Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.
(Image: a statue to Saint Anthony in the small chapel of ST. BLASIUSKIRCHE , Salzburg, Austria / Julie Cook / 2012)
The deep groaning and creaking sound of the huge ancient wooden door being pulled open echoes loudly throughout the small yet cavernous chapel. It must be the vaulted ceiling helping to carry the sound deep into the hallowed room. The burning votives cast an otherworldly glow. There is a lingering scent of incense mixed with the musty dampness.
There is a lone figure, an older woman, kneeling at one of the front pews…her rosary woven through her fingers, moving ever so slightly, bead per bead as she silently makes her petitions before the small statue.
I once heard it put that religion was just something for old woman and children. Pity that…as that must mean that older woman and children are the only ones who “get it”…everyone else must be too vain, too prideful, too arrogant to truly understand.
My eyes begin to adjust to the lack of lighting as the cool air is a welcomed feeling against the late afternoon Autumn warmth outside. I walk slowly, quietly, reverently down the small aisle, my hand resting on the smooth wooden end cap of each pew, as I make my way to my seat of choice. I kneel slightly, the genuflection of reverence, before slipping into the pew.
I’m not Catholic but raised Anglican–I oddly welcome and greatly appreciate the nuances of ancient worship–more than would be expected from my raising. There is a deep mystery which I believe many in our mainstream churches miss. This Christianity of ours is an ancient faith but that is too sadly forgotten in this age of the technologically savvy mega church. The ancient components to worship lost on those now sitting in stadium type seating waiting, as if ready for the latest block buster to begin, to be wowed not by participation but by passive viewing.
Despite my pained attempts to muffle my movements, each step, each rustle of my jacket, causes deep reverberations through this ancient room, I feel very conspicuous even though just one other person is present. She never wavers from her intense focus to her prayerful conversation. She is oblivious to my presence.
I take in my surroundings before dropping to my knees. The chapel is hundreds of years old as worship here dates back to the 1200s. Dark wood paneling with cream colored walls. Arched vaults line the ceiling with stone columns systematically placed, acting as supports, creating the aisles throughout the room. This is not one of the beautifully bright and light Rococoesque churches of Austria that the tourists clammer to enter in order to view famous paintings, statues and frescos with ornate altars boasting a multitude of plaster cherubs heralding glad tidings. This chapel is small, dark, ancient and humble. Perhaps that is why I was drawn inside.
I slip down to my knees as I make the sign of the cross. I begin my “conversation”—it is one of thanksgiving and gratitude as a tremendous sense of warmth and contentment engulfs me. I then begin my petitions—not for myself, but for those I love who are not with me on this particular journey. After some time, I open my eyes. How long had I been praying? I rest in the moment as a tremendous sense of safety and peace washes over me–it is almost palpable.
Am I a tourist or a pilgrim? I like to think that when I travel, I am a pilgrim. I want to not merely observe, but rather, I want to partake…I want to be a part of each moment in time. I am not here to watch an old Austrian woman in prayer, watching from the shadows of an ancient chapel as some sort of voyeuristic individual or as someone viewing animals in an enclosure, but rather I want to pray beside her to the same God who hears each of our prayers. I am in communion with her even though she never glances my way. I want to appreciate this chapel that is a part of her daily life, wishing I too had such a special and reverent place of retreat.
The history here is so old as countless individuals previously have gathered here to worship, to seek, to lament, to rejoice. I slowly rise from my knees slipping out of the pew. I make my way to the small alter to pick up a fresh votive. I gently touch the fresh wick to one of the existing burning flames–my hand slightly shakes. I feel the warm heat against my cheeks rising from the candles. I place my lit votive in an empty slot silently thanking Saint Anthony and God for this time of communion with not only them but with this woman who never seems to notice my presence.
I am grateful. I slip a few coins into the small metal locked box by the door. I make my way back outside, into the light. It almost hurts my eyes as it is now so sunny and bright. The sounds of the throngs of people on the streets is almost painful to my ears. This is Oktoberfest, the streets and alleyways are teeming with a sea of people.
For a brief moment I had a glimpse of the Divine. I feel different for the encounter. Changed. Better. Not in an arrogant sort of way but more in the way that I have been fortunate to be privy to something so rich and so special. I look out at all of the throngs of people reveling in this historic and exciting city during this raucous time. I slightly smile inward thinking that I hold a special secret that no one else knows….no one other than that older woman back in the chapel and myself.