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?


8 thoughts on “Holy places

  1. I think a good argument can be made (in fact others have already made it) that the very architecture of a cathedral is about both the expression and the exercise of power. Power is expressed through the size, the cost and the openness of the building. The people who worship in this building are not concerned that they might be “found out”–they worship loudly, in the daylight and without looking over their shoulder.

    The exercise of power can be felt as one stands in the middle of a cathedral and looks upwards. One is reminded at every moment that one is so small as to be insignificant. One measures oneself against the size of the building and one knows that one is dwarfed by it politically just as one is dwarfed by it physically. We are forced, in a cathedral, to look up to power.

    1. Looked at from the point of view of someone with a medieval mindset, whose identity is tied up with his place in the great chain of being and the permanence of the otherworld, I can see that as empowering. The sheer certainty that could be imbued in that mindset is astonishing to one living in our post-post-post intellectual settings. But otherwise, yes, all that power can be simply suffocating.

  2. Hmmm… I never thought of it like that. It certainly can be viewed that way, and certainly can be a demonstration of power.

    For me, there have been more than a few times in my life when things were going out of control and I don’t know what to do. It’s during those times when I find myself in search of exactly one of these places, where the walls are thick and the glass is colored, and there is enough room to breathe. And I breathe. I’ve found myself sitting in a giant cocoon, simply trying to breathe. It’s always been like a re-set button, sitting there as the tears flow down my face, sheltered by walls that were a physical barrier to the outside forces tearing me apart, protecting me.

    I’ve never thought of it as an outsider (non-Christian). I imagine that all of that comfort I find would be somewhat oppressive. It’s certainly rigid, unyielding, and… well, to me… solid and comfortably predictable… but to someone else, it could certainly be seen as oppressive.

    I seem to be using the word “certainly” a lot tonight. Perhaps we should drink each time I use the word “certainly.” Could be fun! ; )

    1. Oh, Lori, hugs to you. I understand; I’ve been there myself.

      But for me now, being cut off from “outside forces” takes away so much that makes me stable and secure – and makes me feel alive at all – as well as anything that’s bothering me. In fact, I generally find that getting away from what’s bothering me is more a matter of being away from other people than being in a totally predictable environment.

  3. I hear what you’re saying, but perhaps we ought not to forget that the Pagans of old had monumental temples as well. The Ziggurat of Ur and Göbekli Tepe, for examples, were not built in a day. And, in some of these religions (those with which I am familiar, in any case), it was only the clergy who were allowed to enter the shrine.

    I sometimes find it helpful to look upon physical temples (of whatever kind, be they churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, or the Pagan temples of today and of old) as a type of alchemical vessel in which interior work and transformation of some kind may be enabled. The Cathedral of Nature (qua cathedral) is also a place of potential transformation, of course, if perhaps of another kind. As is my wont, I look upon the matter as being one of “both-and” rather than “either-or.” Understandably, others may differ.

    1. That’s a really good point, Makarios. I would count that as another of the odd reversals of power that puts today’s neo-Pagans in the shoes of the Christians in the 1st-3rd centuries CE.

      The idea of an alchemical vessel is interesting. The National Cathedral is, as I tried to acknowledge, a very welcoming place for a cathedral. But what about large churches – like many of today’s megachurches – that are built with the express purpose of gaining power in order to silence or even eliminate others? I don’t know very much about different perspectives on alchemy; what would it mean if the vessel was built for such a destructive goal?

  4. Ah–with regard to alchemy, we’re getting into deep water. Short answer to your question: attempting to employ the Art for such destructive purposes will backfire sooner or later. Such use would be completely counter to the purpose of the Work.

    Oversimplifying, admittedly. All that I know about alchemy is taken from C.G. Jung. Did you know that three of the eighteen substantive volumes of Jung’s Collected Works are devoted to alchemy?

    If you’re interested in an overview, this might be a good place to start.

    1. Fair enough!

      I didn’t know that; I’ve been meaning to read some more Jung eventually, so thanks for the starting point.

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