Friday, September 4, 2009


I am not particularly religious-- practically not at all. When people ask me what religion I am, I generally make a joke out of it. "Christian, in the sense that someone threw water in my face when I was a baby." Or "Does 'gleefully anti-clerical' count as a religion?"

I'm not religious and I don't even particularly like organized religions. However, I find there is something powerful in very old churches.

Which is why I found myself, this gorgeous late summer afternoon, apologizing to a building. This building.

St. Sernin, Toulouse, France

St. Sernin is one of the oldest churches in Toulouse. Built to accommodate the pilgrims who came to pray at the tomb of Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, the church was begun in the 11th century and completed in the 13th. It is almost a thousand years old.

Almost a thousand years of pilgrims traveling here from all over Europe, bringing their hopes, their prayers, their belief. Millions of people must have passed through here, prayed here. Maybe even billions.

Faith on that grand of a scale leaves a mark, I think, like a magnet left for a long time on a metal plate. The space itself becomes hallowed by the emotions of the people who have passed through it, whether or not you believe in the God that inspired it, in the same way that a magnet leaves its own residue, magnetizing the plate. You could still see the crosses pilgrims from hundreds of years ago had carved into the wall. It sent shivers down my spine.

And my tour group came into this place with flash cameras.

I can't believe how upset I was. This beautiful, sacred place-- a place that is still sacred, with people in it still praying, and members of my tour group are taking flash photographs, not silencing the beeping of those same cameras. Texting. Our tour guide took out a laser pointer and shone it on the altar to point out stuff to us.

It drove me crazy. I thought I'd never seen anything so disrespectful, so...sacrilegious.

So when our tour finished, I went back. I bought a candle and lit it in front of the statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Since Urbino, I've felt a kinship to Francis. One of his prayers is the most beautiful, and the most moving, I have ever heard, and I was able to visit his tomb, relics and birthplace in Assisi. I stood there for a long moment and closed my eyes.

Desolée, desolée, desolée.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

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