An Alphabet of My Likes and Dislikes: “S”

This is a post belonging to a new blogging project — the title is pretty much self-explanatory, I think; the project’s introductory post can be found HERE.  Credit for the idea: BeetleyPete.

As always, the only thing linking the two items mentioned in this post in my mind is that they both start with the same letter of the alphabet.



Sacred Places

In everyday life, I am not overly demonstrative about my feelings on religion, though having been brought up in a Protestant family — and having attended a Catholic high school –, my confirmation at age 14 was one of my coming-of-age watershed moments; and the motto I chose on that day has been my guiding principle ever since (and come to think of it, arguably even had been before, although I might not consciously thought of it that way).  It’s Psalm 23, verse 4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” 

But religion to me is a deeply personal thing, and I have formed friendships with too many people who either follow an entirely different creed or no religious creed at all to want to foist my own path to salvation on them: The world has already seen too many wars and too much destruction wrought on religious grounds anyway, attending a Catholic high school as a Protestant has taught me both the value and the limits of the ecumenical principle, and I strongly believe that we all, believers (of whichever creed) and non-believers alike, are owed, and owe one another, the respect not only to be able to freely profess our creed but also to listen to one another instead of trying to shout the other person down or drag them onto our personal path to (hoped-for) salvation against their own will.  As Terry Pratchett — an atheist — said in the dialogue in Hogfather that, over the years, has emerged as my favorite excerpt from all of the Discworld novels (and which IMHO is also one of the best and most succinct refutals of an allegedly science-based, purely materialistic worldview): Humans need to believe — in concepts such as justice and mercy, if not in God — in order to be human; to be “the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”  We all do believe in something that’s bigger than ourselves — atheists do, too, even if it may not in a higher power or a divine being.

That being said, and as religion to me is deeply personal (and what with being your textbook introvert, etc.), I don’t actually attend church services all that frequently; in fact, the only service I can’t ever imagine entirely going without is the one on Christmas Eve. But I love places of worship; conceivably I love them even better when I can be alone in them with my thoughts, impressions, feelings and, every so often, prayers.  To me, they really do exude the feeling of being imbued with something sacred — and seeing a church converted into commercial residential property, or falling to bits as a result of a political power struggle, breaks my heart every single time.  (Yes, yes, I know.  Sinking church attendance, my own nonattendance included.  Housing crisis — except more often than not, we’re actually talking luxury accommodation when it comes to converting churches into residential property.  Henry VIII had sound political reasons for wanting to curb the Church’s influence while rewarding those loyal to them at the same time, and even reasons to strip the abandoned churches of their lead casings … if you consider the necessities of war a sound reason for anything to begin with, that is.  And yes, organized religion has, over the course of history, held a vastly disproportionate position within the political power structure of almost every society; and strictly hierarchical structures such as those of the Catholic Church today are arguably deeply anachronistic, even above and beyond being a textbook example for the inherent limitations of the adage “physician, heal thyself”. — But we digress.) 

When visiting places of worship of other religions than Christianity over the course of the years, I’ve come to find that to me they hold a very similar atmosphere of sanctity to that of Christian churches, which may have something to do with the fact that, though raised a Christian (and still decidedly most at home in Christianity), my views on religion are actually very close to those of Mahatma Gandhi.  So it seems only natural to include some of those places in the image section of this post.










(Except as specifically noted otherwise below, photos in this section of the post mine.)

