Photo by Jason Mrachina

The Transcendent Significance of Cathedrals

At the south end of the main train station in Cologne, Germany, the external doors are glass. The whole wall, in fact, is a series of windows, high and wide as the lobby. I suspect it was designed this way so that the cathedral can be seen by visitors immediately upon their arrival.

Unlike from the windows of an arriving train, the cathedral cannot be seen in its entirety from within the main station. Despite the size of the wall of windows and the fact that the cathedral sits a couple hundred feet away, it is simply too large. Its signature twin gothic spires put its reach at 515 feet, but they cannot be seen until one steps outside. All that is visible is a wall like a towering wave of dark stone.

For all of its mass, the details are intricate and beautiful. Walking closer, one increasingly strains one’s neck to see the top, but it’s clear that every square foot was designed with care. Yet it is not the most intricate cathedral. The one in Milan, for example, is much smaller, but features about 135 spires. These spires, the famous façade of Notre Dame, the beauty and sublimity of the cathedrals in Brussels and Berlin, invoke senses both of grandeur and of attention to the small and seemingly insignificant.

Every cathedral I have had the good fortune to visit has had one sensation in common. Walking in from outdoors, staring up and around at the vastness, is like walking outside into the night and gazing up at the starry sky. It is not a feeling of emptiness or insignificance. It is like a portal into the vast throne room of God. I don’t claim an original thought here; these edifices merely succeed in their design to aesthetically mirror their spiritual purpose.

To the much less literate populace of the period during which construction began, these churches were meant to inspire and to instruct. The stained glass encompassing almost all of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is one of the most beautiful achievements of its kind anywhere. Each pane tells recounts a story or a book from the Bible.

Today, literacy is much higher and the need to communicate knowledge in this manner is diminished. The need to inspire awe of our great God is not. In contemporary culture, information is unprecedentedly abundant, but, focused on the “realism” of ugliness, badness and faithlessness, it cannot inspire much more than a wallowing depression of futility.

Though rarely today is anything so beautiful built, at least the significance of these masterpieces has been recognized and they have been protected and restored. They are a remnant of another time in which their creators were not prodded by brooding over their own faults and insignificance, but were inspired by the majesty of a God so big, yet concerned with the circumstances of a sparrow, and worked to inspire the same sentiments in others.

My grandfather passed away Saturday morning. He was as hard-working a man as I have ever known. Born 93 years ago, he came from the generation that grew up learning to cope with economic depression and to sacrifice for country, family and freedom. His example inspired me to aspire (imperfectly) to the same virtues cultivated then. Like the cathedrals I have visited, he was a remnant of another time — a time with many troubles that cannot be romanticized away, but the ideals of which it is too easy to fear are themselves passing away.

Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Perhaps the most significant thing about the great cathedrals, as well as paintings, sculptures, music and more masterpieces inspired in geniuses of the Christian faith, is that they remind us that the story does not end with a person’s passing. They transcend centuries, continually restored, connecting the worship and communion of believers of all times like our eternal God.

The happy reality is that there is no ending, and the arc of history bends toward the restoration of all things.

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J. Cal Davenport

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