We moved from the white-hot of midday sun into the cool dimness of the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca. Our Italian tour guide was a young woman, who knew far too much history for her own good and wanted desperately to share it with the world. Her voice now barely a whisper detailed the faded frescos and the 12 century marble baptismal font as we quietly wound our way through the side chapels.
She waited patiently in the side chapel of St. Zita until all the group were present. There was renewed determination as she spoke of the artifacts and paintings. We had been walking and ingesting Lucca for over three hours. The majority of were simply pleased to sit, pushing shoes off our sore feet as we sought the coolness of the marble floor. Our guide’s history lesson was overwhelming, ticking off the centuries while our thoughts fantasized on a coffee and shopping break. She sensed she had lost us but then she played her Saint Zita trump card. Deliberately she stepped away from the front of the altar, with a cliché gesture of game show host she indicated the brightly lit glass sarcophagus behind her. Where the rest of the church was dim illuminated only by rose-red pools of light or iron stand banks of flickering candles, the glass case was rudely lit, neon bright like a cheap side show. There on a bed of brocade was the mummified remains of an ancient, once, woman, now only a leather black corpse dressed in white with a circlet of dusty plastic flowers in her thin wispy red hair. The guide had our attention. And with that my weakened enthusiasm for absorbing yet another church or monument was dealt a fatal blow.
The only iconic place of worship – that I have experienced – that I found uplifting and gave a sense of spiritual freedom was Gaudi’s Cathedral Sagrada Familia. Is it because of Gaudi’s imaginative architecture compared to predictable medieval or gothic buttressed church naves? Those darkened hallows have a heaviness that dampens my spirits whereas Gaudi’s cathedral is a lightness of towering space that triggers the imagination to explore it with the spiritual innocence of a child. May be Gaudi paid heed to the biblical quote ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’
I love history but sleuthing around a church attempting to retain a potted knowledge of patrons, saints and bishops while viewing the stained glass windows, a hand-carved lectern from a single oak tree, an alabaster madonna and child is not for me and irrefutably not some horror movie mummified relic in a glass case.
To me the natural elements of earth, sea and sky provide my altar for a conversation with a higher source. What about you?