Sacred places I love, or which left a lasting impression on me when visiting them: Bonn Cathedral (Image source); Balthasar Neumann‘s Holy Stairs in Kreuzbergkirche on top of a hill above Bonn; the medieval church in the Bonn district of Schwarz-Rheindorf (not far from my home); Maria Laach Benedictine Monastery (about an hour south of Bonn, in the Eifel mountain range); Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong (Image Souce), Kun Iam Tong Temple (IIRC), Macau; Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, Guangzhou (China); Sainte Chapelle, Paris; Chartres Cathedral; the tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England, and Richard the Lionheart at Fontevraud Abbey (Loire Valley, France); Prague Jewish cemetery; Santa María la Blanca Synagogue, Toledo (Spain); Mezquita, Córdoba (Spain); Salamanca Cathedral (Spain); medieval manuscripts in El Escorial Monastery and Burgos Cathedral (Spain); Monreale Benedictine Monastery (cloister) and Cefalù Cathedral (Sicily); the three sacred Ancient Egyptian symbols of divinity and power (Ankh — (eternal) life, heaven, male and female, morning sun, and earth –, Djed — stability, fertility, resurrection –, and Was  — dominion, power, care for the deceased), as displayed in Hatshepsut’s temple in Deir el-Bahari on the opposite bank of the Nile from Luxor; Ibn Tulum and Alabaster Mosques, Cairo; colorful illustrations in the village churches of Ermelund and Keldby (Møn, Denmark) and in the church of tiny marsh island (Hallig) Hooge (Northern Frisia, Germany — one of my personal favorite churches in additon to the one in Schwarz-Rheindorf, further above); and English cathedrals and abbeys: Salisbury, Winchester, York Minster (chapter house), Wells, Leicester, Christchurch College Chapel (Oxford), and Bath Abbey.  Lastly, the remains of some of the sacred places razed and desanctified during the Dissolution under Henry VIII — Tintern, Melrose, Rievaulx, and Whitby Abbeys — and a church converted into a residential building in Rostock, Germany.




Remember my set-in-stone childhood “don’t ever even come near me with that stuff” list of dislikes?  As mentioned before, seafood — fish and shellfish of any and all descriptions — used to be a major item on that list when I was little.  And while I’ve since learned to eat most kinds of fish (albeit, except for salmon, without any enthusiasm and only if either social niceties require it or literally nothing else is on the menu), I still very much draw the line at shellfish; with very few and limited exceptions: calamari, provided they are liberally breaded, deep-fried, and sprinkled with lemon juice and served with a garlic or other strongly-flavored dip (so that what you end up tasting is actually anything but the calamari themselves), as well as crab cakes and clam chowder, both of which I learned to like during a one-month stay in Boston.  Mussels, though?  Squid?  Oysters?  Hell, no.  Ditto lobster — which I actually might conceivably take to (up to a point) in terms of taste, but which, like escargots and frogs’ legs, I won’t eat as long as I have every reason to expect it to have been made to suffer needlessly just so I can consume it. (in the lobsters’ case, like in that of escargots, by being tossed into the boiling water alive).


(Image source)


6 thoughts on “An Alphabet of My Likes and Dislikes: “S”

  1. A fine post, aided by the fact I agree with most of it — though, being an atheist lapsed Catholic, if I had to follow a religious leader it would be the Dalai Lama.

    Interesting that most of your sacred spaces (apart from the ruined abbeys) are womb-like, beautifully decorated and encourage wonder and contemplation — that certainly appeals to me too. As for churchgoing, it’s restricted to two occasions: visiting for its historic and/or aesthetic quality, and singing and/or playing sacred music in the spaces they were originally intended for.

    Shellfish doesn’t agree with me; though I remember managing crab as a youngster I have a physical revulsion imagining trying to eat it — or shrimp, or lobster — nowadays.

    1. “Womb-like”? Hmmm. I have to admit that word did give me considerable pause. Looking at the photos again, I can see your point, but I think that impression essentially comes down to my preferred motifs (e.g. rosettas, or Byzantine mosaics — often in apses and cupolas — and cupolas and apses generally, which by their very nature have a bulged-out appearance, or arches and their interplay with the space around them — I’m much more interested in that interplay than in the arches as such –, etc.) and to photographic angles, such as wide-angle shots trying to capture the impossible “nearer-my-God-to-Thee” heights of the Gothic cathedrals and abbeys (while in some of the images, at the same time also trying to give a sense of the almost equally ample width of the interior). Also, in the image of Kreuzbergkirche (top row, right), the “rounded” impression is actually a trompe-l’oeil created by the artist (Balthasar Neumann), who cleverly picked up on the arches flanking the stairs and on the shallow vaults above the windows to give an otherwise almost flat ceiling a much more vaulted appearance.

