I’m part of a casual writing group that meets once a month to share our writings on a particular topic. A few months ago, our writing prompt was “travel.” The first thing that came to mind was the incredibly moving, almost transformational, experiences I’ve had in churches, synagogues, and cemeteries on my travel adventures — despite the fact that I’m not at all religious.
This is the essay I read at our writer’s group. I feel compelled to share it with you now for a few reasons: the holidays, in equal measure, crank me up like a 3-year-old on a sugar bender and inspire me to be reflective… we’re planning a trip to Prague, Slovenia, and Croatia, so travel adventures are on my mind… given the tragic events of the last few weeks, now seems like a fine time to focus on the things that matter.
My parents were both raised Catholic and attended Catholic school, as did all of my mom’s eight brothers and sisters and their children… and my dad’s siblings and their children… and all of their relatives, too. Our local radio station played the recitation of the rosary every evening, and family weddings, at least when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, always included a formal mass. I’m pretty sure that’s why I now have so much affection for couples who provide a civilized cocktail before their vows: I can still recreate the uncomfortable feelings of anticipation and anxiety that surrounded those 10:00 a.m. Catholic wedding ceremonies that seemed to last forever. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel. Sing. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel. Sing.
My Aunt Polly, Mom’s sister, was my favorite aunt. She was an advertising copywriter, and back in the day, she was always pulled together: hair styled, lipstick applied, matching handbag and shoes, and always, a chic hat and floral scarf. Always. She smelled like powder and flowers, and when she came to visit, she slept in my room, reading to me from a bible with perfectly crinkly onion-skin pages. The two of us would snuggle, heads together under the crucifix that hung above my bed. She’d been born again and lead bible study groups in Pennsylvania. I remember being hypnotized by the sound of her voice, her fragrance, and the alluring crinkle of the pages as she licked her finger tip to turn to the next passage.
At Syracuse University, I wanted to sing, and unless you were a superstar music major, the only option was the choir. I joined the Hendricks Chapel Choir, and every Sunday morning, I woke up at 7:00 a.m., put on respectable clothes, and hiked up the hill to the Chapel to sing hymns and glorious classical pieces that pay homage to a God in which I didn’t place much faith.
But I loved that Chapel. It was cool in the summer; cozy in the winter. There was nothing extraneous; lovely in its minimalism, it offered a clean dome overhead, wooden floors underfoot, and carved in large letters around the room, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Because it was a non-denominational chapel, the services were practical and matter of fact. There was no hand-wringing and slinging of incense balls like St. Ambrose back at home. The minister doled out good advice, we sang beautiful music, and everyone went to brunch.
I’m not at all religious. Spiritual, yes, but I don’t belong to a church. So I found it interesting that some of my most meaningful travel memories are the result of sitting in a church or a cemetery. I feel reverence and serenity and a connection to humanity when I sit in a centuries-old building or the final resting place of people whose time on this earth has passed. The obvious devotion of others moves me, even though I don’t share their beliefs or practice their traditions.
I think it started with Notre Dame de Paris in 1985.
I was on tour with the American Music Abroad Choir. We’d been on the road for almost three weeks, wearing blue bottoms, white shirts, and red blazers while we sang negro spirituals and traditional American folk tunes — plus a choreographed Beach Boys medley — in town halls for appreciative, America-loving locals. Our last stop was Paris, and instead of the civic settings to which we’d become accustomed, we were singing in Notre Dame, under the stained glass windows and flying buttresses. I was 16 years old, and I couldn’t imagine anything better. It’s hard now, at 44, to imagine anything better still. My friend Louise sang a breathtaking solo in the middle of our Mozart piece, and it was all I could do to keep singing around the lump in my throat. The music soared in that space, and I felt the spirit of the people who built it, worshiped there, mourned there, were bored there. Somehow, all of that over-the-top-ness, made it all very human and real.
Fifteen years later, Dave and I went on holiday to Paris and serendipity showed her hand: there was a concert one night in Notre Dame Cathedral of the same Mozart piece I’d sung. Others might call that divine intervention, but I prefer to think of it as Fortuna, turning her wheel and giving me my turn at the top.
That was also the trip that took us to Pére Lachaise Cemetery, the final resting place, most infamously, of Jim Morrison. But I was more interested in the graves of Chopin and Oscar Wilde. I was never the goth girl who was into cemeteries when I was the appropriate age to be the goth girl who’s into cemeteries. The artsy and creative students at Syracuse were notorious for going to the cemetery near the dorms to smoke, to draw, to relate. I never joined them.
