On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, after a fashion, to enter.
I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 13th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior. And it was cool in there, with only the faintest shafts of sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. I sat in the quiet, punctuated only here and there by the organist’s practicing.
I wasn’t alone.
From my place in the back I saw an elderly man with two laden plastic bags swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door. He sat for a moment, then gathered his things and left through the side door opposite, as if this were a regular stop on his rounds, a throughway or a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.
A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm the fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it. She slumped, just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion.
Minutes passed, I lost track of time. From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face. Some deep trouble has come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, or seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place. Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.
In that moment— a twinkling, really — I knew I was meant to bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.
I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in eight centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace.
I remembered all this again, this afternoon, as I read in the UK “Daily Telegraph” that British millennials are returning to church in larger numbers than you might think, even those who identify as nonbelievers. They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them. They seek the sacred.
According to the article, young people are filling the pews for events like choral evensong and stopping by churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have someplace quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.
A monk from St. Meinrad once told me they have special instructions for the new young brothers, should they see someone weeping in the great cathedral. It attracts visitors all the time, and often when people sit in silence in such a place, they are overcome with emotion. Cathedrals are designed, very specifically, to act as a conduit for the sacred and the divine. Sitting still with oneself can provide a similar conduit. Sitting still with oneself in a such a place with a troubled heart or a worried mind is that, and then some.
The young brothers were instructed to honor the space and the visitors by allowing them to have their feelings in peace, that people don’t need to be rescued from their emotions. Walk quietly, they are told, and be available if someone seeks you out, but in no other way interfere.
In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it. Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Or seek out any heavy wooden door on any place of sanctuary. Find one unlocked.