The year 2019 found us moving to Germany due to my husband’s new job assignment. Even though we were both retirement age, the spirit of adventure was calling. Who wouldn’t be excited at the prospects of living in Europe for three years? Oh, the places we could go…the things we could see! Little did we realize at the time that within a few short months there would be a worldwide pandemic and everything would literally shut down – well, almost everything.
We soon discovered, that no matter where we went, one thing remained open – the church doors. The doors remained open, and the bells continued to ring, calling the faithful to worship. Of course, strict regulations were in place for congregational meetings. Social distancing and the wearing of masks quickly became a way of life, but the doors remained open throughout the day for passing tourists or for individuals seeking solace and quiet meditation.
As we explored various towns with empty streets, the church bells always invited us to step inside sacred walls for a few minutes of reflection. There is nothing that so defines the beauty and majesty of Europe as its cathedrals. As a passing tourist, you walk into these massive structures and you are instantly swallowed up in a cavernous sanctuary surrounded by exquisite stained-glass windows, gilded altars, wooden carvings of saints masterfully crafted, and priceless works of art and paintings of Madonna and Child. You are enveloped in flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches. The beauty and majesty of it all can almost be exhausting and overwhelming. I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain as he visited the art galleries and cathedrals of Europe: “We have seen famous pictures until our eyes are weary with looking at them and refuse to find interest in them any longer.”
In all of the grandeur I have encountered in these places of worship, there has always been one thing that arrested my attention. Interestingly enough, it has been something profound in its simplicity. Each and every time I have visited one of these cathedrals, there have always been one or two individuals sitting alone, close to the altar, quietly meditating and praying. It’s a moving experience to walk into an empty, quiet cathedral and find a worshipper. Somehow it touches my heart; so, I’m sure it must touch the heart of God. Once these individuals notice the presence of tourists, they quietly get up and slip out, and you’re left feeling like you have intruded on sacred ground.
I enjoy taking walks in the little village where we live. It is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants and boasts three small churches. Although they are not cathedrals, they are beautiful in their own right. I stopped one day to take in the beauty of the tolling bells at the Evangelical church. A passerby stopped to speak with me, in perfect English, and let me know that I was welcome to enter the church, that it was always open. I walked in and discovered that I had the privilege of being one of those lone worshippers.
I went and sat on the front pew and soaked in the simplicity of this little church and the beauty of the bells as they continued to peal their welcome. This was the same church my husband and I had visited for a Christmas Eve service, before the coming of the pandemic. My thoughts went back to that night. The church was packed and we had sat in the balcony, tightly scrunched in between strangers…our last such experience before social distancing became a way of life. We had been advised to arrive early if we wanted a seat. For a half hour we sat with other villagers in total silence. No one even whispered. Then the hour arrived for worship and the bells began to ring in their joyful invitation. We strained to understand the words of the minister as he shared the Christmas story. We caught certain words…Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus…come to Bethlehem. We felt a warm and beautiful spirit, although we couldn’t understand everything. I remember being captivated with the tree that decorated the front altar area. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was the simplicity of the tree and lack of gaudiness that attracted me…small white lights, red globes and white snowflakes. A brass ensemble played beautiful renditions of worship. There were several congregational hymns including my favorite, “Silent Night.”
This particular day, sitting there alone, was a wonderful time of reflection. If you’ve never sat alone in a church, I highly recommend it. You’ll be surprised where your mind and your spirit will take you. You will feel the Presence of God, once you quiet yourself. The contemplation of such an experience might actually terrify some people. They don’t like being alone with their thoughts before an omniscient God. Just remember…He is a God of love, full of compassion, and is described as a “God of all comfort.” If you come as a sinner, He is willing and ready to forgive. He is waiting for you with open arms. The doors of the church are always open. They invite you to come in and find rest for your soul.