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.