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’.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.