      But there’s nothing womb-like, to me, about the lofty interior and sky-reaching height of a Gothic cathedral; nor, for that matter, about the two churches included in the image gallery that count among my personal favorites: Hooge is in fact perfectly angular (its ground plan is a rectangle); from the outside, the building doesn’t even suggest a church but a standard Hallig (Frisian marsh island) home, and inside, if anything, its low ceiling gives it a somewhat cramped feeling, again mirroring the inside of a traditional Northern Frisian home; and the church in Schwarzrheindorf (near my home), like its model, the imperial cathedral in Aachen, has an octagonal opening in the ceiling of its ground-floor level, which opens up the view all the way to its upper ceiling and thus, if anything, minimizes any womb-like impressions that might otherwise be created. (The purpose of the opening is the same as in Aachen; namely, to allow the emperor, who would have had a throne near it on the church’s upper level, to follow the service being held on the lower level. The first photo in the second row is shot through that opening, though not looking towards the apse / altar. — Images of Aachen cathedral, which incidentally is another favorite of mine, can be found here: and )

      The photos of the ruined abbeys are shot from the same, or from similar angles as the photos I tend to take in still-functional churches … if anything, my purpose is to highlight the regrettable *absence* of a roof / ceiling in the ruins (and the further destruction following from the destruction of the roof), not the *presence* of a roof / ceiling in the functioning churches: if I’m interested in a church’s ceiling, it’s not so much for its enclosing / sheltering effect but chiefly for its decorations — because, yes, murals and decorations are definitely another favorite motif of mine.

      And, yes again, there is much in the Dalai Lama’s philosophical message that I agree with as well. He is doubtlessly one of our age’s greatest spiritual leaders.

      Side note: I have yet to meet a Protestant (at least from a continental European congregation) who has entirely abandoned their faith, even if I know some who harbour doubts — whereas virtually all the atheists I know who started out in one of the branches of Christianity used to be Catholics. I wonder why that is — is it a matter of the actual religious teaching or the structure of their particular church … or a bit of both?

      1. Interesting observation on lapsed believers: I admit I’m familiar with the phrase ‘lapsed Catholic’ but I’ve never heard the words ‘lapsed Protestant / Baptist / Congregationalist’ etc. Maybe it’s to do with the mantra ‘once a Catholic always a Catholic’ which former adherents rebel against, or maybe those no longer following Protestantism just don’t make a song and dance about it?

        I don’t want to push the ‘womb-like’ description; all I know is that some of the more constrained spaces like tiny apses and chapels might suggest that but the description can’t be applied to soaring Gothic spaces nor even ruined vaults with the sky showing through, as at Tintern or Glastonbury.

        Decorative motifs: yes, especially in continental churches, these are a delight, but the early Anglican movement went for whitewash or hacking off the painted render, meaning so much art was lost. I particularly like apse ceilings with their Chris Pantocrater designs or angels circling the Virgin; and if, like Ravenna or Montmartre’s Sacre Coeur they have gold tesserae in the mosaics, so much the better!

        1. Yes, the Byzantine Christ Pantocrator is definitely a favorite motif of mine, too — gold and all!

          The radical 16th century German Protestant reformists, alas, did much damage to the artworks then found in churches, too; their movement is even named for that (“Bilderstürmer” — literally, “image stormers”, i.e., the people who stormed churches in order to destroy the paintings, murals and statues on display there). It saddens me enormously to think of all the treasures that were lost that way. On occasion — and as I expect is the case in England, too — during church restoration works murals are found below coats of whitewash and laboriously, lovingly restored at least to an extent that gives a hint of their former beauty, but although every penny of that money is of course well-spent, in a way it almost makes me even sadder to see these partially restored murals, because they only make it all the clearer just what (and how much) was destroyed and lost forever.

