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  • Though never one for churches or religion generally, I spent a lot of time in cathedrals as we traveled through Europe. Germany and France have no shortage of grand Catholic edifices, testimonies to opulent faith and kingly devotion. And if you don’t stop to count the number of backs broken to pile stone walls higher and higher, the architecture is a marvel and the stained glass windows are sparkling wonderment. But redolent with the sweat of the poor and starving, I was really predisposed to hating these places.

    When traveling though Europe however, (and especially with 3 who’ve never been), cathedrals are unavoidable. Whatever. In Munich, four days after our arrival, five days after my brother’s funeral, we left an unusually sweltering and bright July day and entered our first church, the Frauenkirsche. My breath stopped as my eyes adjusted to the dark. There seemed to be no ceiling and the pews stretched on and on stopping dutifully at a gilded altar with an elaborate celestial scene promising the beauty of the kingdom of Heaven. The Frauenkirsche achieved its purpose: I felt small and inconsequential.

    Despite the shuffling feet and awed chatter of tourists, the cathedral was unbelievably quiet. I found myself drawn to the alcoves of mounted red votives. Since visiting my first catholic church at 7 years old (when my parents decided I needed to “pick” a religion—to their dismay I chose agnostic) I’d ignored these candles, dismissing them as more weird goth catholic ritual. For the first time though I think I understood what they were for and what lighting one actually means: an appeal, a hope, a goodbye and a hello, an apology, a sigh and a release. I desperately wanted to light one but I don’t believe in prayer (and of course I hate churches) and I figured my heathen hands lighting a candle… well I may as well pee in the holy water.

    I looked over though and saw my queer friend Stephen light one, and slip a coin into the offering box. If Stephen, who according to the Pope, “tends toward an intrinsic moral evil,” could partake, I figured I might have a chance. I whispered to him, “Are you Catholic?” He smiled and chuckled and said in his sweet sardonic way, “Nohhh. But I think it’s beautiful. I light them anyway.”

    Taking this as invitation and absolution, I slipped two coins in the offering box. I lit a candle then offered a match to my 8 year old son and told him he could light a candle for Uncle Andy if he wanted to. He wanted to, maybe like me, as much because he missed his uncle as for the excitement of momentarily being allowed to play with fire. He took the match and we held our breaths with centuries of the devoted. Temporarily overwhelmed and unable to straighten my back for grief, I briefly handed my burden to the diminutive flame. My son and I lit our candles and for a few minutes watched them flicker together with all the other prayers.

    Every cathedral we entered, I lit a candle for you, leaving a trail of tiny light through 3 countries, hoping we might find each other.
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