Old Churches and Distant Memories

slice of life updated

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.


14 thoughts on “Old Churches and Distant Memories

  1. I loved this article – not least because we take our own children around a lot of churches and castles, and I really like your descriptions of the stone. We also like visiting the bigger cathedrals at dusk, when they are floodlit.


  2. I have to think about what my childhood smells like. Definitely not old churches. Maybe ski lodges or beaches. Love the way you capture the relationship you have with your mom


  3. I grew up in an old church in the countryside of northeastern Missouri. It was small and only used once a week for Saturday evening mass. The way you describe these churches takes me back there. Those memories are intertwined with sights, sounds, and smells. Similarly, at the time, I did not enjoy being there, thinking it simple and old fashioned. Now, because it was struck by lightning and burned, I wish I could visit.


  4. I really enjoyed reading this. What a beautiful piece. I could smell the church smells when reading. My dad always found a catholic church whenever we went someplace new. When my mom went to Italy, all she spoke about were the beautiful churches (and wine of course!) Your piece makes me want to go visit some churches. Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece.


  5. Oh my! Your description of the way churches smell was so much like my childhood church that I was suddenly six years old again kneeling in the pew smelling that hint of polish and lingering incense. I envy all your travels!


  6. Believe it or not, I’ve toured many churches when I’ve traveled. One of my favorites was Palais des Papes in Avignon. Did you visit when you were in SE France last summer?

    Another favorite is St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. I had some good friends who were Catholic growing up so I remember venturing in there for the first time with some of them when we spent the day in Manhattan. Just gorgeous.


  7. How beautiful this is. When I read, “Now I’d do anything to go back to those churches,” I thought, “Take me with you!” Your words describe these places so well and make me want to do this going forward – visit old churches and soak in their “cool air, the quiet and dark, the art, the stone, the history and the smell.” It was a gift – and you have given us one with this inspiration.


  8. Lisa, this brought me back to some of the ancient churches I visited when living abroad. But I have to tell you, my favorite part was the Apples to Apples vignette– so hilarious! My brother and I had so many secret understandings like that, too. Thanks for the piece. You made me want to write about him again…


  9. Oh how fun it is to joke about those childhood trips that are so precious to us now. I love seeing how close you and your sister are, probably because of shared experiences like these.


  10. Wonderful post! I have to admit that your title was what drew me in. I, too, love old churches and seem to seek them out when I travel. St. Peter’s in Bermuda, twice visited. The Netherlands with the ancient churches of Delft and Den Haag (built in the 1200’s) were a highlight of a trip I took this past fall. Unlike you, I’m not sure if it is the history, the architecture or the spirituality that draws me in. In any case, they are so worth visiting.


  11. Funny how smells can be so powerful to our memories. Sometimes I’ll catch a hint of something on the air and it brings long lost memories flooding back. I wonder if our students have a smell memory built up or does that just come with age?


  12. Oh, wow, this is beautiful. Your words make me want to seek out an old church and smell the incense. So beautifully written.

    I appreciated, too, how you were able to inject a bit of humor in an otherwise very poetic piece. The part about the Apples to Apples win made me giggle.


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