01-11-2013 - Traces, n. 10



When people start taking pictures during Mass, it might seem that the religious sense has become a museum piece.


In Florence one Sunday recently, I attended Mass in the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte. During the Consecration, I felt a slight jostle behind me and, turning around, was confronted by a woman with a camera held high to take a picture. There was nothing new about the experience. We have grown used, in recent times, to tourists in our churches, wearing shorts and t-shirts and brandishing cameras.
It’s strange how you become accustomed to something, perhaps experiencing an occasional slight irritation, but mostly not sufficiently motivated or bothered to focus on the feeling. Then, one day, a single event causes a previously unremarked phenomenon to register in a new way. This had actually happened to me the day before, at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, constructed as a homage to the womb of Mary. Walking around the building for the first time, it struck me that there is something tawdry about the way modern Christianity presents such buildings to the world, inviting the secular public to come and gawp and snap without any requirement of reverence or affection. That Sunday morning, the woman behind me with the camera seemed to be sent to reinforce in me the feeling of the day before.
I don’t believe I am making a moralistic point. It isn’t about the idea of taking money from tourists–though this I object to also, for slightly different reasons. Nor is it even about the way tourists dress or behave—mostly they are respectful and dignified. The issue is that, here we are, at the height of the Age of Unreason, when it is becoming close to impossible for the human heart to breathe true air, and we permit–in fact, encourage–a disposition toward faith that, in almost every respect, tends to confirm the dominant mentality of the time.
For what does it suggest–to allow tourists to wander around our places of worship, without commitment of anything but curiosity and a little small change? To me, it suggests acquiescence to a public mentality that treats faith as a residue of a former innocence–fascinating, diverting, beautiful beyond belief, but ultimately belonging to a prior and condescended-to understanding of reality. To permit this is tacitly to concur with a characterization of the religious impulse as something like a museum piece–to be looked at, studied, admired, and recorded as part of the cultural bounty of a weekend away. It is to allow the Cross and the womb of Mary to be treated as fossils, upon which the world now gazes archeologically but without solemnity. But if this is not our perspective, why do we walk around our churches in the midst of such groups and only afterwards realize that not one among us has fallen to our knees? Either Christians are serious about recognizing the crisis of reason that confronts the world, or they simply regard it as a diverting talking-point. If it is real–and I am certain it is–then we must follow the logic of this understanding through to its conclusion.
I have heard some of the arguments for continuing this religious tourism. One is that it at least encourages people to visit churches and cathedrals, where they in turn might hope to be visited by an epiphany of some kind. I don’t doubt that this sometimes occurs. But I also believe that, far more often, the effect of the teeming crowds who  invade our former places of devotion is to consolidate in the unconscious of many believers the idea that our culture no longer gives a moment’s serious thought to the possibility that the Christian proposal might continue to be true.