Religious hankerings

by Terence MacNamee

This week I stood in Cologne cathedral, that huge, soaring Gothic monument of Christendom, and of Catholicism in particular. It is now mainly a tourist attraction.

I thought of the gorgeous profusion of religious art before me, and then of the contrast with the Protestant churches in Switzerland, where the tradition is severe and sober, and there is not so much as a picture. In many old medieval churches there that were taken over at the Reformation, like Neuchâtel cathedral, one is struck by the empty space where the altar has been torn out, murals whitewashed over, and nothing left of the old dispensation. There is an empty space, and nothing to put in it.

And yet, no matter what sort of religious tradition you come from, the empty space where an ornate altar once stood is somehow easier to relate to. We moderns tend to want to leave empty space for God instead of filling it up with symbols of Him. Modern Catholic churches tend to look like that too.

Protestantism, especially the Calvinistic type, as Max Weber saw, is the most modern version of Christianity, having abandoned all the frills and archaisms of the Old Faith. Catholic religiosity is a lot more old-fashioned, and Orthodox Christianity is the most archaic of all, with its unbroken tradition from the Ancient Near East.

What is older than ourselves often seems more authentic. For what is religion and spirituality except an urge to get back to the origins, to the groundless ground of existence?

Devout Protestants sometimes have a hankering back to the lost authenticity of Catholicism; sometimes this makes them go over to Rome, and sometimes it results in a movement within a Protestant church like Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England.

Similarly, devout Catholics sometimes have a hankering back to the lost authenticity of Orthodoxy, which reminds them of their own earlier liturgy, and find themselves drawn to the Uniate Eastern-rite churches.

This nostalgia for what went before in religious history seems to be found in all branches of Christianity. And how could it be otherwise, when Christianity is based on the Faith of Israel, which it uneasily supplanted? As a Westerner, when I attend an Orthodox liturgy, the bearded priests with their hats, the plaintive chanting, and the seven-branched candlestick lit on the altar take me back to where we all began: the Temple of Jerusalem.