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, it seemed, to enter.
I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 15th 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 rays of sunlight making their way through the stained glass windows. It was mostly quiet, punctuated now and then by the organist’s practicing.
I wasn’t alone.
From my place in the back I watched an elderly man with heavy plastic bags of groceries swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door. He sat for a moment, then gathered his things, stood to settle the ballast of his bags, and left through the side door opposite the one he came in by. It was as if St. Moritz were a regular stop on his rounds, a throughway, 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 a 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 had 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, without 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.
For in that moment—a twinkling, really— I knew I was meant to see her, 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 seven centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. I’ve read that in Great Britain, millennials are returning to church, not always as believers, not always for the formal services of Mass and Easter Vigil.
They fill the pews for events like evensong and often stop by churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have some place quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.
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 come because they seek the sacred. Cathedrals are built with just such intention, these great sacred conduits that open up a space for the divine. We feel it, even if we can’t name it, don’t fully understand it.
In such places, tears often come.
It’s unsettling at first, as we feel that tender place within, a big place or a little one, where lurks a question, a grief, some uncertainty or fear. We are in need of some mending. We are missing something, and we think here we might find it.
For that is what hope is, isn’t it? An awaiting, an expectation of some desire to be fulfilled, even if we cannot name it yet, this thing we long for. We hope for resolution, or clarity or rest. In sanctuary is always the hope of deliverance.
In this second week of Advent, we light a candle and look into the flame, we contemplate love and hope, and like our young friends who sit for a while at evensong, we don’t have to know exactly what it all means. We just have to sit still. Crack open our hearts, just a sliver. Breathe.
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. Seek out the heavy door on any place of sanctuary—a church, nature, a friend. Find one open to you.