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Spiritual experiences in an agnostic traveller

20 Nov

I was brought up a Catholic, but since my teens I have  been an agnostic. When I was in Sicily, I went with some colleagues of mine to see the Shrine of Santa Rosalia above Palermo. There was the usual religious tat being sold outside- hologramic postcards of Christ and a popular cult priest, dishcloths with Saints on it, and so on. This didn’t surprise me or my colleagues, but what really surprised was the inside of the shrine.  It was located in a cave inside Mount Pellegrino. There was a glass reliquary with an effigy of St. Rosalia lying in it. People had left inside the reliquary either objects of devotion – valuable silver hands, and other such peculiarities – or lots of banknotes and messages on pieces of paper, thanking the Saint for some small miracle or other that she had performed for a member of their family or old friend. There was also statue of the Madonna standing on an altar nearby. A halo crowned her head,  lit up with bright, gaudy lights. When we got outside, my colleagues admitted they had been shocked. It went against their Protestant- agnostic souls.

I did not have a spiritual experience in Sicily, though this at times gorgeous island can lend itself to that. Who can fail to be impressed by the view from the tower in Monreale, or from the Norman castle in Erice which was built on what the caretaker described as a sacred bordello. You could see the temple of Aphrodite from far out at sea, apparently.  Maybe realising the point of certain places is a kind of spiritual experience. Instead of being disappointed by Troy, you can stand on a mound and look out over the plains that were once covered in sea, and imagine you are King Priam scanning the horizon for Greek ships. Perhaps that only qualifies as an experience of the imagination…

I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but though it was lovely, all those blue tiles giving the impression of sea and sky and space, I was a only little uplifted spiritually.  Likewise the pocket-sized Byzantine churches in Kastoria, the Chora in Istanbul, the old Greek church in Ayvalik, and so on. In all these places I felt a calmness, that still small voice of calm the popular hymn talks about, but in a totally different context. The architecture, frescoes, icons and patterns on tiles were all there to be appreciated for their beauty.The space of the place, if you like, was to be appreciated for its calm, for getting away from the ugły roar and the rant of the outside world.

How about swimming in a  beautiful, cool, clear Polish river surrounded by forest, on a hot June day. That was as close to a natural spiritual experience as I could get, and that left my head buzzing. No imagination required, just soak it all in.

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