My last week in Netherlands the weather turned cold and rainy. That depressing gray drizzle that you can walk about in, go to the grocery store or bank in, but you would rather lounge on the sofa, drinking hot Jasmine tea, and reading the second book in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexandar McCall Smith. Sounds ideal, but instead I found myself catering to bored, cabin-fevered children. Oh, if only Nickelodeon’s “Wonder Pets” could have played all day. Plus N had business trips to Switzerland and Sweden.
Coming back from Switzerland, he and his GPS girlfriend had a falling out. I knew it would be so–those intense love affairs burn out so quickly. He had refused to slavishly follow her desires. They got into a fight in the snowy Ardennes; and she said in that crisp, clear voice of hers “unable to navigate further” and shut off.
I went back into old city of Maastricht to visit the St. Servaas Basilica built upon the remains of Saint Servatius buried in 384.
I wrote a small piece to my friend about the experience. I will include it here:
I’m drawn to old places of worship, even those small, harsh churches in the rural places with the straight boards painted white and stove to heat the cold congregations. The air is thicker in these places. I feel buoyant, like in waters of old prayers–the most earnest of prayers–still bleeding, vivid, not diluted to benign by some reproduction of print technology. N feels this tangible energy at battlefield sites. Sometimes he knows he is on a battlefield before he even stumbles across a placard or marker. We make quite a traveling pair.
Saint Servaas Basilica was empty except for my family and the two kind ladies cleaning Mary as the “Seat of Wisdom” with rags. How casually their hands wiped the sacred object I just read about in the little brochure the man in the booth gave me.
This basilica, a rather plain, unspectacular specimen compared to its neighboring cathedrals, held a special treat for me, the music lover. The organist was practicing that afternoon. I remembered my college choir director explaining the composers of old wrote music for these cavernous cathedrals and basilicas, knowing the sound drifted to the ceiling and echoed in the concaves. Listen to a “Palestrina” piece sung by “Tallis Scholars” on YouTube. As I watched the organist’s fingers twist about the keyboards, above me, these invisible analog waves played, splashing about, making joyful noises in the ceiling.
Once workers had hoisted themselves to these heights to install the ceiling. In 1500, they didn’t have OSHA regulations; these men risked their lives to put a brick in place.
Again a mystery returns to me, some epiphany I can’t seem to articulate. It started in the Bruges Cathedral. This is an edge of it:
My eyes will pass over the massive stain glass; and I will think how majestic, how beautiful the warm reds and oranges shine like sunlight refracted in rain onto the dark stone interior. I will not come closer to study the tiny detail one skilled hand must have labored over to craft the flowing folds of Jesus’ sleeve as he held up the cup of his blood. In a matter of seconds, I will pass the window of Jesus at the last supper to another stain glass masterpiece: the ever redundant scene of Jesus on Mary’s lap. In my mind’s messy file system, these windows will merge to a single amalgamation of all the stain glass I have ever seen.
But I must be reverent in these places, even if I don’t appreciate the position of Jesus’ falling sleeve, or remember the exact gold sculpture of Jesus on the cross hovering over the altar. For in the concaves above me echo the ernest prayers of brick layers, composers, stain glass masters, pilgrims crawling on their knees, and generations of worshipers.