I would like to admit a passion for old country churches.
They are a splendid excuse to pause when on a road trip. Although most of them are closed, I often wander the deserted church yard trying to peer through the stained-glass windows. When the inside remains a mystery, because the windows are usually too high for me to look through, I content myself with imagining the pews and the altars; the exposed wooden beams of high ceilings; the weddings and christenings, and moments of solace, that hopefully still happen there. Then I stand and watch the light of the day play on the outside sandstone facade or wonder at the colour of the sky beyond the bell fry. I long ago gave up trying to photograph these hallowed places, unable to capture their material dimensions, let alone their liminal magic.
Recently I’ve also become a devotee of suburban churches. Where I live, the landscape is thick with them. Within a one-kilometre radius of home I’ve counted sixteen Christian churches, including three cathedrals and a Quaker meeting place. In this same circumference there is also a mosque and a Taoist temple. Each of these places intrigues me with their sacred individuality.
There are many beautiful churches that I’ve had the luck to visit over the years, so here are a few of my favourites. The first one in this post and the others to follow. These are places where I’ve experienced a moment of ecstasy, perhaps a glimpse beyond the temporal; an inkling of the world’s deep complexity.
St Bonaventura, Catholic Church, Leura
Although I’m not a practicing Catholic, this was the religion I was brought up in and so it still forms part of the tapestry of who I am. About twenty years ago, during Sunday mass at this beautiful church on the edge of Leura village, I had a mysterious encounter. It’s very hard to describe but to put it as simply as possible, it was as if a sudden flash of pure white energy, like an electric arrow, flew out from the crucifix behind the altar, and struck me in the heart. I began to weep and couldn’t stop. To not disturb the service I had to leave. Standing outside in the weak May sunshine I cried myself out until I felt emptied of all the fear and sadness that I’d been holding onto. I can’t explain what happened but my father had recently passed away, perhaps because of this I was more open to a metaphysical experience.
From my years as a child attending Saturday morning Italian school, I know that bonaventura means good fortune or good adventure. My first thought after this event was that perhaps my father was communicating with me that he was well in his new world. But seeing as he identified as an atheist this place seemed an odd choice. When later I looked up the saint who the church is named after, I found that he was a medieval Italian philosopher and theologian of the order of Saint Francis, born at Bagnoregio, in the Lazio region of central Italy. Interestingly Lazio is the region of Italy where my father was also born. I thought this was a strange coincidence but I’m not sure I believe in the intercession of saints.
Twenty years on, I still feel awe at the immensity of what we can’t explain but grateful for this moment of deeply felt religious experience. I don’t understand what happened. But it happened. Perhaps I’m simply not yet tall enough to see through these high windows.
(Images: Sardaka, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons; New2022, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)