But our day in Pére Lachaise was one of those perfect days that materialize when you’re up for adventure. The weather was crisp and cool. Dried leaves crunched under our feet, an accompaniment to our boots clacking on the cobblestones, both spooky and comforting. It’s tradition for ladies to kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde, and imprints of pink and red and maroon lips covered it like confetti.
Chopin’s grave was buried under a colorful, bobbing mass of flowers, and I enjoyed imagining the reactions of both men to their postmortem celebrity. Wilde would surely toss off some biting bon mots about how wasted a woman’s lips were when applied to him. And I could see Chopin, who is credited with starting the tradition of musicians wearing dramatic black for performances and sitting in profile to the audience… all the better to show off his handsome profile, n’est-ce pas?… smiling with smug satisfaction that even 150 years after his death, he was still drawing a smitten audience.
After we’d meandered among the tombs, crypts, and headstones, we randomly chose an exit to see what we’d see on the other side, and found ourselves in a residential neighborhood, then a tiny bistro unaccustomed to English-speaking tourists. A hint of tension floated in the air as we took a table, but with garbled French on my part and a willingness to try at English on the waiter’s side, we were soon all smiles and tucking into omelets and croque monsieur. The hike among the dead had created an appetite for life that required wine and good French food.
Our experience at the Jewish Cemetery in Prague was equally life-affirming but far more somber.
It started with a visit to the synagogues in Prague’s Old Jewish quarter. The first, the Pinkas Synagogue, was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941. After WWII, it was converted into a memorial for the nearly 80,000 Jews from Bohemia that were killed during the Holocaust. The walls are hand painted with the names of each person lost to the Holocaust. I knew that before I stepped across the threshold, but I wasn’t prepared for the exquisite sadness of those rooms. I felt tender and raw and open; not sad so much as awed at all the people who pass on this planet and do what they do. They eat, complain, laugh, get bored, get drunk, make mistakes, achieve their dreams… or not. But we all live, and we all die, and it was all right there. And as we solemnly read the names on the walls, and I tried to put labels on the emotions firing through my body, a cantor began to sing. Sorrow, optimism, life, death — they were all wrapped up in the haunting, undulating notes.
We moved in silence to the Old New Synagogue. It was completed in 1270 and is still actively used for worship. It’s a smallish building with vaulted ceilings and an overwhelming sense of hush. We followed the path of the tour through the heart of the synagogue and marveled at the mystical details, but it wasn’t until we took a seat in what’s essentially the lobby that my heart joined the rest of me. I sat on the stone bench, cool and smooth beneath my bottom, and realized that I was sitting in a small dip, worn into the stone by almost 800 years of other people sitting down to rest and take it all in. Eight hundred years of girls and boys and men and women, sitting on the stone, breathing the cool air, relishing the calm. Or not. Because for most of them, their Jewish faith would make their experience in this synagogue far more complicated — potentially more rewarding or troubling — than mine. I felt both small and grateful, and I breathed. And sighed. And then there was nothing left but to move on.
We wandered, finally, to the Jewish Cemetery. The headstones topple over and crisscross each other like adolescent teeth that haven’t yet worn their braces. Jewish graves cannot be destroyed, and there was no room to expand a cemetery belonging to Jews, so when the cemetery was full, they added a new layer of soil and buried the newly dead atop the old graves. There are now 12 layers of history in the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Dave and I sat on a bench in the shade, emotionally exhausted but softly exhilarated, too. I looked at the tombstones and had this thought: Nothing we do matters, and everything we do matters. We’re small and humble and eventually we go into the ground and really, what does it matter if our house needs paint or I’d like to trade down the size of my jeans?
Somehow, at the same time, it all matters. Love matters. Dreams matter. Doing the right thing matters. Because in the end, we all go into the ground, and what we do with our time above ground must matter.
Our last stop in the Jewish Quarter was at the Spanish Synagogue. It’s the fanciful, accessible synagogue, built in 1848. Its Moorish design and glittering gold interior are now used as part of the Jewish Museum and for music concerts.
During WWII, the Nazis took it over as a repository for property stolen from Jewish families. Walking into the warm, glowing interior, I cringed at their wickedness while I read about the Synagogue in my guide book: “Of the 120,000 Jews living in the area in 1939, just 10,000 survived the Holocaust to see liberation in 1945.” Those words were still hanging like dialogue in a cartoon thought-balloon when the music started. Bach’s Air on a G String. At the sound of the first note, hot tears spilled from my eyes. Piercing and poignant. A reminder that nothing we do matters and everything we do matters.
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