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The Nourishing Place - The Cathedrals of Europe

S. Michael Wilcox - June 22, 2010

People travel to Europe for many reasons. There is so much to experience and every country has its own cultural charms. I never tire of exploring the castles with their memory of knights, ladies, the codes of chivalry, jousts, and, of course, they are all haunted by ghosts. The villages and thatched-roofed cottages, the green rolling hill, patchwork countryside, hedgerows, and rock walls topped with wild raspberries and tangled ivy bring a sense of peace and well-being found nowhere else in the world.

The Alps of Switzerland, the fiords of Norway, the coastal beauty of England and France, the meanderings of the Rhine or Danube, the Roman ruins and Renaissance art of Italy have all found a place in my heart never to be removed. These are the lands of our ancestors and we feel a unique bond with them while walking the ground that gave them birth. Time's limits fade as we carry on our conversations with the past. But there is another aspect of Europe's draw that sits so deeply in my mind, it is a spiritual dimension that I first discovered, and is constantly renewed, in the great cathedrals that dominate the skyline of so many cities.

I was raised in the Mormon faith and though it is a tolerant and open religion, the emphasis on "the great apostasy" left me guarded and somewhat cautious in my feelings toward Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Christian history throughout the Medieval period. Entering a gothic Cathedral was an alien experience because everything was so different from the simple surroundings of my native faith.

I often listen to the comments of people in the groups we take to Europe when we enter the abbeys, basilicas, monasteries, and cathedrals of Europe. They sometimes focus on the differences and occasionally the comments reflect the sense of unease, even negativity. I understand that perspective, but the darker interiors, the incense, the statues, mosaics, and art dedicated to saints and apostles no longer provoke from me a judgmental eye. It is easy to appreciate the master workmanship involved in these towers of faith, but we miss their essential message if another calming emotion does not accompany our awe. I feel gratitude as I stare upward into the echoing domed and arched spaces lifting above me. I always silently express that gratitude to the past builders of these monuments to the survival of Christianity in a hostile world.

The story of that survival is dramatic and compelling and would require much more space than devoted here. Nevertheless, in spite of all their faults, the monks and nuns, the bishops and Popes, the friars and priests, the architects, stonemasons, artists, sculptors and makers of stained glass all played their role and kept Christianity alive during the period we call the Dark Ages. These grand tributes in stone bear testimony to their accomplishment. The Lord, Himself, indicated as much in the book of Revelation. In chapter twelve John was shown a beautiful woman clothed in light which represented the church adorned in truth. But she was driven into the wilderness by a great red dragon, her light obscured. Yet in that wilderness of apostasy where so much was changed, so much placed in jeopardy of being lost forever, we read that the Lord prepared a place for her where she would be nourished and kept alive. Though wild, Christianity lived and preserved the teachings of our Savior, gave us the Bible so that a fourteen year old boy could read James 1:5 and launch the Restoration which would bring the woman out of the wilderness and into the light. Even in the Book of Mormon the grafted in wild branches of the European gentile peoples kept the roots of truth alive that they did not perish during the ages of chaos and darkness.

I never tire of visiting the churches of Europe, be they the grand cathedrals or the simple rural parishes, for herein God saved the essential realities of His Son's ministry. The stained glass Rose Windows of Notre Dame and La Saint Chappell in Paris take my breath away. The master craftsmanship and sheer audacity of the domed Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence seem to define the very limits of architecture. The immensity of Saint Peter's in the Vatican is overwhelming. That single sky penetrating point of stone on the tower at Salisbury Cathedral in Southern England and the slender columns at Amiens, Chartres, Beauvais, Cologne and half a dozen other gothic creations defy gravity. They are remarkable to see and I hope everyone will one day visit some of them, yet there is that spiritual dimension, that survivor quality, that testimony to the enduring power of Christ's teachings that could tame even the barbarian invaders of a more civilized Mediterranean world.

This haunts my thoughts and draws me inside to smell once again the incense, see the rainbow colored light streaming through the stained glass, feel the cold moist stone laid so lovingly centuries ago by long forgotten masons and stonecutters, gaze at the frescoes and mosaics of saints and prophets, hear the chanting monks, the whispering feet of the sisters and remember how close we came to losing it all. Where would the world be without the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son? I leave with forgiveness in my heart for all the cruelties, abuses, inadequacies, and excesses of Christian history. The beautiful woman of Revelation, though wild and lost, would yet arise from her nourishing place to once again spread her glorious light throughout the world.

© Fun For Less Tours for LDS Living, 2010. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont/wikipedia.org