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Common Ground

January 22, 2011

Reactions to Church San Benedetg

See all images of Church San Benedetg here

Passing by split cliff faces of granite and limestone and swift rivers slicing through a valley, the clouds rolled west with the train. The sunlight crept softly through the clouded sky with the rain shimmering as it fell. A beam of light peered through the cracks of the clouds, falling upon the empty seat across from me, then departed as quickly as it came.

The village seemed to grow upon the mountainside, stopping just before the dense forest halfway up. Dirt roads wound dramatically up the face of the hill, wove up through the town and far beyond what could be seen from the small train station. I had beaten the rain to Sumvitg, so I began the trek to Church San Benedetg as the first few drops began to speck the dust in the path ahead of me.

Chamomile fields blanketed the ground, their earthy scent heightened by the sun and rain. The blooms danced with each drop, each gust of wind. I watched them sway in a complex rhythm, but I couldn’t quite count the beats in time.

Memories of wildflowers along the highways in Arizona flooded my thoughts. They grow without remorse, hugging the turns of the basins along the edge of piercing boulevards of light. Those mountains are markedly barren compared to these Swiss peaks, but the sunsets that rest beyond would paint the desert sky with brilliant shades that were always new.

I knew the church was along this meandering road, with every switchback raising my head to see if the crown of the church rose above the tree line. I would look back each time to the valley below – the train tracks twisting at the base and the few houses spotted along – and then begin again. Church bells rang from the town below as the clouds gathered, became fog. The fog was soft and numbing, cool to the touch but it remained warm beneath its cloak. Now, the sky was gone, and all that remained was that small valley in a sea of off-white, detached from the rest of the world. I continued on.

Even in the fog, the sunburnt wood of the church struck me from a distance. It lit up like a flame amongst all that gray sky. Standing in silence, it rung like a bell, bright and magnificent. I walked to the door, taking a moment to listen to the modest fountain behind me. A spout dripping into a full trough of water, and the void of the forest that absorbed it. The bells rang again, now much further away; an hour had come and gone.

Light diffused into the church from the clerestory windows above, but the light seemed to saunter in just as slowly as the fog outside. It drifted in and fell gently upon the pews and pulpit, accentuating the warmth of the wood. The silver finish on the interior walls let the light pool down its side to contrast the dark floor and become a backdrop to the shadows of the studs. As the wind blew, the fog turned over and the pressure changed; inside the church it was as if the small  took a deep breath, and slowly let it out again.

I took a seat in the last pew, in the center to take in the symmetry of it all. I’m not a spiritual person, but I understand that feeling of being a part of something larger than oneself. When I take in these moments and connect with a place I’ve only barely experienced, I begin to feel that which connects us all. The history of all mankind revolves around the idea of taking a small piece of this world and making it familiar and comforting. Our shared humanity – the collective narrative that makes these experiences both refreshingly recognizable and altogether different – is the foundation of these simple expressions. Architecture is an artifact of this knowledge. Light, space, shadow, texture – but most of all place – is our common ground.

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