This morning at church our Pastor preached a sermon on communion (Yes, gasp, I do go to church. No, I don’t make a habit of thumping my Bible at people.) Although I probably should have listened closely, my mind drifted back to the Easter I spent in the Duomo in Florence.
Michael and I were on our honeymoon in Italy and had started out our trip in Florence. Although Florence is one of the most touristy towns in a country that snags over 46.1 billion tourists a year, I can’t help but love it. The town is absolutely beautiful and you can’t walk five feet without stumbling across a bit of classical statuary, a mathematically perfect building, an amazing Italian restaurant (but really, what Italian restaurant isn’t amazing?) or a gelato stand. If the townspeople had had the presence of mind to throw a grand medieval castle into the mix I would dub Firenze heaven on earth and you would never hear from me again.
The Duomo, or cathedral sits in the middle of town. Like most Italian cathedrals, the outside is intricately designed while the inside is comparatively sparse. Michael and I visited the cathedral on our first day in town and, while we were duly impressed by the massive scale of the building, I didn’t really feel much of a connecting spark.
That night, however, Michael and I were walking back from a late dinner and a bottle of wine when we heard the tolling of church bells. It was 11:15pm– an odd time for bells to be tolling so long. Then suddenly the realization hit us! It was the night before Easter. We hadn’t been planning on going to an Easter service. We’re not very religious to begin with and we’re even less so when on vacation, but the crowds seemed to draw us in and before we knew it we were sitting in a pew near the back of the massive cathedral. It was only then, with the choir singing and the candle-light bouncing off the arcing white walls, that I felt the awe of the place. Hundreds of people, from little Italian grandmas to middle-aged American tourists in Hawaiian shirts were sitting in silence, drinking in the experience with us. The entire sermon was in Italian (or Latin. I was pretty sure it was Italian, but I could have been wrong), but Michael, being the good catholic that he is, told me exactly what was going on. Being protestant, I thought that it was extremely amusing that he knew exactly what the priest was saying even though he didn’t speak a word of Italian. The incense burners were running at full force and the smell swept me away to a time when the cathedral was new and there was an entirely different set of people sitting in the pews, listening to the exact same words, believing the exact same faith. The priest, garbed in the most decorated Catholic vestments I had ever seen, was reading out of an ancient Bible and I felt It amazed me how such things have passed through the ages almost unchanged. The masses lined up by the aisle for communion and I wondered how many Easters people had gathered here to do the same, how many gallons of wine and tons of rice crackers and bread had been eaten in this exact spot over the centuries. When the midnight bells started tolling and we spilled out into the square with the rest of the crowd I felt like I was walking across years and years. I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with Medieval monks, Renaissance patricians, World War II soldiers and so many others. It was without a doubt one of the most spiritual moments I have ever had.
Many people have told me that if you’ve seen one cathedral, you’ve seen them all and, in one sense, I can’t disagree with them. There is a through-line that connects places of worship around the world. I’ve felt it in Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedral in France. I’ve felt it in Westminster Abbey in London, Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin and the Great Synagogue in Budapest. I can’t wait to be in a place where I can visit a mosque or a Buddhist temple to see if it runs through those places as well, although I’m sure it will. What flows from all of these places, besides a well-crafted sense of awe, is a sense of respect; a sense of hard work and dedication of the builders and craftsmen who put their heart and soul into a spiritual monument that has lasted through the ages. Palaces and opera houses are stunning, but if you really want to see an example of a culture’s finest work look at their religious buildings. Many of them were built over hundreds of years, in fierce political conditions. People gave the best of what they had to the construction whether in wealth, in craftsmanship or in architectural knowledge. They have been used as sanctuaries and hiding places in times of war and, when the fighting was fiercest, men willing died to preserve the precious things inside. No matter what your take on religion is, you have to appreciate the dedication of humankind to these spiritual places. Walking into a church, cathedral or synagogue anywhere in the world I feel that same sense of ultimate devotion and love to one’s faith. And the fact that that religious passion, for that moment in time, was used to create a beautiful building and not an armory full of swords. That’s something that I believe you can and should admire, no matter what you believe.