in the days before men thought they could tame the wild earth, a Roman warrior, weary of the hard dirt underneath his dusty feet, came upon a place by the mighty river where the banks were high and safe from floods. recognizing its potential for safety and respite, he ordered a camp built there for him and his five hundred men.
one thousand years later, in times when men had begun to cut and harness and mold the earth for their own use, a man crowned both king and emperor, desiring to honor God and himself too, ordered a massive cathedral to be constructed in that same place; he too wanted it to be high and safe from the water. and so red sandstone was carved from the nearby mountains, and ferried down a channel built from that mighty river Rhine.
a few kilometers away, where the fields spread lush and fertile around the roads leading to the growing city, a unknown man, probably a farmer, also began to build, but only for the honor of God. he finished far earlier than did the king and emperor; the tiny chapel was simply a roofed shrine that sheltered any offerings or lit candles that a worshiper might leave. perhaps many a weary traveler to and from the great city, a seat of power both earthly and spiritual, stopped at the tiny chapel and offered quiet prayers.
over the slow sweep of the years, the cathedral saw the power of the bishops give way to the power of free citizens. it saw the Reformation course through the country, and was the birthplace of Protestantism, when angry princes wrote a letter there and sealed the great schism that divides houses of worship even to this day. emperors were buried within her walls; the rulers of that city changed again and again; there were military occupations by most neighboring countries, and even a full annexation. and as one century passed into the next, there was burning and destruction and wars and rebuilding and new life and peace…and she saw it all.
did the wee roadside chapel, perhaps a miniscule cousin to the gigantic cathedral, know any of this? they share the same ancient age, but what does a little shrine know of power or might? no, the small chapel knows only of individual stories; she hears the single prayers of lonely pilgrims or thankful farmers or frightened children. under her humble roof she stores the hopes and wishes of simple men and women.
this coming year, in these digital miracle times when men have almost forgotten their need for the earth, the Speyer Cathedral will celebrate 950 years of consecration with festivals, art exhibits, and special services. somehow, all these centuries and restorations later, she still stands with her red sandstone walls, marking time as a tourist attraction, a cultural symbol, a historical monument, a tomb of emperors, and a house of God.
and somehow, the little roadside chapel still stands too – although no one knows how old her walls are anymore since no one knows what was rebuilt and restored when. all that is known is it has always been a sacred place for as long as can be remembered, that it has always been a local landmark for the people of the small towns whose main road leads past it, and those people have always taken care of it. as it stands now, it is still simply a roofed shrine, with wrought iron gates protecting the altar inside with its flowers and candles. the key to the gates is kept by a neighbourhood woman that everyone knows, who got the key from the last person to live in the house across the small stream from the tiny chapel. and ever since my husband grew up in the house next to the keeper of the key, that kapelle has been a part of his visual landscape.
it was only natural, then, that when the day came to pass that our second child would have been born, he spoke to the lady with the key. he told her why we wanted the gates opened, and that morning she met us there with not only the key, but also a candle, although we’d brought our own. and there in the cool shaded stone of that old, hallowed place, we lit our candle for Tim and lit her candle for Isabela since we had it and we held each other and cried and prayed and grieved and loved and kept breathing.
later that summer night, when it seemed to stay grey-blue dusk forever, i walked to the corner again. before i even crossed the street to the chapel, i could already see the twin flames dancing together, flickering like dancing stars between the curving bars of the iron gate. i thought of other candles: the ones I had left over my several visits to that ancient church in Rome, first in thanks for Isabela’s life growing within me, and then in farewell to her, and finally, one for her and one for the second life that i would discover in the months to come would end before i knew him. despite the tears streaming down my face, i had to laugh: my children seem to have quite the taste for historied, time-honored, sacred places.
in a few days, as happens every summer, there will be a candlelight procession that winds through the neighbourhood to the tiny chapel, in honor of something --perhaps a patron saint? – but it doesn’t really matter; it is a tradition that may be as old as the chapel. people will laugh and sing and bring their children, who will play as the adults eat their picnic dinners and drink the sweet local wine together. and as the long twilight deepens into darkness, all those candles will stay lit at the kapelle, glowing hope and love into the summer night, for weary travelers everywhere.
- this is for Tim, who i never really knew. your father gave you your name.