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.