I spent much of the last month on a personal trip traveling through several cities in Europe. I passed through Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, and Paris. Being a seminary student, I was very excited to see the many important religious sites in these cities, places I usually could only read about in a church history book.
However, there are some dark truths intermixed in these beautiful and wonderfully historic sites. So many of the biggest cathedrals and centers of Western Christianity in these cities have prospered on a history of exploitation and oppression. There are grand, gold-gilded statues in the Cathedral of Toledo, which have plaques explaining they are made of gold taken from Latin America. It becomes hard to recognize the statues as a symbol for God when one knows this gold was mined and carried on the backs of indigenous slaves in Central America.
It can at times be hard to see God in the art of these churches, as one strains to see past the massive amounts of propaganda for kings and popes co-opting the name of God for their own use.
Even in public squares, I was reminded of a not so holy past. As I walked through Plaza Mayor in Madrid, enjoying a bright sunny Sunday stroll, I was reminded that this central plaza was the center of executions for the Spanish Inquisition, possibly one of the most terrorizing religious movements in recorded history.
On my last day in Paris as my fiancée and I headed to the airport to fly back to Madrid, I was reminded that no religion is safe from being co-opted into something very distorted and wholly opposed to its true nature when a group of Muslim extremists carried out a massacre at the French Magazine Charlie Hebdo, just a few blocks from where we were staying.
It’s in the wake of this event that I reflected on my trip and considered what keeps people of faith committed and practicing in the face of something as heinous as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Spanish Inquisition, or so many other tragic examples.
I don’t really have a good academic answer. Here is what keeps me going, though:
Something else struck me on this trip. In these old cathedrals, in spite of the huge monuments to Christian power, prestige, and oppression, these sanctuaries are made holy by the simple pews and old worn kneelers that line the floors.
These old wooden kneelers have no sign to mark their significance, but for me they are the holiest shrines. The pews and kneelers are blessed by the prayers and tears of widows, orphans, peasants, and the thousands of other common people who have and will come to these places every day of the year to practice a humble and beautiful faith. They make the cathedrals into holy places.
When those who wrongly claim religion as a guise commit acts of extremism, in the face of whole empires and systems that use religion to propagate oppression and terror, these same symbols bring me hope.
The simple prayers and actions of ordinary Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and humanists across the globe teach me what is truly at the heart of these traditions: love. This brings me hope that through these ordinary people, healing and wholeness can come to fractured communities and places.
Photo courtesy of the author.