By the time I was 15 I’d visited more churches than I could count. Churches in this country and churches far away. Visiting churches was I thought then, a unique kind of torture that my mother inflicted on us as we traveled the world. In fact, my sister and I have so many memories of being dragged into yet another ancient church, in yet another old town, that some years ago, when we were playing “Apples To Apples,” with my mom and my children, I won the round when my sister was judge by offering the word “churches” when the card she held was “painful.” We laughed for at least ten minutes after she declared me the winner of that round. My mother was not amused. My children were confused. But my sister and I were in stitches, recalling memories of my mom telling us that the town we were in had a beautiful church we had to go see.
Now I’d do anything to go back to those churches. Tiny, simple structures on the hillsides and coastline of Cyprus, elegant stone spaces with stained glass windows in small towns in France, angular white buildings in New England. The Vatican. Notre Dame. St. Paul’s in London. St. Basil’s in Moscow. Check, check and check. The whitewashed village church in a village outside of Athens, well past Midnight but long before sunrise on Easter morning. The building stuffed with people, the air thick with incense, soft candlelight flickering all around me. Sunday morning at a church in a part of Washington, D.C. I’d never visited, even though I’d grown up in that city. Where we never sat down. Where the walls shook with joyful noise and I couldn’t help but sway and clap and sing my way through some of the most energizing music I’ve ever heard.
We tease my mom, but really it wasn’t painful. It was a gift. All that church searching and church looking and church going.
Now when I travel, I seek out the churches. I love the cool air, the quiet and dark, the art, the stone, the history and the smell. Old churches have a smell- a peaceful mixture of slightly damp air with a hint of furniture polish, melting candle wax and sometimes the lingering bits of incense burned at the last service. The smell brings back memories- memories of travel adventures with my fearless mom, memories of all the churches I should have appreciated. Old churches smell like my childhood.