Monday, August 15, 2011

Where is God?

I have just read a comment by blogger Brian Jay Stanley, who says, following a disappointing visit to some of Europe's cathedrals, that they "sublimely evoke the absence of God." God was never there amid the greed and ambition that helped build these now empty structures, he concludes.

As a cathedral crawler from way back who has made an informal study of Chartres and several other great churches in France and England, I was surprised to find this on the Internet. I can understand his take but am saddened that Stanley has allowed cynicism to darken what might have been a journey into light.

Of course, God is everywhere and is especially present to the believer who prays, whether he does so in a great cathedral or a tiny chapel or a meadow. Whatever secular reasons were involved in the construction of a cathedral, such as raising huge sums of money, they are also---and for us today primarily--testaments of faith. There is no way to separate the secular totally from the sacred since, for the Christian who believes in Incarnation, everything human can be sacred. If God is not found in a church, it is because we have not brought hearts of faith there.

To say, as Stanley does, that secular society banishes the sacred while religious society defiles it with the human is to denigrate the human role in the sacred; and it is to create a false dichotomy. The lust for money and power that played a role in building the cathedrals does not defile them for those who come there with an open mind and heart; it does not diminish their role as places of prayer and inspiration.

I have never encountered anyone who has been to Chartres or the other medieval Gothic cathedrals and not been spiritually moved. People don't go there looking for God in the stone or glass, as if the cathedral were the unique respository of God; they bring God with them into a place where prayer has always been valid (I allude to T. S. Eliot).

I'm sorry that Mr. Stanley found in the cathedrals' past only a story of greed and ambition and that he has allowed this aspect of their history to obscure the bigger picture. I hope he will return to Europe and look again. But he will have to bring God along with him if he is not again to be disappointed.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

Well said. Recently a friend of mine mentioned greed and money wasted with respect to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

It saddened me, because whether he'd ever been there or not, he missed the point of having that building be so glorious and grand and located over "the tomb of the Apostle," that apostle being, of course, the impetuous Peter.

Many people don't realize that the "Circus" where Peter was martyred once occupied much of the space now covered by the present-day basilica.

Every time I've been in that church, I've felt a sense of the sacred like nowhere else. Turn almost any corner and the interested observer or seeker will find some aspect that evokes within a sense of God's presence and awe.

From the cherubs who hold the massive Holy Water fonts, to the red disc on which Charlemange was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day in the year 800, to the massive piers that support the dome and the statues and relics within them (especially the enormous Veronica who seems to be reaching right out toward the observer with her cloth), the statue of Peter with the foot worn by millions of visitors' hands that caressed it, to the beautiful Bernini angels that flank the tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (which is reserved exclusively for prayer)--I could go on, the aforementioned are not necessarily most important: the Pieta, the Papal altar, the Cathedra at the rear wall, the stautes of the four great Doctors of the Church are of great importance in my mind--it's difficult to imagine a thoughtful believer who doesn't become slack-jawed at what he or she encounters.

You are correct, Jerry. God is present in cathedrals, basilicas, and churches that contain the Blessed Sacrament, of course, but when He is also in the heart of the visitor.