wanted there and even got to speak with the rector about the history of the church, his own history, etc. Amazing time, especially considering I thought it would be more crowded since the Church of the Holy Rude was the site of King James VI’s coronation over the Scots (and he would eventually become James I of England and would also be responsible for the King James Version of the Bible); furthermore, at his coronation in Stirling, John Knox actually preached the sermon, which I found fascinating.

Church of the Holy Rude

Church of the Holy Rude

It was so odd to visit so many churches and yet have such different feelings in all of them. Of course, I understand the reason places like Westminster and St. Paul’s charge a fee to tour the interior. Historical sites do need to be maintained, especially when flooded by visitors every day. But other churches, some arguably as-visited as these two London sites, only had suggested donations if you wanted to light a candle or just help support the church. Part of me still pulls back from the idea of charging admission to a church, even if it is a historical site, because it seems so in contrast to the sacredness of what it is supposed to be.

Of course, this depends on how you view the idea of the sacred, or if you even think it exists. To some people, a wide open meadow is far more sacred than a basilica, and the reverse is true as well. I don’t really cling to either, because I think there are as many places that may be sacred as there are people in the world. But at what point does a site such as Notre Dame become so “historical” and so “touristy” that all sacredness seems to have fled it?

But that’s only my opinion, and only my feeling that Sacré Coeur and St. Giles’ retained their function as churches while Notre Dame did not, and there’s for sure as many as would disagree with me as not.



Of Heroes, Travels, and Historical Dragon-Slayers

To continue recounting my sojourn abroad, I’m going to theme today’s post as notable dragon-slayers. I have written before on individual dragons themselves, but given the roads and places I trod recently, I think the dragon-slayers are entitled to their own post. Starting, of course, with one of the original and most badass of all dragon-slayers: King Arthur.

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

Now, given that my recent trip led me all around the British Isles, you may be surprised to learn that the above picture is not actually a ghost I saw of King Arthur, just a lovely painting of him. Not to say I didn’t see his ghost, but phantoms are remarkably hard to photograph; they hardly like sitting still long enough.

I did, however, get the chance to see Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, which is a peak in the center of the city reputed to be one of the possible sites of Camelot– and that was just on my first day:


When I reached Wales, I journeyed to what I consider King Arthur’s shrine (I’m nothing if not devoted), and that would be the mountain of Cader Idris, which I did hike to the top of (via the steepest path, by the way). There are a number of legends surrounding this mountain; one of them states that if you spend the night on the mountain, you’ll come down either a madman or a poet. Another is that King Arthur and his knights are sleeping underneath Cader Idris, awaiting the time when Britain needs them again. Tell me you can look at these pictures and possibly think otherwise:


the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

looking over the edge into the fog

looking over the edge into the fog

I know many people tell the story King Arthur’s one-day return with a wink and a nudge, but there’s a reason we’re still telling his story today. Part of it is that the story of Camelot is one of the greatest tragedies of all time; it’s got it all: action, adventure, romance, heaps of forbidden sex, betrayal, honor, heartbreak. And since those things will continue to exist as long as people do, King Arthur will also continue to endure in all the various incarnations he’s been granted by storytellers, fantasy writers, historians, and any other interested parties.

But King Arthur is also a cultural, a mythic, hero– and no eye rolls about outdated chivalry or misogynistic readings of his mythology or anything else like that, for I’m perfectly serious. A man who tried to do the right thing for his people, for his kingdom, for his marriage, and who might’ve gotten tangled up in a whole heap of stuff along the way but who persevered and did the best he could. That is heroism. Heroes don’t always win and they don’t always get the girl; sometimes they lose the girl, the fight, and the kingdom– but that hardly makes them unheroic.

looking down at the surrounding valleys

looking down at the surrounding valleys from Cader

view from the top

view from the top

Speaking of heroes who seem to lose, get ready for this shift: I’m going to move on to Oscar Wilde now, whose grave I visited in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (why yes, I did manage to sneak in two days in Paris during my 2-week whirlwind trip around the UK):


Oscar Wilde is one of my personal heroes, and oh what an understatement that is. I remember the first time I read “The House of Judgment,” I wept as hard as I’d laughed when I first saw The Importance of Being Earnest performed. I won’t go into all the details of the way Wilde was vilified in his society, aside from just to say that it was utterly and incomprehensibly cruel and wicked and wrong, but I do want to transcribe here what is engraved on the back of his tomb in Paris:

“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.”

Too beautiful and heartbreaking to elaborate on. So my final downtrodden hero of the day is William Wallace. I had the chance to visit Stirling to see both Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, both of which were breathtaking. The views from the monument in particular were astounding:

view from the monument

at the top of the monument


and again

The monument is essentially a massive tower with several different floors you reach via a tiny stone spiral staircase. Super fun when you’re going up and others are coming down. One of the floors– and my favorite, obviously– was the Hall of Heroes, which contained busts of a number of famous and influential Scotsmen, as well as (brace yourself) William Wallace’s actual sword, enshrined in a glass case of beauty.

the sword to beat all swords... except for Excalibur

the sword to beat all swords… except Excalibur

Again, Wallace seemed to have lost everything in his fight against tyranny, and in many ways, he did. In many other and equally important ways, however, he won. The Battle of Bannockburn happened only a handful of years later, which won Scotland independence, and Wallace has continued to be looked to as an inspiration by many groups throughout history seeking independence, equality, justice, etc.

So, I guess today was more about “losing” heroes than anything, but it’s good to remember that just because heroes don’t always seem to win, that doesn’t mean they don’t. That doesn’t mean the light doesn’t shine a little brighter, the darkness retreat a little more, as we continue to tell their stories– their defeats and their triumphs– for years and centuries after they’ve gone.