Finding Refuge Inside Necessary Walls

Cathdral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO — Image credit: Ryan Common on Trover

There is a confusing corner of Colfax and Sherman in downtown Denver, where a beautiful Catholic cathedral stands tall. Around it, chewing gum stains the slide walk like ink blots on a yellowed 1950’s psyche test. In every direction, neon lights blind and dizzy, liquor stores and McDonalds temp with chemicals, a disheveled crowd circles, swirls, stumbles and shouts across busy traffic: “Fuck you, you fucking fucker!” Horns honk.

The Impressive Gothic-revival architecture of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built in 1911 to accommodate 1,000 worshippers. Today, due to changes and construction only 800 can occupy the walls. Smaller space — take a number, wait in line? On a busy, bustling Saturday night, this best applies to the weed dispensary across the street. Very few visitors hope and pray to get closer to God on a Saturday night, a few visitors just come to sit.

I’ve been obsessed with cathedrals my whole life. Call it my historian mother or my romantic father, but I’ve always been drawn to dusty old fortresses, and can often be found shuffling through on tour of the impressive art, while chastising my friends for surreptitiously snapping pics. Mostly, I can be found sitting quietly in the back.

About four years ago, on the heels of some epic change, I ran away from my life by spontaneously booking a flight alone to Barcelona that weekend. Tip: when you’re feeling extra lonely, sad, low and confused, consider your mental state before a trip alone, particularly to a country where you don’t know the language, or anyone for that matter.

Amongst the tapas, dancing, and delicious distractions of Gaudi’s architecture, I found myself sitting each night inside the walls of Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, the city moving around me, safe and yet spiritually exposed inside cold stone walls. Huge, seriously sad statues looked down upon me awkwardly, and yet each night, there I was!

I’m a fallen Catholic. Irish and Italian by blood — I still feel a flush of shame when I picture all my little grandmothers doing the Sign of the Cross from the grave, noting with disapproval that I never got confirmed. Bless her soul. Why the hell do I find these buildings so comforting? “Oh so cozy,” said no one ever about a Catholic cathedral pew. Cathedrals: hard, horribly shaped wooden benches, chilly echoing air, awkward silence all around, and of course the occasional hushed laugher or soft weeping. Sign me up! I’m all about free-flowing energy and open spaces, but walls, fucking dense walls are sometimes necessary. Heavy, huge, stone walls can be welcome boundaries from the outside world. Sometime we need the space of refuge and sanctuary from the speed of life, and perceived progress that assaults our senses.

Over cocktails last weekend, a friend of mine piped up, “Oooo when you’re done with that Boundaries book, I need to borrow it.” I had to laugh. Here we were: two 20-somethings, one 30-something, and a 40-something all seeking inner harmony and peace, knowing we needed to enlist a little masonry help with the recent chaos surrounding each of us.

I’m told that Cathedrals welcome everyone. So, what do we do when someone we don’t want enters the walls we hide behind? What do we say when she or he grabs tightly on the brass metal rings of the ornately carved wooden doors, pulls hard, and busts open into the sanctuary we’re enjoying? Even worse, what do we do when they sit down next to us chopping the chewing gum of life, snapping pictures of our flaws, pointing, and forcing dialog about the painful last time we spoke? Obnoxious tourist into my inner world — you have no respect for these walls and why are you here? In a low moment, did I text you and tell you this is where I was? Regardless, please go away.”

In reality, we don’t ask these people to leave. How right would that be? What right do we have? We let them go on and on, eventually abandoning the temple we sought out to find peace in the first place.

In my small hometown of Westfield, New York, St. Dominic Catholic Church stands humbly just south of the center of town. Trees line the street, cracked black-top for parking, elderly ladies in pastel colors come and go. Basically a one-room building (with an annex added in the early 90’s), it’s hard to draw a comparison to the hundreds of more impressive structures I’ve sought refuge in during my wild cosmopolitan adventures. However, this place is so special to me because the light streaming through each piece of stained glass window reminds me of the sunshine outside. I used to stare at the tiny pieces of glass as a little girl, wondering if they were candy — Chiclets that tasted like lemons? No matter how high or how humble the walls, light always finds a way in, sometimes in the most tantalizing ways.

We will never block out all the sounds, the sights, or others. Why would we want to? Walls are functional, but all will crumble or be broken eventually. Being discovered inside the walls of a sanctuary you’ve built (or just stumbled upon), usually means the space has served its purpose, and it’s time to consider your options for what next? Oftentimes, the only option we have is to stand up, thank the space for serving and protecting us for a fleeting moment of time, wink at the sad statue of Mother Mary, and turn towards the light of the open doors. As we step outside onto the streets of neon signs, porn stores, grit and chaos, it’s possible to hold tight to the feeling of protection we experienced. It’s possible to feel wrapped in a new appreciation for our awareness. Of course, if we grow weary of the exposure, it’s possible to find refuge just a few city blocks away, behind some new and necessarily heavy walls.

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