Looking up, I am speechless.
Back in the Middle Ages, human prowess built Aachen cathedral, a cavernous yet luminous place that feels like dreaming awake.
My eyes wander from one detail to the next while my grasshopper mind goes into overdrive, in awe of so much beauty.
Soon, I am overwhelmed.
If there’s such a thing as wonderment overload I suspect this is what’s happening to me in this most extraordinary of settings.
Since getting to Germany the night before, I’ve started retrieving more missing more pieces of my long lost self. Change is observable, palpable, and swift, a stark contrast to the major depressive disorder I lost five years of my life to and only emerged from last summer.
Since then, I’ve been rebuilding a life from scratch, one word at a time, pummeling the parasite in my head with as much exposure as I can give it. Stigma is depression’s accomplice, and there’s no taking down one if you don’t also take down the other.
Right now, I can feel myself coming back to life minute by minute, a feeling that will intensify as the weekend progresses.
Of all places, it is in a German cathedral that I — a staunch atheist brought up in the French secular tradition — stop pushing back against the joy that makes every cell in my being dance to an unfamiliar tune.
Instead, I choose to accept what my mind still perceives as an anomaly.
At that precise moment, a rare memory from my childhood returns, unbidden.
Wordlessly, I make my way to the Nikolauskapelle, a chapel dedicated to quiet contemplation.
The gentle glow of votive candles greets me; the darkness conceals the tears I can no longer hold back.
When I was little and visited churches with my mother, she’d often light a candle.
I never knew who or what it was for, only that it was a thing grown-ups did, perhaps as a timeless nod to the humans who gifted us such enduring architectural beauty.
Whenever this happened, the mood was always quiet, somber, and out of time.
I take a quick walk around the chapel, pat my pockets for change, and come up a little short.
A gentle hand wordlessly places a coin in mine.
I drop our combined offering into the collection box and light a small candle.
In German, votive candles are called Opferkerzen. Opfer also means victim, and my heart is heavy with the ongoing helplessness my father and I feel in the face of my stepmom’s Stage IV cancer.
The love that binds us is the reason I upended my American life and came back to Europe. As an aside, my stepmom is also the most vocal atheist I’ve ever known. To her, organized religion is the root of many evils.
Realizing my Aachen candle capers will provide a fun dinner party story one day when my parents need a good laugh makes me cry even more.
Sitting in the empty pews, I try and gather myself but my mind has latched onto something it won’t let go of. While I’m very sure I’m not having a “Come to Jesus” moment, I may have belatedly understood something.
“Religion is about love, isn’t it?”, I whisper in the dark.
Love may well be the one self-perpetuating force in the universe; the more you generate, the more it spreads and gathers strength.
I worship at the altar of our shared humanness and seek out the divine in fellow humans, not in an intangible entity that may or may not exist.
And yet, this shared humanness remained inaccessible to me for five years; alienation on every possible front was my default.
While breaking free from it is a process that has been ongoing since last summer, it is in Aachen that I understand how far I’ve come. And that’s much further than I would ever have thought possible only ten months ago as I emerged from the shadows, shell-shocked, and bereft.
I had to relearn how to listen to a heart that had been silenced for too long so it would show me the way again. My heart took care of vocation; vocation took care of the words; the words took care of connectedness; connectedness took care of my heart.
As a result, I experience every new day as a miracle rather than a burden.
The human heart is a compass and mine led me to the cobbled streets of Aachen, to this chapel aglow with innumerable candles that all pay tribute to loved ones, alive, departed, departing.
Sitting in the pews, I am at peace for the first time in many, many years; my heart is functional again, against all odds.
If religion is about love then love can be religion.
But what if you aim your heart straight at fellow humans and cut out the spiritual middleman tasked with distributing your love?
What if elevating all fellow humans to gods and goddesses were enough to ensure spiritual fulfillment?
The human heart is a mediator; approaching love as a sacerdotal commitment makes connection between us sacred.
We build churches and temples to honor our gods; we build relationships and families to honor our love.