I visited the National Cathedral last week, and I was struck by how odd it seemed to me as a holy place.
Don’t get me wrong; the cathedral is beautiful and well worth seeing and can be a pleasant place to visit. I have been in churches that simply felt malevolent, or at least hostile, whether through their severity, triumphalism, exclusionary nature, or otherwise. None of that was present here. But nonetheless, it felt slightly wrong somehow.
This was an unusual reaction for me, one I didn’t expect. In an earlier part of my life, I had regular occasion to attend a beautiful neo-Gothic church of slightly smaller but comparable scale, and I very much enjoyed it. I have also enjoyed visiting churches and cathedrals with long histories overseas.
Perhaps that’s part of what seemed odd here; the cathedral is in some ways still under construction, most noticeably in terms of repairs necessitated by the earthquake last year. This cathedral uses very old forms but is in fact extremely young, not having been hallowed by the repeated use of decades. But the church that I loved so well earlier was of comparable youth; of course it made a difference that when I attended there I was Christian, and so felt uplifted and included by its awe-inspiring form.
The Cathedral was awe-inspiring, but it was also a huge statement of power, power in its most potent contemporary manifestation: money, or economic power. Now that I’m a member of a minority religion often confronted with the hegemony of Christianity and sometimes discriminated against as a result of that hegemony, that power no longer felt like a natural assumption that could be ignored. Yes, it is a form of these people’s devotion to their god, but it is also an extremely tangible symbol of that fact that so many people have been willing to put so many resources towards this one project over a sustained period of nearly a century. And work on the cathedral is still underway.
It’s a reasonable assumption that the magnitude of that undertaking means that the church could motivate those people to put their resources to work in other ways as well. Economic resources go hand-in-hand with social and political capital. Since this is the relatively liberal Episcopalian church we’re talking about, I don’t find that quite as terrifying as I would if it were a Christian Dominionist organization, but it’s still somewhat nervewracking. The Anglican Communion is still split over marriage equality, for example; I can’t imagine how a queer person who wanted to get married would feel seeing the inside of that building, but I don’t imagine it would be entirely positive.
As a Pagan, though, it also struck me how isolated this worship space was. A Gothic cathedral creates a miniature world all its own within its walls. Even the light of day or night is harnessed through stained glass; the images tell stories in pictoral form, often beautifully, but still separating the viewer from that light. I ended up wondering whether someone who went there regularly would be able to trace changes in the sun’s path over the course of a year. I know in the previous church I attended, I could see some differences based on season, just barely, but wouldn’t have been able to put them together into a regular pattern.
(Two asides: one of the lovely windows was all about Moses and depicted Moses wearing “Egyptian” garb. One person in the tour group commented on that as a surprising choice. The tour guide couldn’t come up with a detailed explanation but said something about how Moses was “basically Egyptian.” He was raised as an Egyptian prince. I was left, once again, wondering how many Christians actually read that book they talk about so much.
On the other hand, the Space Window with a piece of moon rock from the Apollo XI mission is amazing, especially when I think about finding the divine in all of nature, see below.)
But even more than the light, what struck me as odd about the cathedral was how unchanging it is. You can’t tell what season it is, or what the weather has been like lately, or what the near future is going to be like. There are no beings there besides human beings.
In fact, it reminded me a bit of some Christian conceptions of heaven. It’s just people, relating to their god, in an eternally unchanging way.
To me, that’s not about life. That’s something other than life; it might be the highest conception of joy for some, but it verges dangerously close to concentrating so much on the other world that the people involved might not be any use in this world. Now, the Anglicans do a lot of good in the world, and the Cathedral hosts a lot of programs, some of which I’ve enjoyed, so I’m not accusing them of that. But I think it might be why the architecture seemed so weird to me, especially for a holy place.
My understanding of Wicca is about connection. If you look at the roots of the word religion, one explanation is re-legio, reforming the bonds (like ligaments) between….what? Well, between everything: me, the trees, the earth and the Earth, other people, other beings, other animals…everything.
A dear friend said, quite accurately, that nature is my cathedral. It’s where I experience that reconnecting with everything that is. It’s the most awe-inspiring thing I can think of to see and feel and know, deep down, that I am part of this overarching web of being, ever changing and ever living, always different and always connected. Why would I want to shut myself away from that behind stone walls so thick I can’t tell what season it is and glass so colored I can’t see the sun and moon light?