Old World, New World

I can't quite explain it, but somehow the magic has gone out of travel for me. When I was younger--which may be all the explanation one needs--every journey was an adventure, and coming to Europe was the greatest adventure of all. Here was where everything that I had been learning about in the history books happened: right there was the place where the great painter lived; right there was the church where the king was crowned; right there was the place where the great battle was fought. Every building was the setting for innumerable stories; every museum a great treasury of wonderful things. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm still impressed. I have found myself more than once on this trip standing almost hypnotized by the beauty of the paintings I am seeing, and there is nothing that can compare with the manuscripts I have read. Likewise, I have greatly enjoyed visiting the churches and other monuments that I have been able to. The problem is that I no longer seem to have the desire to live among them. I will be very happy (or so it feels right now) when the time comes to go home.

I could just be homesick. My husband left last week to go back to his work and it is hard for me being away from him, even if, thanks to the Internet, we can video chat whenever the time zones (and our sleep cycles) allow. Likewise, it could be that I am simply overwhelmed: I have seen and learned so much in the last three weeks, it is going to take months if not years to make sense of it all, which, of course, was rather the point of the trip for my research. And, of course, I am missing my friends and my practice: it has been over three weeks since I last fenced. But I have been homesick before: I well remember my first trip to Europe with my sister when we were in high school, and after two weeks of traveling with our study group, we tried to phone home but couldn't get through to our mother; we both burst into tears. I am a little worried about how much time I am taking away from practice--I have not had this long of a break from fencing since I started five years ago--but hopefully it will only help me to be more eager to work out on my return (as long as I can still fit into my uniform!).

I wonder more about the sense of overload. When I was younger, everything, of course, was strange and exciting to me, from the historic buildings and artifacts to the street signs and the size of tables in the cafes. Now, I am more inclined to see just another modern if more crowded city, sprinkled, as it were, with remnants of antiquity, but, thanks to the wars of modernity and the post-war expansion, largely built at much the same time my own city was, albeit on more ancient street plans. Rather than being overwhelmed by the whole, I am, rather, overwhelmed by the particulars: this painting in which you can see how a late medieval abbot used his prayer book; these candles illuminating a statue of Our Lady; those inscriptions on the organ front taken from the litany. Most of these details would have been quite simply invisible to me on earlier visits. Now every one of them is the occasion for deep meditation. Although it is exhausting in itself--I cannot go anywhere without being bowled over with wonder--I do not think that it is my ability to put things into context in this way that is depressing me. Rather, I think it is perhaps because, at least here in Antwerp, nobody seems to care.

My brother warned me about this: Belgium is an extremely secularized country. I am starting to realize what this means. For the majority of Belgians, the churches are repositories of art of which they are extremely proud, especially here in Antwerp, the home and workplace of Peter Paul Rubens--but they are no longer experienced as places of worship. Perhaps it is different in the churches less frequented by tourists, but a trip to one of the high street bookstores rather suggests not. There I found shelves upon shelves of books about travel and a whole floor dedicated to language training; there were great racks of comic books, and, much to my relief in this homesick mood, even a section covering two whole walls of books in English. But under "Religie" there was only a single bookcase and only a small table of books largely about the pope. I wonder what Rubens would have thought.

Can this be the reason that I am so anxious to go home, to the new world to which the religious dissidents of Rubens' lifetime (1577-1640) had begun to look for their home? I know, after all, that many of my direct ancestors made just this decision, if not always (but I'm guessing here) for pious reasons. It is almost as if those who left quite literally took their faith with them, such that those who remained had none. But this is nonsense: Belgium is, confessionally at least, largely Catholic; what ancestors I have from this general region came from Amsterdam as Protestants, not Catholics. So what happened to their faith? Another question to pursue once I get home and can do more reading. For the moment, I am more concerned about the effect that it is having on me. How is it that I can tell that the candles round the gorgeously dressed statue of the Virgin in her cathedral are largely just for show? Okay, so I can't really. My son and I lit candles for her, as I am sure many of the tourists did. Who am I to divide them into tourists and pilgrims, those who come with prayers and those who come just to gape at the spectacle? And who says pilgrims don't gape as well?

It's just that, poignantly enough, Onze Lieve Vrowe Kathedraal doesn't feel like a church to me, for all the beauty of its local son's great achievements in paint. And, no, it's not that I simply prefer pre-modern styles of devotional art to the more exuberant style of the Catholic Reformation. The one church that we've visited that actually felt like a church (Sint Pauluskerk) is Gothic in structure but wholly Baroque in ornament. It is perhaps significant that I don't have my own photos of this one to post, since, for once, it felt wrong to be using my camera rather than just paying attention to the space. Was it that there were fewer people visiting at the time that my son and I arrived? Was it that the organist was practicing and so the church was filled, intermittently, with the music so appropriate to its ornament? Was it the series of fifteen paintings by local artists (including, yes, Rubens) recalling the mysteries of the rosary? Was it the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary being so carefully restored right there in the church? Or was it the presence of relics, so conspicuously absent in the self-presentation of the cathedral itself?

I realize I have asked this question before on this very trip. Perhaps I am coming closer to an answer. Friends (and new acquaintances) often ask me how I came to be interested in medieval history. The short answer is that the first time I came to Europe was the first time I had experienced spaces such as Canterbury or Sint-Pauluskerk and I felt therein a great mystery that I had to explore. What did it mean for faith to lift itself up architecturally in this way? What did it mean for every detail in a building to have significance? What kind of prayers did such spaces enable one to say? Now, of course, I am older, if not necessarily wiser, and I have experienced prayers in many different kinds of spaces, with many different groups of people. The spaces matter, as does their beauty, but they must be inhabited in order to come alive. They die, at least as churches, if they are kept as nothing more than beautiful works of art.

I suppose, in the end, there is really no great mystery as to why I am feeling so travel-weary. I came as a pilgrim, hoping to find a living faith. I want to go home because I realize that that is where it is.


  1. Many acclamations to you. I appreciate your thoughts which, allow me in my own way, to take your considerations in perspective. I'm still searching for myself. My journey cost me time..I won't burden you with mine though. Thank you for your thoughts.


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