A Tale of Three Churches

europe 2019, into my world

If you know me, you know how much I love old churches. They’ve got a lovely mix of art, history, and prayer—the communion of saints feels much more present when you walk into a space where people have been praying for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before you were born. Their prayers are still echoing there.

Also, I love gothic architecture.

Geneva is a fascinating city, historically, being in many ways the birthplace and seat of the Reformation. Switzerland as a country has (to me) a fascinating relationship with religion in general (separation of church and state, who?), but the odd, almost lopsided relationship between the two is most obviously present in Geneva. Publically, the state embraces Christians and Christianity; I lost track of how many streets were named after some (mostly Protestant) theologian or another. But there’s also a sense in which the devotion is lacking. 

I went to three churches while I was in Geneva—I want to call them cathedrals, as they look like cathedrals, but I’ve recently learned that such buildings can only be called cathedrals if they’re the seat of the bishop of that diocese (fun fact!). So the first church I wandered into was Basilica Notre Dame of Geneva. Her bells were ringing and I was drawn into the sanctum. It was cooler inside and smelled of time and tears. I stayed there for a long time, praying and journaling and wavering and watching. The place was practically bejewelled with stained-glass saints and prophets and candles burning in prayer. I was not at all alone. Later, I read that the Basilica is actually a pilgrimage spot for Mary (as in the Mother of God), who also happens to be the patron of la basilique

I lit a candle, bought a rosary, and got directions from one of the caretakers of the Basilica to the nearest bookstore which would have a decent religious section. (I’ve spent the last few weeks missing my Book of Common Prayer, but have yet to find a replacement.)

After locating the bookstore (where Lewis, Eckhart, Austen, and Keats were acquired for my European library) and a taking leisurely lunch at a darling little Italian place, I wandered into Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Once a Roman Catholic cathedral, Saint Peter’s was overtaken by the Reformers and became the adopted home church of John Calvin himself and seat of the Reformation. (I mean this literally and figuratively. Calvin’s chair is still there, serving as a relic of sorts.) It’s not my first time at this cathedral; I visited a little over two years ago with my mom. 

The place is striking, because not only is it big, but it is blank. When the Reformers seized the cathedral, they stripped it of its color. There are still stained glass windows, and the Chapel of the Maccabees is stunning (seriously, google it), but other than that, the place is bare. The Reformation’s hatred (fear? misconceptions?) of iconography scraped the walls, ceilings, and floor clean. The place was full of tourists. I bought several postcards, sat on the same pew as the last time I visited, and wrote to my mom. My new rosary was wrapped around my right hand.

“It’s like an overcast day,” I wrote, “especially after Notre Dame… it feels like something’s missing.”

The last church I visited, I’ve forgotten the name of. On approach, I thought it might be Lutheran—something about the cross on top of the building suggested Luther to me. Upon entry, I discovered that I was very incorrect.

It was another Catholic church—this one clearly more modern than the first, but still old by American standards—and people were scattered throughout the pews, praying. I squeaked into a pew, whispered the Lord’s Prayer (they had it up in French, bless them), and then, after inspecting their assortment of stained-glass saints and the beautiful crucifix which inhabited a back chapel, left.

I’ve spent the last eight months or so in an interesting sort of theological limbo. College has done a lot for my faith—pushing it, building it, changing it—and at this point, I’m sitting in a narrow place where I’m not sure if I’ll stay Protestant (probably Anglican) or become Catholic. This teetering is one of the reasons I was excited to come to Europe: where better to ask such questions than places where so many of the authors who have challenged my faith themselves lived and argued and prayed?

Perhaps, then, it was the presence of Calvin that bothered me during this most recent visit to Saint Peter’s Cathedral. (I read a hefty chunk of his work in Honors. We didn’t get on well.)

Notre Dame Basilica had a wooden carving of some saint or other—I forget who because it was impossible to see his face. The carving had been in Saint Peter’s and was defaced during the Reformation takeover. Sitting in Saint Peter’s, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The ornate choir stalls, which had remained intact, reminded me of it. They were what had been—and they were another thing no longer fulfilling their original purpose. From where I sat in the cathedral, I couldn’t tell that it was still in use as a church. It felt like a tourist destination.

I couldn’t decide if I was deeply grieved by the split or deeply embittered at the irony.

I haven’t used the rosary yet, besides clutching it as I walked around Geneva. And I missed mass that Saturday night, though only by about three minutes.

We’ll see.

Eight-and-a-Half Days

into my world, Uncategorized

That’s how long I’ve been in Switzerland now. Molly told me before I ;eft that she thought it would be about two weeks before I fully realized that I’m in Europe and not at home. Thus far, her prediction seems to be correct. This part of Europe, both in climate and general topography, looks very much like home, besides the French everything and old, old, old homes. And perhaps I just… haven’t thought about the fact that I’m not at home very much. Not thought about it emotionally, that is.

In an attempt to both stimulate this realization in myself and provide some snapshots from my first eight-and-a-half days in Switzerland (and France, for half a day!), I have–surprise, surprise–compiled a list. These snapshots are in no particular order, but all blow my mind, to some extent.

1. I have eaten more apricots in the past week than I have in my entire life. This is not something that I am complaining about–I’m just not certain I’d ever had a non-dried, non-jam apricot before. They taste like sunshine.

2. I watched my host dad eat a burger with a fork and knife instead of using his hands as God intended. I did not realize this was happening until I was halfway through my own (beautifully prepared) meal. By then, it was too late. There was nothing to do but watch in horror.

3. The restaurant where the burger was consumed had outdoor seating about twenty yards from a church that had been there since about 1100. Said restaurant also had a view of France–France being just on the other side of the roundabout, as the town was half in France and half in Switzerland.

4. Going from country to country is like going from state to state in America. This is common knowledge, but experiencing it is bizarre.

5. Police are almost disturbingly helpful. We were coming back from visiting my host mom’s parents in France (casually) and our car broke down. In the middle of an off-ramp on what is effectively one of their main highways (although the largest I’ve seen any highway is three small lanes across, and that was only for a few kilometers). With traffic already backed up two kilometers on said highway thanks to the added traffic of a music festival. And what happened? Quickly, a (very attractive) police officer arrived on a motorbike, figured out what was wrong, and directed traffic around us while calling for backup. And what was the backup? Two more police officers with a vehicle to tow our car back to our home (which was only a kilometer or two away, but still!). It was wild.

6. The food is very, very, very good. I am living my best foodie life and will not go into details (because this post would get very long, very quickly), but rest assured that I am very happy indeed. I mean, the cheese alone–

7. French is hard. My brain is very tired. And I’m not even forced to speak that much, as my family does speak English, but I’m already daydreaming about popping by England, if only for the delight of seeing all the signs in a language I can read without thinking. Also, I really need to brush up on my verbs.

There’s much more I could say–about my family and the girls I’m watching, our escapades, the music festival and the DJ who taught said girls to beatbox using the phrase “biscuit, petite biscuit”–but I won’t. Just know that all is well and pray for patience. Because the girls I’m watching are cute–but oh! am I tested. Lord have mercy (and all is and will be well).

A bientot!