When a Church is Less Not More!
We are nearing the end of our adventure, and I thought I should do one last blog. Those of you on facebook have been inundated with photos from the Camino, then wonderful Portugal and finally southern Spain. Hope you have enjoyed them as much as we have enjoyed sharing them.
So what to write in my last blog? Well I have decided to write about churches, yep, that’s right, just a few of the churches and cathedrals we have visited, or more aptly that I have dragged Matt into. After all, both Spain and Portugal are Catholic countries and revere their traditions and religious history greatly.
But this is not going to be just a travelogue. Because the one thing I do want to say, is that more and more I became rather disillusioned by what we were seeing. Not so much on the Camino where the churches were simple and humble, in keeping with the inspiration behind the Christian faith, a humble, peasant carpenter. Often these small churches were kept open by congregational members, and tended lovingly as a centre of village life. But as we moved centuries the churches became more grandiose and spectacular, until I feel Jesus and his message was left behind.
So let’s start with the cathedral at the end of the Camino. While this time we did a section between Astorga and Sarria, and so did not walk into Santiago, we still went to the cathedral when we got into town. And it is still a wonderful experience. As pilgrims having walked some of the Camino, and it doesn’t matter to anyone how much and just how, whether walking, bike riding or even riding a horse, the pilgrims service is very meaningful, as the names of the countries from where we have all come are read out. Of course as Australia starts with an A we were read first, but there were so many people there from all over the world. The service is spoken in many of the main languages and it is surprisingly moving considering that they still allow tourists to roams around during it. We were hoping to see the large botafumeiro or incense burner swing, but these days they only do it on festival days, or if someone pays!
But the cathedral is very grand, and a great deal of gold and glitter can be found not only in the main alter but also in the side chapels. It seems to contrast sharply with the dusty, dirty pilgrims, many who go straight to the cathedral to see St James and touch the statue
Gold and glitter seemed to be the order of the day in churches, monasteries and cathedrals, particularly from the 15-16th century onwards. Churches became more ornate, more elaborate as we went along, until we saw the ultimate. The Church of St Francis in Porto! A church with so much gold and glitter it was breathtaking and sickening all at once. It was seen as so precious we couldn’t take photos, but every conceivable surface was covered. I am not sure about St Frances but I think Jesus would be horrified. Maybe that’s why it does not operate any services any more.
Then an example of this contrast between a church building and the message of Jesus came to us by surprise as we drove down the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. We stopped in Tomar, a lovely town, which also had an incredible Knights Templar Convento de Cristo or monastery. Within the monastery we found an amazing 16 sided church, an imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Really an amazing church which we admired greatly, until we looked a bit closer. It had in the middle a circular structure made with high columns, with various images within it. Jesus was there, on the cross, which was wooden, simple and profound, but surrounding him were representatives of the church fathers, dressed in gold and fine clothes.
What! They were surrounded by glitter, Jesus by dust. A striking contrast. Even taking into account the Knights Templar were not the most favoured by the King or Pope and disappeared after the 13 century. But even they seemed to miss the point.
Somehow one just had to almost laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Somehow the idea that Jesus’s message turns things upside down, that the poor will inherit the earth, that we should love our enemies, that we should forgive those that wrong us, that we should be inclusive and hospitable and generous, and that we should not seek the worlds power, but the power that comes through love, seems to have gone a bit haywire.
As the ages went by, it seems that many churches and cathedrals became the home of all the power, both monetary and intellectual and social. Not to say they aren’t beautiful, they are, and the books they lovingly recreated are amazing, but again somehow the message seems to have become muddied. It’s as though Jesus is being worshipped with the very material he despised in life!
So we head to Lisbon, and although I still love going into churches and cathedrals, my heart is not quite in it anymore. Particularly when at every door to every cathedral there is a beggar or two or three. Somehow it seemed even more absurd.
But then it was Matt’s turn to take me to something I had not thought about going to see. A religious thing, rather than a pub (just kidding!). And we were both blown away by it. I am talking about the Christo Rei, a statue of Christ, which is found on a hill over the river in a place called Cacilhas. A bit like the statue in Rio.
The statue is named Christ the King, or Christo Rei, overlooks Lisbon and was erected as a gift to the city and to all of Portugal after WW2 which Portugal survived, even though they did not enter the war. While normally the title, Christ the King, raises the idea of a king who will defeat his enemies with power and might, this has a different message. It is an image of peace, and the statue itself while absolutely amazing is not the whole picture. Artists have created images of Jesus’s life around the base of the statue and in a chapel below. The chapel itself celebrates and calls for love and peace among all nations, and is a place for quiet reflection and meditation, as well as a place of faith. No gold and glitter here! The images on the walls were beautiful as was the simple design.
Somehow both the statue and the chapel and the images captured something for both of us, that none of the cathedrals had. And it was very profound. For me it captured the call from Jesus to join the revolution. The revolution of love. For no matter the time in history somehow Jesus’s message still seems to speak to people and transform them in ways that are mysterious and amazing. As the sign said, in many different languages, God is love, and without love we are nothing.
Or the words of Pope John Paul, which are outside,
“How wonderful is this king who renounces all signs of power over the instruments of domination and wishes only to reign with the power of truth and love.”
While we can admire our traditions and history, it seems to me that this is what we need to remember when we are working out how to live our lives.