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Once back in Washington DC… we decided to explore the museums and the magnificent landmarks. DC is full of beautiful buildings and I let out gasps of awe everywhere we drove (I have a thing for grand buildings and architecture from eras gone by).
We decided to visit some churches, crypts and graveyards (long-time readers of this blog will know that we also have a thing for graveyards – and especially the really old ones).
First up was the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land.
What’s interesting about this monastery is that they have replicas of many shrines found in the Holy Land… like, many replicas… and all very beautifully done.
We went on a tour… gawked at the magnificent architecture and artwork (including some of the most beautiful mosaics I’ve laid eyes on)… and the kids asked a lot of questions like this:
“What’s this stuff even for, Mom?”
And like this:
Offspring: “Mommy, what’s a replica?”
Me: “A replica is a copy of the real thing. So these tombs are replicas of tombs found in Israel”
Offspring: “So they’re not real?”
Offspring: “So they’re fake?”
Me: “I guess so… yes”
Offspring: “Why did they build all these fake things in this church?”
(try telling a 5 year old and an 8 year old the answers to those questions)…
Anyhoo…. change of subject… here’s some pretty pics:
Our tour guide spoke very matter-of-factly about the church and the shrines and the stories they represented… and I felt both intrigued (and a bit annoyed) at how certain he was about the “Answers” to the Big Questions.
Because so many… many…. MANY… people claim to know The Truth… The Answers… The Right Way… (and yet, the Knowers all contradict each other at the same time)….
“You’re wrong, I’m right!”…
“No! You’re wrong, I’m right!”… (and on and on it goes… an infinite battle of religious opinion – everyone believing that they hold the “Right” answers about God – and that everyone else is wrong, deceived or misled…)
If tours around religious shrines and churches teach me anything – it’s how to Question… and I try to hold my beliefs and opinions with a very open hand…
As for the kids – the most fascinating part of the tour came in the form of a dead child. This dead child (whom the guide told us was martyred-for-Christ)… has since been declared a Saint (by the church Powers-That-Be). As a result… the child’s dead, blackened corpse… encased in a glass coffin with various kitsch embellishments… is regularly visited and prayed to… and the coffin glass is regularly kissed and mauled by the devout… and… jeez, I have to be honest, I don’t know what to do with information like this.
But then again, each to his own, I guess.
Maybe some religious people find it comforting to pray at the leathery remnants of a child… I just found it weird… and eerie.
But that’s just me.
Here’s a pic of Saint Innocentius. The corpse has been dressed up in an outfit and a wax mask (of a sleeping, peaceful face) has been placed over the dead face. There’s also a wig and a crown and a halo. The hands and feet, however, can still be seen.
The monastery also keeps a collection bones of another saint (can’t remember whom) in their crypt. The bones and body parts are cubed together in a decorated canister. Apparently, the head of the person-in-question was misplaced… but there are still remnants… and people still come to pray there – and ask the bones for special favours.
I am being a bit facetious. I don’t mean to ridicule the belief-systems of others… but yes, there are some things that I just don’t… get… perhaps somebody who prays to dead saints can explain it all to me? Perhaps I just need to hear someone’s real-life account – or perspective – on how it matters to them. Maybe then, I will better understand…
After the tour… (which included a tour of their gardens which included a replica of the Virgin Mary’s tomb)… we left the monastery and drove ourselves off to the very huge (and only recently completed) Washington National Cathedral.
The Washington Cathedral seems to have a very different approach to religion (one that I found significantly more palatable).
Their vision statement says this:
“The National Cathedral will be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in our nation, renewal in the churches, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in our world”.
As a result – we noticed that they had a lot of different activities on offer that had decidedly… different spiritual roots. And, in their bookshop – they had books and trinkets on ALL faiths and belief systems (not only Christianity).
And they had stickers and T-shirts that looked like this:
…and you could buy small replicas of the gargoyles found on the outside of the building – including THIS one:
I find it amusing that the Washington National Cathedral has Darth Vader on it’s northwest tower. 🙂
Also on display was a collection of nativity scenes… each crafted by different artists from around the world, using different materials. They were fascinating to browse… a lovely little art collection in the bowels of the cathedral…
The cathedral is huge… and we spent a few hours browsing around… but finally, it was time for us to leave.
As a final note, I don’t write often about spirituality on this blog.
A couple of years ago, I would have written everything from a very Evangelical, I-have-all-the-answers perspective (not saying that all Christians feel that way, but I was certainly one of the dogmatic types that did!)
These days… I would probably call myself an agnostic. Or – to coin a phrase by my friend Rogan, a “romantic agnostic”. I like the idea of Something Bigger – but, I’m no longer claiming that I know what or who that Something is… or what that Something wants… or what that Something says.
And… I am wary… and rather suspicious… of anyone who claims that they know.
That’s a really strong statement: “I know!”… and I’m not sure I like to use those words any more. And certainly not when it comes to something as mysterious and un-knowable as God.
These days, I have a new name for God: The Divine Mystery.
Because who can truly know everything (or even anything) about God?
If the beautiful cathedrals… and mosques… and monasteries… and chapels… and synagogues… and religious texts… and artwork… and architecture… and shrines… and stain-glass windows… and statues… and sacred monuments… and altars… teach us anything… perhaps they teach us more about ourselves than what they teach us about God.
Perhaps, visiting these places provides us with a deep insight into the hearts and minds of humanity… and our deep yearning to connect with the More…
Perhaps we find in these places… a reflection of who we are – and, more importantly, who we want to be.
For me… personally… my visits to the great places of worship… cause me to question… and reflect… and think… and wonder… and marvel… and consider… and mediate… and imagine… and to give thanks… (I do lots of that: giving thanks…)
And – I think… all-in-all… that’s a good thing.