Cathedrals and the Crosstown Bus

Viewed through the radiant trefoil window of aesthetics, my love of Gothic architecture is boundless. Approached through the tighter, denser lens of prayer, however, that love shrinks. It pales and contracts to where I can barely see it. If at all.

The Cloister of Gloucester Cathedral

Christianity’s great truths come to us through a Nazarene carpenter—a tekton, a builder—whose handiwork we have no clue to. Neither do we have the faintest inkling of his response to Herod’s monumental temple complex. The whole of it, with its plaza, porticos, columns, and stairs was a glory of limestone, marble and gold. Yet Jesus directed eyes to the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, to bread, weeds and mustard seeds.

His inattention to cultivated Herodian aesthetics mortifies me some. It pulls me back—sometimes not far enough—from making a golden calf of my own sensibilities and everything they revel in. Once destined for the faithful, Christendom’s magnificent cathedrals remain great goods. But they are not ultimate goods. And when we honor them as ends in themselves, we fall into idolatry. 

Kathe Kollwitz. Woman with a Dead Child (1903)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a theologian of surpassing lyricism, condensed into a single exquisite stanza all a Christian needs to know—or say—about beauty:

. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

To the Father through the features of men’s faces. The call to charity implicit in that line is the governing principle and crown of the gospels. I cannot dislodge it from memory. It repeats like a mantra, an unceasing reminder that compassion—caritas—is a vehicle for worship. And that our faith is simpler than we make it. Simpler, certainly, than the grandees of theological aesthetics would have us believe.

The greatest cathedral of all, the only one capable of rising to the Paraclete, is the suffering human being next to us. Until we can worship on the crosstown bus, we have yet to greet the living God. 

Kathe Kollwitz. The Widow (1922-23).