“And this place would be packed on a Sunday?” said the boy, deliberately raising his voice a little, to hear the ghostly echo.
“Hm?” His father turned around from inspecting the wood carvings on a piece of fixed furniture. “Oh, yes. Standing-room only, sometimes.”
The boy’s footsteps along some stonework along the sides gave a rich, sonorous klop-klop. He enjoyed accenting his steps, and then craned his head up to see where a sandstone pillar met the arches above. “How long did it take them to build?”
“Well, that depends on who you mean by them. The builders? It took around 120 years for several generations to build it.” He gently slid his finger across the top of an ancient window sill and rubbed off the dust. “But they could not have built it in 120 years without many more hundreds of years of thought and work that went before them. You don’t just decide to build this in a generation or two.”
He went silent and hoped his son would dwell on that. Instead, the boy had found a squeaky pew, and was grinning as he got a rhythm of squeaks out of it by rocking back and forth.
Father sighed and went on looking, hands behind his back, gently strolling.
“So what’s it used for today?” the boy called out.
A gentle mumbling at the entrance gave the answer, and father motioned towards it. A tour group with brochures, cameras, and a soft-spoken guide had shuffled in, but their chattiness had become strangely muted as they came under the great vaulted ceiling.
“Unbelievers with a love of beauty, church history buffs, and the occasional eccentrics like me come here. Mostly just to admire.” And then, almost under his breath, “not to worship.”
His son had caught that. He was pretending to remain uninterested, but his curiosity was getting the better of him. “So why don’t we come here any more? I mean, if they were so popular, why did they stop using them?”
Father hated trying to answer a question like that to a fifteen-year-old’s attention span. He prayed. He paused. “One reason is that most people in the countries in which these were built began to believe a terrible lie about reality that made a place like this seem less real, and eventually, unreal. Places like this became an oddity.”
“And those who used to worship here?”
“They believed a different lie. They believed that popularity was more important than the meaning of this kind of thing. Eventually, since most of the surrounding unbelieving people thought of this kind of place as odd and unreal, the believers took the same view, to appear relevant. They abandoned these places, because otherwise they might have risked appearing odd and irrelevant.” He grimaced at his over-simplification.
“That’s why we go to a theatre with comfy seats every Sunday, right?” the boy said, trying to be funny. Dad didn’t laugh. He turned away and gazed at the Stations of the Cross pictured on the windows. The boy sensed his father’s sadness.
“It can’t be that hard to build something like this with the technology we have today. What took them 120 years could be done in less than five.”
The father sat on one of the pews, and motioned to his son to join him.
“Son, the point is not whether we can duplicate something like this. Sure we can. We might even be able to do it with more precision than they could have.” He pursed his lips and formed his thoughts.
“The point is: even if we did, who would come here? Do you think we could interest even half the worshippers in our local church to meet in a place like this?” His son said nothing.
“When this was built, grandfather told father who told son what this place meant. They had made it, and they understood it. They loved it not as a badge of refinement, or as a museum piece. It was the expression of what they and their great-grandfathers loved and cherished.
“It is not that we have lost the ability to make these things. We’ve lost the ability to love them. We’ve lost the ability to understand them and allow them to shape us. That ability doesn’t come to us because the church down the road decides to move from a shop-front to here. It comes because generation after generation believe and love the same things. After centuries of loving the same things, they develop better and better ways of expressing those loves and beliefs, and you end up with something like this, ” he said, looking up, and motioning in a circle.
He tried to pause to let all this percolate, but his thoughts were coming faster than he could wait. His tone became more intense.
“See, there’s a reason we meet in the buildings we do on Sundays. There’s a reason the churches that still hold to the apostles’ doctrine won’t be coming back here. Those lies that the culture believed and the lies that the church believed have irreparably broken our link to this. We can’t come back.”
An uncomfortable pause followed. His son swallowed and averted his eyes. “But…we’re here, aren’t we? You love it, and so do some others. That’s got to count for something, right?”
The father’s expression softened, detecting his son’s desire to comfort. They got up and walked slowly past the tour group towards the entrance. “Son, a few oddballs here and there don’t create things like this place. We might appreciate it, and learn to better love it. We can let it have a sanctifying effect on us. But it is no longer ours, like it was our forefathers’.”
At the entrance, they turned around one more time to take in the whole place. The secular tourists with their pointing and snapping were conspicuous in a place of worship.
Father finished his thought. “We know this, because most of those who call themselves the descendants of the builders of this place have no desire to return here.”