by Katy Griffith
Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England
The cathedral looks much the same as it did when Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed to this town. They told tales to pass the time, and I think, perhaps, that we have not changed much these 600 years. We still tell stories to pass time, still go on pilgrimages. I wonder what stories I will have to tell when I arrive home from my own pilgrimage, and if they will be the kind that stand the test of time as Chaucer’s have.
The cathedral seems immense compared to the small two to three story buildings I have seen so far in Canterbury. It is walled off from town by buildings and accessible by a several hundred year old entryway. The cathedral is invisible from the cobblestone street outside. We pass through the gate and the cathedral comes quickly into view. Its size is breathtaking, and my step falters. This place has seen so much history. It doesn’t even fit in my camera frame until I squat in the grass that surrounds the cathedral and I’m thankful for the blue skies that appeared after a week of gloomy weather, for the grass is soft and dry beneath me.
It is silent inside, yet somehow the tall ceiling creates echoes. It is designed to look like the ribcage of a ship, and I wonder if I’m supposed to feel like I’m drowning. I feel uncomfortable here, like something is pushing the air out of me. I’m a stowaway on a ship and I pray that nobody notices that I’m not supposed to be here. For every tourist snapping pictures there is someone else who actually uses this historical monument as a place of worship. I’m afraid every noise I make is sacrilegious, and when anyone in my Chaucer class speaks in more than a whisper I have to stop myself from cringing. Don’t they know you’re supposed to be quiet in a church?
I feel like every picture I take becomes a crime, but I can’t stop myself. I don’t want to forget any of this. There are people who actually came to pray, to talk to God, to do whatever people do in a place like this, but I pull out my phone and take pictures of everything I can. Somehow I justify to myself that at least I didn’t pull out my camera like a real tourist.
This is the first time I’ve really seen stained glass. The glass here is like no stained glass I’ve seen before. Impossibly vivid colors, intricate patterns, and panels that are nearly floor to ceiling. The amount of man power and time it must have taken to put each piece of glass in its place, to manage to tell a story with those pictures. It’s almost miraculous. Our tour guide points out some of the newer stained glass, added in the 50’s. The people are almost cartoon like, and our tour guide tells us that their creator was heavily influenced by Disney. Now that she mentions it, I can see a little bit of the Disney princesses in their faces. It’s weird, reconciling Aurora and Snow White with the people in the glass pictures. Somehow my brain doesn’t think that these are two narratives that are allowed to cross over.
There are steps in the cathedral that are so worn down by people walking, kneeling, and crawling up them for centuries that they are no longer flat. They have worn away like river stones, rounded and softened by time and waves of people. Like cliffs that are worn away by waves, it took centuries to wear away this stone, so that it slopes in the middle like it’s made of melting wax. My feet are aiding in the shaping of these steps. My steps feel insignificant, but someday, hundreds of years from now, a college student on a semester abroad will walk these same steps and wonder what kinds of people helped wear them away.
Our tour guide tells us that the bare columns and walls we see in the cathedral were not always this way, and in some places you can see remnants of the paint that decorated them. The cathedral was not always this gray, she tells us, and the pictures on the walls served a similar purpose to the stained glass. They told stories, and served to give color in what otherwise might have been a somber space. Back when more people were illiterate, and when the church spoke only in Latin, the common people had to learn God’s stories somehow. Over time, censorship and the ravages of time have conspired and now there are only a few places where the color remains, faded now, but still hanging on.
Chaucer’s pilgrims wanted to visit this site because of man named Thomas Beckett. “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Those are the words that sent Thomas to his death. It’s scary how quickly people listen to those who are in power, how literally they take their words and how quickly they act on them. Only God has the power to take away a life so quickly, so mercilessly. Everyone gives a wide berth to a single lit candle on the floor marking the spot of Beckett’s martyrdom, and I am compelled to take a picture. Centuries later, and he is still memorialized, still remembered. And all he had to do was die.
There’s a small gift shop by the door, and I buy a pin and some postcards, something that serves as proof. I was here. I saw this place. I am telling my story.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland
There are a few large cathedrals in Dublin, and though we pass some of them on our double-decker tour bus, we decide to go to St. Patrick’s cathedral instead of any of the others. This is where Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels. He is buried here, a statue of him stands outside of the cathedral. This is reason enough for me, even though I have never read anything by Jonathan Swift. Is it a coincidence that so far that both cathedrals I have been to have literary connections? Or is religion more closely tied to literature than I want to admit?
After Canterbury, St. Patrick’s is a bit of a letdown. It’s not as grand, and it doesn’t take my breath away nearly as much. I wonder if it’s because I am already becoming desensitized to places like this, or if after Canterbury, it seems a little redundant.
St. Patrick’s is just as silent, if not more so, than Canterbury. Since I’m not in a large group this time, I am even more conscious of the noises I make. It’s a little darker in here than it was in Canterbury too, but the stained glass is just as vibrant and no less spectacular. I take a picture of each window and hope that most of them turn out clearer than my iPhone pictures from Canterbury. The lighting is so dim in here that some of them turn out worse.
When we leave St. Patrick’s, we leave with all thoughts turned to the Guinness factory. This is our next stop and Dublin’s second holy space.
The Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy.
I am a foreigner in Italy in a way that I have never been a foreigner before. Not only in the sense that I am so obviously blonde that I can’t possibly be from Rome, but in the sense that I can’t fathom how this city exists the way that it does. Rome is so Catholic that there are no Christmas decorations, and somehow that makes no sense and every sense at the same time. At home the Christmas decorations will have been out for weeks by now, but here in Rome you would never know Christmas was just a few weeks away.
