A Pagan Meditates in a Baroque Church

A Pagan Meditates in a Baroque Church April 28, 2024

One of the things I love about visiting Europe is the opportunity to see very old churches and cathedrals. You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the architecture and artwork, and the massive amounts of devotion and dedication that went into them. They’re beautiful and amazing and that’s reason enough to visit them.

The degree of spiritual power I experience varies widely from place to place. Some are active congregations and others are little more than museums. Some are built on places of power and others are not. And let’s be honest: my own frame of mind has a lot to do with what I experience, and that too varies widely from place to place.

On my most recent trip I had an experience in one of these churches that I think is worth exploring in more depth.

Einsiedeln Abbey - photo by John Beckett
Einsiedeln Abbey

On such a Winter’s Day

On the last day of our trip we visited the Swiss village of Einsiedeln, including the Benedictine monastery there. The monastery is over a thousand years old; the church was built in the early 1700s. To call it beautiful would be an understatement. The walls and ceilings are covered in sculptures and paintings. The many gold items are not painted – they’re covered in real gold.

Unlike most of Europe’s old churches, this one prohibited interior photography. I’m a Pagan who believes hospitality is among the greatest of virtues, so if my host requests no pictures, then I’ll be a respectful guest and take no pictures. I have plenty of others, from this trip and previous trips. Besides, I don’t want to put the emphasis on this particular church.

We went into the church, took a look around, and decided to move on. This was the end of the trip and cathedral fatigue had already set in. But as we went out, it started to snow. It was cold and wet, we weren’t feeling well to begin with, and we had an hour until our bus picked us up again. All of a sudden wandering through the town didn’t seem like a very attractive idea.

So we went back into the church and took a spot on one of the pews… with the second verse of “California Dreamin’” playing in my head.

As I sat there, looking around, I was feeling so many different things and I tried to sort them out.

Beautiful and sensual, but something wasn’t right

The first was a bit of jealousy. As modern Pagans, we have nothing like this. A few groups have their own meeting places, but most don’t. Many of us have built shrines to our Gods, but nothing on this scale. And what makes it worse is knowing that we did have them at one point, in the distant past. Who’s to blame is not a useful question. The point is that we don’t have this, and I wish we did – to one degree or another.

The second was an appreciation of the art and the artists who made it. As several of our guides pointed out at several stops, artists require patrons – someone who will pay them for their work so they can eat and pay rent. Sometimes that’s the nobility. Sometimes it’s rich merchants. And sometimes it’s the Church. I’m sure some of the artists were highly religious and considered their work acts of devotion, but I’m equally sure some of them were just happy to have paying work. Artists still need patrons today.

The third was an agreement with the idea that religion should be beautiful and sensual. There was a lot wrong with the Evangelical fundamentalism of my childhood. One of those things – far from the worst, but still important – was their iconoclasm. No stained glass, no candles, no paintings (not even the legendary White Jesus painting), and certainly no statutes. The only thing that mattered was “preaching the Word.” I always felt like I missed something.

Of course, when you base your religion entirely on the written word and then the written word doesn’t hold up the way you claim, that creates problems. That was the crack that began my journey out of fundamentalism.

I always want my own religion, my own Paganism, to be a religion of sensuality and beauty. I’m a writer and I love writing liturgy, but I want my rituals to help people see and hear and touch and feel. I’ll never lead a ritual in a place like this, but that’s OK – we can bring art and music into our rituals where ever we hold them.

So I was feeling three things. Jealousy, but in an appreciative sense, not a resentful sense. Respect for the artists. Beauty and sensuality in religion. I expected to have a positive feeling about all this.

So why did I feel like something was wrong?

Too much is too much

Time moves slowly when you’re waiting.

I have a fairly typical American fascination with the British monarchy. I love the history and the pageantry. I’m intrigued with the idea of kings and queens. And as an American, it doesn’t cost me a dime. I’ve always enjoyed watching the royal weddings and funerals, but something shifted with last year’s coronation of King Charles III.

It felt like too much.

The coronation was majestic, as it should be. But parts of it – especially the ermine robes and the Gold State Coach – seemed so ostentatious and so over the top that they left me feeling like this should not be.

I got the same feeling in this church.

I want to be really clear: I am not a Protestant and certainly not a Puritan. Places like this cost too much and they should cost too much – those who insist it should all be “given to the poor” miss the point about what it means to be human and to be religious.

But there are limits.

And this church was on the wrong side of the line.

Yes, religion should be beautiful and sensual, but how does it help to have so much art you can never take it all in?

Paying tribute to your God or Gods is a good and necessary thing, but this much excess points towards spiritual insecurity and misplaced values.

There are many ways to fall into error in religion: a lack of humility and an emphasis on literalism. Superficiality and assuming “deep down it’s all the same anyway.”

Or never recognizing when enough is enough.

Honor and humility, mirth and reverence

So what does this mean for us as Pagans? We are unlikely to be tempted to build temples with too much beautiful artwork anytime in the near future… or in the very distant future. If anything, we’re likely to face the opposite temptation – to forego art and music in our worship and devotion because it’s costly and inconvenient. That too would be a mistake.

But everything has a limit. Everything has a point where you go from a sip of wine to a glass of wine to being unsafe to drive. And crossing that line turns a beautiful experience into something that isn’t.

It was still snowing when we went outside to catch the bus. I took a few pictures while Cathy waited under a shelter. The bus was exactly on time and we went on to our next tour stop, which thankfully was indoors.

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