My North Dakota cousins had one of the most beautiful churches I have ever entered–an outdoor cathedral in the pines. Air and sunlight fell down upon us. Breezes blew. Music and text, belief and sustenance rose into an immensity tempered by the tree tops.
Now, the closest thing I can find to that piney chapel is the Saint Paul Cathedral. Unlike many churches, the cathedral is almost always open. It commands the city like a huge tree commands the lesser brush down below. I enter a high, hushed atmosphere. Light.streams down from two rose windows, rich with deep blues. Through a dome spreads the light of the sky. We rest from the traffic, and in the quiet, say what is in our hearts.
There was nothing objectionable about the Presbyterian churches of my childhood, the first in Charleston, the second in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The churches introduced me to notions of prayer and praise, but they did not enfold and elevate me. Perhaps I was too young. The ministers were a little frightening in the sweeping black robes. What they said made almost no sense to me. Yet I liked to the hymns and singing them.
Taking the collection made a little drama as adults slipped tiny envelopes into large silver-edged platters and I put in my dimes. The buildings–both plain and white, with narrow sanctuaries and green velvet draperies–did not offend. I stared out wide windows in a kind of trance. Outside sun filtered down, leaves fluttered, an occasional bird flew by. Gravestones made a pleasant change and I entertained random notions about who lay beneath them. As a teen, dressing for church with white gloves and hat occupied me far more than anything that actually happened inside the church. As a child, drawing on the program passed the time.
Had this been all, I doubt that I would enter the cathedral today. It was life that taught me the need for offering up my insignificance into a quiet whose enormity I could never plumb. Where I could rest from fear, and hope to be sustained. Where I was humbled enough to kneel, and where the statues and images carried the familiar gentle Christ and his parents of my childhood.
We live in a deeply secular world. Also a deeply divided In the United States, the “religious right” has become a political force. I am not so naive as the pretend that the “religious left” doesn’t also have a secular agenda. When a religious leader like the newly elected Pope Francis comes on the scene with a message of love and compassion for the poor in spirit and in purse, I almost weep with relief that goodness and mercy can still make waves in this world. But it’s my deep concern and love for the natural world, that compels me most emphatically toward that old-time religious action. Not because it fits with any dogma or creed, but because it rises from what the cathedral teaches me about our place in the world.
We are not alone. Nor are we omnipotent. When I enter the cathedral and sink into the immensity, I eventually feel the truth of both these statements. I emerge freshened by insignificance and buoyed by weakness. But also freed to think and feel toward what is good and right, and emboldened to take action where I can. The cathedral puts what is busy and selfish about my own pursuits within a circle of connection. It is that piercing revelation–I must answer for what I commit–which helps me find my place within our world’s enormous generosity of creatures and oceans, water and air, seasons and darkness. I belong to them, and owe them as much attention and action as I can possibly contribute. If I and many others are to sustain the bees, there must be wildflowers on my altar. And water for our Eucharist cleaned through rejuvenated soil. And bread for our communion ground from seeds with enough sustenance in them to keep us alive and alert. .