In a wildly unexpected and completely unpredictable turn of events, I fell madly in love, in Cologne. It was the sort of love that makes your heart pound. The sort of love that seeps into your arteries. The sort of love that leaves you smiling at nothing in particular.
It was May, 2006. I was happily married at the time, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem. My husband is a very reasonable man. And he has always believed in love.
Cologne is not the sort of city where you expect to fall head over heels in love. It is a beautiful city, but it doesn’t have the drama or the romance of a city like Paris or Havana. But, it was in Cologne that I fell in love. I fell in love with a church. A Catholic church. A church called St Agnes.
St Agnes is the second largest church in Cologne. Only the famed Cologne Cathedral is larger. St Agnes is a relatively plain church. Its beautiful but simple lines and its white, vaulted ceiling and pink-hued, stone columns give it a grandeur. Not a grandeur of superiority. St Agnes has an embracing, inclusive and very human grandness.
It is unadorned and unpretentious with a minimal amount of symbolism or decoration. It also has warmth. A warmth that is palpable. A warmth that allows your spirit to float, to soar, to question and to be challenged. A state that feels remarkably like being in love. Being headily in love. And I was.
There was, however, a problem with this love match. I am not a Catholic. I am Jewish. And it gets worse. I am an atheist. A Jewish atheist. Maybe I am not a one hundred percent, wholly committed atheist. Maybe only ninety percent of me is an atheist. Even if only ninety percent of me is an atheist, falling in love with a Catholic church is pretty problematic.
I was brought up to not believe in God. Not believing in God was like a family mantra. I was born to two people who had each survived years of imprisonment in Nazi ghettos, labor camps and death camps. My mother was seventeen when she was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto. She had four brothers, three sisters, a mother, father, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. When it was all over, she was the only person in the universe she was related to. Every single person in her family had been murdered. My father’s mother and father and sister and three brothers were also murdered.
It took my mother and father six months to find each other after the war. They were sent to a displaced persons camp in Feldafing. I was born in Germany, one of the first group of children born to survivors of the Holocaust.
“There is no God,” my mother said, over and over again, when I was growing up. I grew up in Australia, a country of blue skies and sunshine. It didn’t seem like a place in which it was important to know that it was a God-less world. My mother said, “There is no God” at the oddest times. And always out of the blue. “There is no God”, she said when she was washing the dishes or hanging out the washing or getting dressed up to go to a bar mitzvah or birthday.
Both of my parents had come from religious homes. After the war, religion was a word they both scoffed at. My father, at 97, still rails at the mostly young, religious Jews who live near him on the Lower East Side, in New York, and who frequently ask if they can accompany him to synagogue.
And he has kept up his lack of faith in God or an afterlife. I woke up one morning worried by the sudden thought that my father, who bought himself a burial plot in Queens when he moved to New York about a decade ago, might want to be buried next to my mother in Melbourne, Australia.
“I don’t want you to spend thousands of dollars to fly me to Australia when I am dead” he said when I asked him about being buried next to my mother. He said it in the sort of severe tone he sometimes used when I was a fifteen-year-old beatnik.
“You won’t be flying business class” I said. “It won’t cost thousands.”
This temporarily derailed him. “Where in the plane would I be flying?” he said.
“Probably with the luggage,” I said. He started laughing and then resumed a monologue about being completely dead when you were dead.
“Mum won’t know if I am next to her or not” he said. “I do not believe in God and I am not going to change now” he added.
I have envied people who are religious for most of my life. As a child I wished I was a Methodist because they served apple pies and cream and jam-filled sponge cakes at their church fetes. I had not been inside many Catholic churches when I first stepped into St Agnes.
It was not love at first sight. I wasn’t instantly smitten. I was nervous. I felt out of place. And uneasy. The feeling reminded me of being a teenager on guard against any inadvertent infraction of the rules that might slip out of me in my overly-strict, highly academic high school.
I was at St Agnes to do a reading from my newest novel. I had never read in a church before. I waited in the sacristy for the audience to be seated. I felt cold. It was strange sitting in a room usually occupied by priests. There was a male aroma in the room. I felt like an intruder. Or an alien.
A few minutes later, I walked into the main body of the church and sat down to read. I looked around me. There was something timeless and uncluttered and unfettered about this beautiful church. Something deeply moving. I felt calm. And embraced. I looked at the audience. Row after row of people were smiling at me.
I went back to St Agnes the next day. And I didn’t want to leave. I was in love, I loved the church. I felt part of the church. I was not alone in this. St Agnes, which sits right in the middle of the district, has a devoted community. They have over the last ten years hosted contemporary music events, art exhibitions and book readings. Last year 300 people came to hear the writer Ulla Hahn read poems.
I have been back to St Agnes many times since that first reading. I have read there again. The church has, in their permanent collection, one of my husband’s paintings, a triptych called Passage and Crossings. It hangs in the nave. Each panel has soaring red and black lines that stretch upwards pointing to somewhere above the earth, somewhere celestial, somewhere above the minutiae of everyday life.
My relationship with St Agnes has changed my life. It has changed my view of religion and showed me how we can be deeply connected while holding different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs. I feel as though St Agnes is my church. I refer to it as my church. Or our church. This sometimes makes my ninety-seven-year-old father laugh. But there is a sense of pleasure in his laughter. I suspect it is the pleasure of possibility. All possibility.
I am still in love with St Agnes. And still in love with my husband.
Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available.
Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky (Counterpoint), is now available.