THE SIGN in front of San Giorgio Maggiore, one of Venice’s most celebrated religious edifices, says, “You are in a church. Indecent behavior is forbidden.”
Indecent behavior? Like undressing in public? Grabbing other people’s body parts? Tongue-kissing in front of the altar? Or maybe indecent in this case (the notice appears in several languages) merely means “unseemly.” Like yelling atheistic sentiments at the top of my voice.
Sometimes I do feel like screaming in a church. But it’s hard, because I am usually holding my breath; I hate the musty, incense-ridden smell. More often, I simply want to flee. There is something about the gold, the colored glass, the pictured martyrs with arrows and whatnot stabbing their breasts, that makes me sick.
I blame this on my parents, who brought me up godless—really godless, “religion is the opium of the people” godless. Initially, this had an effect opposite of what was intended: Churches and religion were novelties, even forms of rebellion, so I joined my elementary-school friend Wilma in Presbyterian Sunday School for a few weeks, looking at anodyne pictures of Jesus (blue robe, sandals, reddish beard). Later, at 16, I dated a guy who went to a Catholic college upstate and for a few months—okay, almost a year—I got quite caught up in the romance of the mass.
That went away pretty fast. These days, my early conditioning is in the ascendancy: At Mont St. Michel I felt as if all that stone was about to fall on my head and kill me; at the Vatican I had a panic attack; the huge space reducing me to a tiny, insignificant, frightened creature. I seem to do better with the more human proportions of smaller, cozier churches like St. Germain des Près. First built when that part of Paris was countryside, it retains its plainspoken medieval character, lacking pretension or ostentatious wealth.
To my surprise, I like San Giorgio Maggiore, too. It isn’t small or cozy, but neither is it ornate or laden with creepy images. Its strength is the play between the cold winter light and the geometry of soaring, barely ornamented arch and column. There is a sense of spaciousness, of quiet. And then, half hidden behind the altar, I discover a small, homely crèche left over from Christmas. I smile. I breathe.
I don’t feel like praying, but I don’t feel like running, either.