Late one afternoon in Mérida I wandered into a large old church. Inside, it had that beautiful and lived-in feel of old churches that every day for hundreds of years have been open to the life of the world around it. There was no service going on and only a few people -- a family, I think -- up near the front, lost in prayer, and a flicker of candles at a side altar. I heard a flutter of wings high up near the dark ceiling of the nave: birds, surrogate for angels, who had made their nests in the inaccessible rafters and interior cornices of the old structure. I was tired and sat down in a worn pew and let my mind relax and wander among the familiar images and associations of the sanctuary and drifted off into peace as one does when you are in a comfortable, familiar place, even if, as here, it is one that you have never actually been before. I pondered nothing earthly-minded and time became unimportant.
A bit later I became aware of motion at the rear of the church and glanced back to see that a small party of tourists, apparently Americans, had entered and were hesitantly looking around at the furnishings of the sanctuary. Noticing others apparently in prayer or at some pious observation, they were speaking in whisper and trying not to disturb and it seemed to me being a bit awkward and uncomfortable to find themselves there.
This seemed strange to me. Elaborated as its decoration might be, this wasn’t some obscure East Asian temple where hashish-crazed natives danced and sacrificed before a pagan idol with a jeweled eye and a taste for virgin’s blood: it was just a church. A Roman Catholic church just like the ones I am sure these people had passed by most every day of their life. However protestant one might have been -- and scornful of the pomps and presumptions of the Pope in Rome -- how odd that a visiting American would be uncomfortable in a Christian church. I would have thought that in a foreign city the church should be the most familiar place, the most comfortable and reassuring and homelike. But perhaps they were unaccustomed to being in a church even when at home and I suppose that when you travel you also learn about your own kind, though I still think it unfortunate. A part of the country they have come to visit that is invisible to them.
For the birds fluttering around the ceiling, it was their home, too, though for them it was just another cave.