Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Falling in Love with Some Special Churches

Since today is Sunday, and I have just had a round of visiting churches -- one for mass (St. Martin's in Garmisch, Germany) and Seekirchl in the Alps where I walked with Austrian friends in the afternoon and yesterday receiving a tour of St. Sophia's in Kiev courtesy of a Ukrainian colleague who is also an architect -- it seemed appropriate to talk about churches today.

You probably recognize this church as the one that accompanies my Monday Morning Meditation blogs. This is one of the California mission churches founded by the Franciscans. Since I have joined the Secular Franciscan Order as a candidate, this church has special meaning to me. It is not gilded or ornate in any way. It is not exceptionally large although it does have three aisles whereas most of the mission churches had only two. The floor is uneven, and one can even find animal prints in the tiles. The old pews get dusty; I know because I volunteer to clean them periodically. There is something very special about this church, though, that draws me twice on weekends and whenever possible on weekdays. I I have never failed to sense God's presence in this church -- and neither has any guest I have taken there. One feels that God loves being in our church. Perhaps that is why in more than 200 years, the church has never been without a priest or missed a mass (quite a feat considering the offering of daily masses and 5 masses in 3 languages on the weekend). And perhaps that is why on nearly any given day, if you drop in, you will find someone kneeling at one of the icons, at the altar railing, or in one of the pews in prayer.

A colleague and I, both visiting Garmisch, Germany for work reasons and having the weekend free, decided to attend mass prior to a day of separate sightseeing, he in town and I in the Austrian Alps with friends. We misunderstood the times and ended up at St. Martin's as the early mass was ending, so we returned an hour later. I am so glad we did return. St. Martin's is a beautiful church, with frescoes and ancient, straight pews built in such a way that one wonders if the early parishioners spent the entire mass kneeling -- the kneelers are considerably more comfortable than the pews. We were not there for comfort, however, and we certainly found something far greater. The parish is well-priested. Three priests presided, two sisters from the local convent did the readings, and I could not count the number of acolytes. Were our parish that rich in religious leaders! We seemed to have stumbled into the church on an important day, the 50th anniversary of the founding (with American help!) of the local convent. The homily was wonderful even though I understood at best 60% of it because my German is rusty. That mattered little because the touch of God was in that place -- and my sense of God's presence and my love of being in it is not at all rusty!

Seekirchl in Seefeld, Austria is the church that heads this post. It is so charming in winter that I had to include the winter picture (above at the top of the post) even though today was a crisp fall day. The church inside is tiny, holding perhaps 40 people at best, there being only 5 rows of differently-sized pews on each side, each holding 3-4 people. Built in the 1600s, the church has charm and history. I was told by my friends with whom I was walking about the Alps, having taken a train ride there from Germany in the early afternoon, that it is a working church but services are held only in the morning. Well, maybe next time...In the interim, there was no need for a live mass to know that God spends time in this place.

St. Oswald's, also in Seefeld, Austria has been made into a museum as a result of an incredible event that took place there. As the story goes, on the night of Holy Thursday 1384, a knight named Oswald Milser attended mass at this church. A man of great arrogance and pride, he approached the high altar with his sword drawn and a band of intimidating armed men, demanding the large host, the one normally reserved for the priest, for himself. The frightened priest handed him the host, and Milser remained standing as he took it. However, as soon as he had the host in his mouth, the knight sank into the ground up to his knees. Pale with terror, he grasped the altar with both hands, leaving imprints that can still be seen. The knight begged the priest to remove the host from his mouth. As soon as it was done, the ground became firm beneath him again, but the host turned blood-red. The humiliated knight rushed to the monastery of Stams, confessing and repenting his sin of arrogance. It is said that the knight thereafter befriended the poor and became a great servant to God. Anyone who ever has any doubt that God is present in His churches would do well to visit St. Oswald's and check out the fingerprints.

St. Sophia's church, in my mind, is the perfect one with which to end. Given the Mongol invasion, which wiped out much of Kiev, a history of battles, and the communist regime which destroyed a number of the churches in the USSR, it is amazing that St. Sophia's Cathedral is still standing. After the communists blew up St. Michael's church, the people of Kiev begged the Soviet government to leave St. Sophia's untouched, and the government, surprisingly, agreed. Perhaps it is not surprising, though, that the government agreed and that St. Sophia's outlasted the other churches. On one of the arches near the iconastas are written the words: this church shall never be moved. Hm...Seems like those words foretold God's centuries-long protection of this very large, two-story, beautiful church.

Yes, I know that where two or more are gathered together in His name, God is present, and I usually feel that presence. However, being in God's presence in a church where His people have worshiped Him for centuries always strikes me as an incredible blessing bestowed by God, who has known all of these who have loved Him throughout time and who is allowing me into their midst, even if I do not deserve to be there.

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