          I see what you mean about individual architectural details such as apses or cupolas, but these chiefly interest me for two reasons: (1) they are invariably among the most richly decorated features, and (2) they are structurally / architecturally very well-defined and thus relatively easy to capture individually by your camera’s lens. 🙂

          As for “lapsed” Catholics, it’s not actually that term or any manner of verbal description as such that puzzles me (vis-à-vis, e.g., the stance taken by doubting / “former” Protestants), but the fact that these seem to be the only group who go from an upbringing within the confines of religious faith to an express declaration of atheism “on the merits,” as it were. With Protestants (at least those of my acquaintance), you might get expressions of doubt, such as a half-joking recital of Pascal’s Wager or doubts in the face of war or environmental disasters, but rarely an outright declaration that this is evidence that God can’t exist, or that they have concluded that what they were taught in their youth was actually wrong and they no longer believe it. This, I tend to only hear from former Catholics turned atheists (as well as, of course, from people not raised within any particular religious tradition / teachings to begin with) — and former or “lapsed” Catholics *will* expressly state that they now consider themselves atheists, whereas the most I’ve heard from doubting Protestants is a self-description as “agnostics”. You may be on to something with regard to the need to expressly refute the “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” mantra. I suspect that at least as far as the German-speaking expressions of Christianity are concerned, this may also have something to do with the fact that all three German-speaking Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Reformed, and United) are (a) fairly cerebral — it’s all about intellectual inquiry, discourse, and your state of mind, not about rituals, good deeds, or other external “mechanics” –, so an intellectual challenge of the tenets of faith with a view towards gaining a better understanding is expressly welcomed rather than prohibited; and (b) the German-speaking Protestant churches have fairly “flat” hierarchies (and certainly no doctrine of infallibility attaching to anybody, nor in fact any hierarchical position that would invite its holder to claim such a doctrine in the first place), as well as of course (like the Anglican church) allowing women to be pastors and otherwise fully participate in church life, so the obvious structural / (anti-)democratic arguments don’t apply, either. (In fact, they never did; German Protestants are proud to be able to point to Frederic II of Prussia’s declaration that in his state, everybody should be allowed to “find their path to Heaven in their own way” [“ein jeder möge nach seiner Façon selig werden”] … by which he didn’t actually mean *quite* the freedom of religion that many today would like to attribute to this statement, but which nevertheless expressed a degree of tolerance and “hands off” on the part of the state’s highest representative that in a Catholic 18th century state you wouldn’t necessarily have found.) — I have to admit that my experience with such discussions is not very extensive, however; I especially don’t know whether / to what extent the above would also hold true for Anglicans or, for that matter, American Baptists (especially Southern Baptists) or Methodists as well (and whether within the Anglican denomination it would make a difference whether someone was brought up “high church” or “low church”). So I’m left wondering! 🙂

          1. Maybe for ex-Catholics it’s an authoritarian thing? For non-Catholics the Word of God has primacy while for RCs it’s the word of the Pontiff and his apparatchiks who hold primacy? Argue with the Pope and you risk damnation, but for non-papists there is always a contrary chapter and verse which you can use to contradict somebody’s biblical interpretation and justify your own POV—hence the range of non-conformist churches. (However, as a theory I can see lots of exceptions in it!)

          2. Sorry for the belated reply — yes, I do think for Catholics the authoritarian element may be of importance; that’s why I mentioned the doctrine of infallibility — but the “exceptions” are essentially where my cautionary remarks at the end come in, as I don’t know how much of a strict hierarchy there is to the Anglican church (I would suspect considerably more than to the continental European brands of Protestantism) or, for that matter, the more “orthodox” / “conservative” brands of Protestantism in the U.S. (e.g., the Southern Baptists or any church directly tracing its roots to the Pilgrim Fathers).

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