In Florence, Italy, I toured one of the lesser churches on a day trip with my high school group. No one charged an entry fee, and vagrants dressed in black slept in the aisles. Some people prayed. I wrote in my back pocket journal about how the musky smell of drunk prayers and the unfinished church clashed with the gatekeepers with their restoration and upkeep funds at the other, more presentable churches. At the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the chants echoing in harmonies cast toward the ceilings caused me to hide tears from my schoolmates. It was beautiful, yet vacant to me at the time. The contrast made hope for anything seem less palpable. The cool marble curves of aged pillars pressed in my palms, the creaking kneelers groaning and thumping on the floor—all the untouchable grandeur intimidated my small soul, undergirding a division of the earthly and the heavenly, as if the curtain between the two had never been torn.
In journals, I scrawled half-coherently about church hauntings, mostly the ones in which I am afraid, not of God but of men, those men being dead tyrants, ghosts of peasants, people in the pews, and other faces I blended together from imagination and those passing by taking pictures.
Some years later in Mexico, I visited their churches of stone and gold. I convinced my roommate to pay a cabman to drive us up a hill with me to see a ridiculous statue of Jesus with His arms open wide on the top of a hill, looking out over a city of silver and homes with holes knocked into them.
When the driver told us how many pesos it would be to wait while we walked around and then drive us back, we said we’d walk. On the way down, we passed crosses wrapped in toilet paper, with streamers of the tattered excess waving in the wind. At first, I thought it was graffiti, and then realized it was decoration for a festival that had passed a few weeks before. Every few hundred meters, there was a stray mangy burro or wire that was slung too low across the street that we had to dodge. And the further down we traveled, the fewer toilet paper crosses we found punctuating the bizarre scenes. The trip down took us more than an hour, and by the time we rejoined our group outside the Church of Santa Prisca, they had their own stories to tell.
I snapped a few hurried pictures of Baroque details. I left town with some trinkets and one more haunting.
On the same trip, when everyone else went to Acapulco, and our trip to a music festival fell through, my roommate and I found ourselves on a guided tour of the city on the top of a double-decker bus. Again we found ourselves in yet another cathedral, the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. We weren’t getting along because we were both sorely disappointed by missing out on beach fun and a concert, so we wandered separately. I tugged on a kneeler and thought about praying the way I knew how, but I didn’t. I blamed feeling pressure to leave, that I could sense my friend’s utter boredom with my fixation with churches that have become only buildings.
It wasn’t like the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe there. No one was kissing the ground or crawling and looking for peace or healing. There was scaffolding clamped to the gold behind the altar, and besides the altar boys getting ready for mass, it was empty. We left and tried not to bicker by distracting ourselves in the courtyard.
The last picture I took there was a stone relief of a primitive skull with a cross seeming to sprout from its head. I thought about these churches and all the ill-fitting images of dirt and precious metals, of wealth and of poverty, and of God and not God all inhabiting such unbelievable space, and spaces of unbelief. When I reflect on these churches, so many incongruous scenes feel like things and appear to make up a larger structure in which I cannot discern which pieces buttress the others.
Still these memories return to me with such force that I find myself looking behind me to see if someone else is next to me, someone who has known what I felt there, maybe someone who can explain to me why I love and hate church museums—why, when I am there, I know that they testify doleful truths. Just when I try to convince myself that they are not wholly lost to me, and that I appreciate their craftsmanship and the solitude they provide, I tell myself I’ll sit down and figure it out someday, and I keep walking along, thinking about more manageable things to consider as writing topics than the mysterious impressions of architecture or acoustics.
So I’ve put off gathering and organizing notes that started on the same subject more than 10 years ago. Although I still have all those writings, I couldn’t find them in less than 10 minutes, so they stay in their plastic bins in the closet, along with more than 100 useless journals.
When my older brother needed some album artwork a month ago, I didn’t think flipping through some old photos from studying in Cuernavaca would invite any of the old spirits in.
Upon finding a detail of the skull and the cross, I realized that the symbols put together were not morbid or perverse at all. I’m not sure how I’d missed it, but I’d been looking at it all wrong: the skull, the symbol of mortality, was not giving birth to the cross but submitting to it.
Upon viewing such a discomforting pairing, in a moment, the images were restored with the disparity of here and later fading.
This alone doesn’t change the eerie vibe of churches built on backs of subjugated peoples in the name of a God the rulers tried to own; but to me, it bridges the classes and times where the bones of the living and dead can receive new skin and take their first breaths of relief.
As I’ve mentioned, I still haven’t collected and organized these thoughts the way I’d like, but I have a piece to start with now. My husband asks me why I don’t incorporate the feelings I get in big, modern Protestant churches and I tell him that’s another essay entirely, but it may not be. Sometimes I think it would have been easier to be drawn more strongly to visual art instead of trying to capture any anything with words, and I know I’m just looking at greener pastures and being lazy.