In Lucerne, a smallish city of only about 75, 000 souls, there is a church called the Jesuitenkirche, the Jesuit Church. Built a few hundred years ago it was the first Catholic church erected in the city after the Reformation. The Jesuits had been invited and sent by the Pope…I haven’t his name…to help the Catholic population recover from the losses suffered during the early years of that time we call The Reformation.They must have done a good job, because the population of Lucerne and the surrounding cantons is still predominantly Catholic today.
The first thing the Jesuits did was build a school and begin educating the people in the faith. When I heard those words I remembered the kind of work done among us little urchins back where I come from in The Bronx…and among bigger and older urchins all over the world for centuries…by the fellows I used to and still do call the “poor people’s Jesuits”; the Brother’s of the Christian Schools, and by the thousands of other men and women similarly employed to around the world, Franciscans, Dominicans, Charities, Ursulines….
Anyway, the church itself is a gem, its interior a mixture of baroque and rococo design elements executed by German craftsmen and artists brought to Lucerne by the Jesuits when they began to build the church which they dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, their founder’s friend, whose “apotheosis”, his reception into heaven, is depicted in a large and beautiful mural on the church ceiling halfway down the nave. The altar itself is a glory to see, extraordinary in its massiveness, its monumentality proclaiming the triumph of Christ, and in its delicacy of ornament. Everywhere throughout the church are beautiful ornaments, paintings, statues and reliquaries, precious metals and stones adorning them. The one place, “a simple parish church”, contains in itself more of such things than there probably exists in every church in New Hampshire.
I suppose the question is legitimate. I don’t happen to think so, but I have heard others grumble similarly. “Why,” they mutter, either angrily or with a kind of mocking superiority, ” this ostentatious waste when millions starve.” Perhaps the question occurs to ourselves from time to time. Perhaps it would be better put to those men in Lucerne hundreds of years ago; the ones who asked for the Jesuits to come, and the Jesuits, themselves, who came.. They would probably have a simple answer. They were asked to come and to restore to people an understanding of the beauty of the faith, the Catholic faith, and its peculiarly simple understanding of the beauty of worship in the dwelling place of God.
This is part of the subtlety of the place, of every such place. One enters from the street, at street level, and takes a short step down, into darkness almost total, because the inner doors are closed or covered by heavy curtains blocking the light. Then a few steps take one through the curtains into light and beauty. Do you see? It is a lesson itself. We were in darkness, and now we see! Here, inside the church we have left outer hell and entered Heaven. It is all to do with the thing that the Reformation for the most part did away with; the Catholic Mass, itself a union of heaven and earth..
The whole thing is a lesson, and a very effective one…even the reliquaries putting us in the physical presence of those we know are in the actual presence of God; as we too can be. The more I thought about that the more I wanted to return to the Jesuitenkirche of St. Francis of Xavier. I remembered the conversation I had several months ago with the old man I had met in the little church where I sing every Sunday over in Hudson, NH, at the 8:00am Mass. He was from Switzerland. I told him I was going there. He smiled and said he had just returned from a visit. Then he continued, saying he had “heard Mass at the altekirche (the old church) at the end of the bridge in Lucerne.” The church is, indeed at the end of a bridge, so I knew it was the one the old man spoke of with such reverence when we came upon it.
I went back there with my wife Mariellen, and spent the better part of an hour in the light. Did I mention the windows? They are simply beautiful, and beautifully simple great expanses of light. The little panes of glass are all beveled so one cannot see any of the world outside. Only the light enters and seems intensified; not blinding, simply illuminating. There are no shadows that I can remember. I brought my camera with me and took pictures of everything until I simply ran out of space. (I almost said I had run out of film. The “space” was the digital memory on the little card in my camera.) I put down the camera and continued with an iPad like device I had to take some more photos and videos. Then we left.
An hour and a half later, back in our hotel room, I discovered that I had left the camera back at the Church of St. Francis Xavier, the altekirche. We returned as quickly as we could, making a twenty minute walk in ten. The camera was gone. In the sacristy, where a parishioner guided us, a kind older woman praying before Mass, the sacristan told us that it was hopeless to think it would be returned. Some people never get the message. Nevertheless, we left our hotel and home address, and returned, quietly, to the hotel. We left behind ten Euros…over the sacristan’s vigorous objections until we told him to use it as a contribution…to pay to ship the camera home should a miracle occur.
On the walk back I found my mood lightening. I mentioned it to Mariellen that I felt peaceful. She called it grace. I can’t think of a better word.
It was dark outside. I felt light inside.