I am not a fan of heights. I have a vague memory of going to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago when I was six years old or so, and heights didn't bother me then, but sometime shortly after that, just walking next to the glass at the mall and looking down from the second to the first floor started making me woozy. I've been up the Eiffel Tower three times, each experience equally traumatic, and I was sure that the idea of going up some outrageous structure, just because I'm in a foreign country, had lost its charm.
I was sure of this, that is, until I visited St. Paul's.
The church is beautiful from the outside, but I was not at all prepared for how breathtaking the interior would be. I've seen some wonderful cathedrals, but they have been, for the most part, of the Gothic style. Gothic cathedrals are lovely, but they are dark and often feel very enclosed. St. Paul's was built after London's Great Fire in 1666, so it is a much newer building, and of the Neoclassical style. Made of lighter coloured stone, the interior is much brighter and it is physically larger and more open than the great Gothic cathedrals, but the difference feels like night and day - literally. St. Paul's continued to draw my gaze upwards, towards the enormous dome and the mosaics. When we entered the church, an official was inviting everyone to pray the "Our Father" prayer in their own languages, and the sound was beautiful. Although I belong to a denomination that does not usually use set prayers, I know the words, and whispered them along with the visitors from different nations. The feeling of peace that this action created was incredible, and I think the calm I felt from that moment carried through the rest of my visit.
We wandered around the church, visiting the memorial to the American soldiers that died in the Second World War, and I cried a bit, as I always do at war memorials. Then my entire group, twelve students and a professor, climbed 162 stairs to the Whispering Gallery, which goes around the dome on the inside of the building, about halfway up. I hadn't planned to go all the way to the top, but in a strange moment of bravery, I convinced myself that I needed to do this, to complete my visit to St. Paul's. Perhaps it was the peace that I felt earlier that compelled me to follow my classmates into another impossibly tight stairwell. There are almost 500 steps in all, from the cathedral floor to the Golden Gallery, which is an outdoor gallery at the very top of the dome. I was doing well until the stone staircases transitioned into metal, tightly spiraling staircases, the kind with spaces between the steps. I was dizzy and short of breath when I finally made it to the top, but I felt a sense of accomplishment, even pride. I surveyed the city of London from a bird's-eye perspective and even though scores of people had done this before me, I felt like I had completed some sort of pivotal milestone. So I snapped a photo of myself, looking terrified, and then I tried to hold my nerves together while I waited for the slowly shuffling pack in front of me to reach the staircases. For the record...those creepy spiral staircases are even worse on the way down, but I lived to tell the tale, and I'm even glad that I conquered my fear for a moment and went to the top of St. Paul's.