Tuesday, June 18, 2013

From Texas to Taizé: A Museum, or a Church?

Welcome to chapter four on my journey to Taizé with many very cool people from the Central Texas Conference, a pilgrimage led by Bishop Mike Lowry and Rev. Dr. Larry Duggins of the Missional Wisdom Foundation.  For a few words on the worship life, check out chapter 1, for a bit on living in the community, check out chapter 2, for a few words on the worship space itself, see chapter 3Chapter 4 spoke of the Good Friday and Easter Worship services that close out the worship week at Taizé. 

This post is a little different from the others.  Part of the fun of traveling to Europe, especially for this liturgy nerd is being able to take the opportunity to tour some of the most beautiful churches in Christendom.   To be able to take the opportunity to tour (pray through) some of the churches so close to the beginnings of the Christian church as we've come to think of it was just priceless.  But at the same time there was something that nagged me consistently - while I felt the weight of history on me inside the many hallowed walls I walked through, I was walking through museums, not really houses of worship.

On Saturday of the week at Taizé, our Texas group took the opportunity to go into Cluny, the closest major town and a short bus ride away.  At the center of the town are the ruins of what used to be the Cluny Abbey.  The Benedictine order of monks that were in residence there founded the order in the early 900s.  Three successive churches were built in Cluny over the next three hundred years, and the Abbey became a hub for some 300 other Cluniac monasteries the reached throughout Europe.  As an abbey that only answered to the Pope (many abbeys and monasteries also had to answer to their patrons), so it grew to be a very powerful and influential monastic community.  It's influence, however, slowly declined over the centuries.  Even as the town had grown up around it, at the time of the French Revolution the church was seen as an oppressive enemy of the people.  The church itself was torn down brick by brick in the aftermath of the revolution, brick and stone used to further build out the town of Cluny itself.

At the bottom of the picture, you can see a display stand with steps arched around it.  In the back ground you can see a large tower and a smaller one to the left of it.  The old abbey stretched some 186 meters from that black to just past those towers, most of it sanctuary with little chapels off to the sides as you walked from one end to the other.  All of it gone, and the towers preserved as a museum.  Until St. Peter's in Rome was completed, the Cluny Abbey was the largest church in Christendom, a status it had maintained for 500 years.  I can't begin to describe to you the feeling of standing where such a grand church used to be.

After our time in Taizé, we had the blessing to take three days to decompress in Paris.  Which of course involved seeing many of the more famous churches in Christian history.

Having the chance to walk through Notre Dame was the opportunity of a lifetime.  When we walked through the doors, we were blessed enough to here a choir singing as they offered a concert.  It was more than incredible.

But it was also a bit of a circus in there.  Another museum, not so much a church.  Mass is indeed offered many times a week, but like Sacré Cœur across Paris, mass includes tourists making the loop around to see the beautiful stained glass and different chapel settings and art work.  It was actually kind of embarrassing at times.

Meanwhile there are signs everywhere to pay your euros for the prayer candles (which there were always more than one size of).  And oh my, the confessional booth at Notre Dame?  It was a bit like a bank vault.  Seriously.  Probably two inch thick, completely sound proof glass framing out a comfy looking office area for the priest in rotation.  Better take a ticket.

There's really nothing like this feeling here in America ... Touring these museum churches, that kind of still functioned as churches.  We have some amazing old churches with such rich history on the east coast, but most of our American churches are children in comparison.

But at the same time something was gnawing at me ... I mean, did God want us to build monuments to God's glory in buildings?  Or in people?  As beautiful as these churches were (the stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle was other-worldly in its beauty), why were they built?  Yes, for a time they drew people in to worship, but now they draw tourists in (even as they worship).  To me, these beautiful houses of worship are now cautionary tales.  As I work in a beautiful downtown church, I'm mindful that it  needs to remain a house of worship - now - and that's the way to glorify God through this building.

Even through all of these emotions, I felt the power of God as I walked the steps to the top of the Notre Dame's tower, able to see out over all of Paris.  I felt the weight of history as I walked the paths of so many monks who had walked up what felt like hundreds of stairs to do their duty in ringing the bells for the parish. Even in the hustle and bustle of churches selling souvenirs in the narthex, the presence of God was there.  I felt the presence of many saints who had genuinely worshiped on the hallowed ground I'd walked upon - I pray for them to be present with us as we build a church of people on this day.