Rome has been on my bucket list for years, mostly because I am fascinated by mythology and ancient civilizations. But as we wander Rome, I am struck with a question: how can a city built on the backs of Roman gods be so close to the city of the Catholic Church that they seem to be swallowing each other?
They’re setting out chairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica when we arrive, and I wonder if the Pope is going to be appearing in public in the next days or so, maybe on Sunday. We’ll be back in England by then, and it’s weird that I’m bummed out by this. I like this Pope, though, and I like to have bragging rights. The Sistine Chapel will have to serve. Not everyone can take a selfie with the pope.
The route we have to take to the chapel is long and mazelike. There are no doors to the chapel from the outside. It’s like a test. If you see and appreciate all of this art, then you may be allowed to see the most famous ceiling painting in the world. We meander through the Vatican’s museum, more conscious of time after we spend far too long looking at the ancient busts of roman gods, heroes, and philosophers, and therefore unable to take our time with the rest. There’s far too much to see in just a few hours and my camera dies before we are halfway through from the strain so I resort to my phone. I’ve come a long way since Canterbury. I no longer have shame.
As we enter the chapel I almost forget that I should look up. The walls alone are masterpieces. I never knew that the rest of the chapel was painted in frescos as well as the ceiling, but it’s an unexpected treat. Once I remember that what I came here to see is on the ceiling, I turn my eyes toward heaven, scanning the ceiling hungrily. I look for the famous image of God, reaching, almost touching man but not quite there yet. It takes some time to find and the ceiling seems so far away. Each image is as magnificent as the next and I wonder why that is the one that is most famous.
The chapel is so beautiful that I want to stand here for hours and soak in all of the details. I want to cement this moment in my brain forever, but we are on a schedule, and we can’t stay forever.
The signs said no photography allowed, but I am selfish. This painting was without precedent. It changed the course of art forever. It’s a testament to one man’s unparalleled skill. I wonder if I could ever have enough dedication or motivation to create a masterpiece like Michelangelo, or if I’m missing something essential. If I need some kind of belief system since there’s not enough raw talent in me. I know I will never have the words to express my dizzying awe at the ceiling so I pull out my phone, walk right under God’s hand and stealthily take a few pictures. It’s the sneakiest I’ve ever been, but I couldn’t leave without stealing some of that wonder for myself. I need a reminder of this place so that I don’t forget it when I leave. I need proof that this place made me feel something, though I’m not quite sure what it is.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
The façade of Stephansdom is very gothic, more noticeably so than Canterbury, perhaps because of the lack of blue skies. It has been a couple of days since we were in Rome, and that means it’s a couple of days nearer to Christmas. There’s a massive evergreen outside the cathedral, strung with lights and topped with a star. Hundreds of people are milling around, walking to or from one of the hundreds of Criskindlmarkts that have taken over the city. The cathedral is nearly as dark inside as it is outside, and it’s difficult to make out its details. We can only go so far into the building, there’s some kind of event going on later this evening, but we will be on our way in a few minutes anyway, several more things to see and do on our tour of Vienna.
We pass by the cathedral again in the daylight, and it’s more imposing this way. The black pollution stains on the side of the building are more noticeable in the light, and I’m told that workers have to routinely scrub the building to keep it clean. By the time they finish, the first section has already turned black again. I think about how pointless it all is, to spend hours slaving to make this cathedral look as it was intended, never fully succeeding, never getting to take a break. Faith is like that. You don’t get to take a break, it’s not something you will ever be done doing. It’s a process. Maybe that’s why faith is so hard for me, so seemingly pointless. I’m the kind of person who thinks the cathedral looks cooler where it’s black.
Even in the daylight, the inside of St. Stephens’s Cathedral is dim. In the daylight we can walk around a bit more, see the details up close. Statues and art adorn the walls and columns, and it’s noticeable that this isn’t as much of a tourist stop as the other cathedrals I have been in. Most of the people here speak German. After so many holy spaces I know the drill. It’s quiet inside, I take pictures and wonder if that is offensive to anyone, if it’s worse because I can only speak a little German.
This is the city of Beethoven and Mozart and Strauss. What was it about this city that inspired so many musicians? What is it about these tolling bells that called out to them? Was it that they toll at the same time day after day? Were they something to rely on? Were they a source of comfort? To me the bells remind me that time passes whether you want it to or not, and maybe this is what allowed these composers to create multiple masterpieces in their lifetimes. A reminder that eventually your time will run out can be a great motivator. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going. I can’t waste my time or I will never leave something behind that will outlive me.
A Small Green and Blue Planet, Somewhere in Space
God and space are equally terrifying to me, but I only believe in one of them.
As a deeply cynical and skeptical person, I have faith in very few things, and God is not one of them. If there’s a circle of hell for non-believers, I’d go there if I believed in it. But there is something about visiting a deeply religious place that sparks something in me. Maybe it’s just curiosity, maybe its fascination with something I can’t understand, but somethings is there.
Space is so massive that the human mind can’t comprehend it. God is similar, in a way. I will never understand why people would travel across an entire country to visit the site of a saint’s death. I will never understand why churches are always quiet. I will never understand what it is about God that inspires writers, painters, and musicians.
There are a few things that my brain can wrap around. I may never believe in or understand God, but I do believe that there is magic in imagination and storytelling. I understand wanting to build things that last, things that inspire people, things that are beautiful on their own merit. I understand wanting to leave a legacy, wanting to inspire future generations. I guess it makes sense then, why these holy places became so important and fascinating to me once I stepped foot in their spaces.
Read an interview with Katy here.