I Hate Religion, but I Love Churches
Whether it’s the hypocrisy of religion or just the fact that a talented architect took such care in making them, I find cathedrals irresistible.
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I was raised Catholic. Not a cultural Catholic who’s part of the hatch, match and dispatch brigade of churchgoers (those that only attend for christenings, weddings and funerals). I mean I was a fully-fledged, church-every-week type Catholic. I never missed it. Even if my family took me on holiday, come Sunday morning, we would be listening to the priest celebrate Mass, regardless of whether it was in a language we understood or not. I never questioned the existence of God. Nobody around me ever did. Our family friends were part of the church; my godfather was a priest. I was even an altar boy. I stood up there with the father on the altar, in my white gown, and rang the bell when required (that’s not a euphemism).
I think faith is a difficult thing to lose. It rarely happens all at once and it’s hard to put your finger on the moment when it started, but I think for me, seeing the Communion, that sacred body of Christ, brought in in cardboard boxes as it was bought in bulk to be stored at the back of church had a lasting effect. Surely you can’t be stock ordering 10,000 pieces of Jesus himself?
So, as more time passed, I grew further and further away from the doctrine. I stopped going to church (except for on Christmas—mum insisted). One of the cruelest tricks piety plays is that it tricks you into a reassured confidence that everything will be okay and gives you the naive notion that someone’s looking out for you. One of the more long-lasting challenges is to learn to face the fact you really are on your own. I developed my own interests; I read my own books; and I devised my own worldview. Nowadays, I subscribe to a strictly empirical view of the world. I deplore the notion of faith, which I see as belief without reason. If faith is belief without reason, I decided to only believe in something due to reason and reason alone. I want to claw my hair out when somebody thanks God or refers to “his” plan. More often than not, I see it as an avenue to pacification and a means to acquiesce to the status quo. Or an adult version of Father Christmas.
That being said, whilst I detest religion, I love churches, or better yet, cathedrals. In the words of ABBA: gimme, gimme, gimme. The Sagrada Família, Notre Dame, St Paul’s, I want them all. Maybe I enjoy the conflict they generate inside me. The beauty of the architecture and the disgust of the object of its worship. The hypocrisy of the “treat others as you wish to be treated” mantra whilst their gold-lined ceilings refused to house the poor who prayed there when in need. Maybe it’s the nostalgia, the throwback to a familial routine. Or perhaps it’s just that a very talented architect once clearly spent a lot of time making it look nice. Whatever it is, I can never resist.
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I Snuck Into Bellapais Abbey
That’s exactly what happened one summer when I found myself in Cyprus. I was staying with a friend and her family when they took us to dinner at a restaurant in a place called Bellapais. It was high in the hills and the view outwards over the Mediterranean was outstanding. However, the most interesting part was that the courtyard that hosted the restaurant’s al fresco area belonged to Bellapais Abbey, a glorious, semi-ruined, 13th-century monastery built into the hillside and just sat waiting to be discovered. Its golden light arches standing tall against the backdrop of outer walls. Some of the old foundations seemed to be used to house the restaurant’s pizza oven. The only problem? It was closed and I left the next day. Oh, why hadn’t my friend brought me sooner?
I looked at her and asked if we could go have a look. “I think it’s closed,” was her reply. I was undeterred. “Well, let’s just get a little closer,” I said. On further inspection, we could see there were several metal turnstiles, where a ticket officer ushered you through to enter the attraction. Only on this evening with the abbey closed, the ticket guard had gone home. Meaning? Meaning there was nobody there to stop us. I grabbed my friend’s hand, we vaulted the turnstiles, and in we rushed, just out of the eyesight of our fellow diners we left behind.
Now, I thought a monastery was beautiful before, but having a whole one to ourselves? Perfect. We snuck up and down the twisting flights of stairs and darted across the roofs. I felt like Harry Potter sneaking around Hogwarts by night or Howard Carter getting an exclusive snoop inside Tutankhamun’s tomb. Outside the abbey was a beautiful pristine lawn.
The abbey itself, I came to learn, was immortalized by Lawrence Durrell in his book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, chronicling his time in the village of Bellapais. Legend has it, and Durrell was compelled to agree, that those who sit under a tree in the abbey’s grounds will become so relaxed they are unwilling to work. I could easily understand immediately why. The views, the abbey, the grounds—it was pure bliss on this warm, late summer, Mediterranean night.
A Priest Found Us as I Was Doing a Mock Sermon
The inside of the abbey, the parts that were normally off limits, were notable for their distinct lack of typical church features. There were no stained glass windows, no artwork. This was very much a ruin nowadays. But the walls were still intact and rose high over the floors. Circular podiums now stood where once tall columns holding up a now nonexistent roof would have been. I took the opportunity to perform a mock sermon to my private audience of one.
It was at this most inconvenient moment that a priest arrived. He was slow to question and quick to scold us on our flippant use of church property. Harassing and hurrying us out the door, he took a serious tone whilst he pushed us and prodded us back to the exit.
Now, in spite of my disdain for the claimants of religious authority, that of a divine power, I have quite a fondness for some of the rules. Treat others as you want to be treated. That’s a motto I can definitely get on board with. Now, I understand that I wouldn’t necessarily want someone to break into my house, but if I'd built a violent, hypocritical cult over 2,000 years, I might not be so quick to condemn someone for wanting to have a look around. Another takeaway from the church I wasn’t so fond of: repentance as a means of entry into heaven. But I’d been to enough Sunday school to know it sat pretty high up on God’s, and subsequently the church's priorities. Therefore, when we got to the exit and the priest turned to us saying, “I should call the police! I’m seriously angry about what you did tonight. Haven’t you got anything to say for yourselves?” I knew enough to turn sheepishly to him and say, “Forgive us?”