Light falls quietly in the cathedral in León, Spain, pooling on the smooth stone ground in deep red and blue and yellow pockets. The ceiling is high and vaulted, each arch a curved spine elegantly pinned to its transverse. On any ordinary afternoon, if you lean against the columns lining the nave—if you let yourself melt into the cool, dark stone—space is distorted; time fades away. And you feel yourself, too, begin to dissolve.
Last year, at the beginning of Easter Week, a fire consumed the 800-year old wooden roof and spire of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, France. The demonstrations of grief and hope that immediately ensued all over the world as France held her breath, keeping a night-long vigil in honor of her Lady, were unprecedented. That France, once the “eldest daughter of the Church” and now the strict guardian of secularism, would weep as the physical and spiritual center of the city burned, was as striking as it was moving.
But why were hundreds of Parisians, many of whom had not set foot in a church for years, now out in the streets in the dark singing the Je vous salue, Marie on that night last April? The answer to this question does not have much to do with Christianity, at least explicitly; in the past thirty years, the percentage of French citizens identifying as “non-religious” has skyrocketed from 15% to nearly 40%. Nor can it be reduced to French cultural pride; after all, 90% of the funding for the cathedral’s restoration consists of small donations from Americans. Even the loss of a structure of great artistic and historical value is not enough to explain the profound spirituality of that night last year. What is it about cathedrals, then, that humanity so fervently agrees is worth saving, irrespective of nationality or creed?
Cathedrals, unlike other monuments, are not a testament to the work of human hands. They do not reflect the glory of one king, one architect, or one nation; they were built over hundreds of years, under the reign of many monarchs and thousands of artists and workers. The Catedral de Santa María in Burgos, Spain, for example, is a stunning illustration of the myriad architectural styles that inspired its construction, from Romanesque to Baroque to French-style Gothic. The awe that great cathedrals inspire transcends us: it reflects the glory of God, and the plurality of His Church.
Of course, it would be naive to claim that cathedrals were always commissioned to reflect God’s power rather than that of a state or city. But it is significant that the structures which continue to define nations and cities are spaces of divinity, rather than of human activity. Built into every cathedral or church, whether in the center of Paris, London, or a remote countryside village, is an indestructible something, a quality independent of the gathering of churchgoers on Sundays or even of the waves of tourists during the summer who come to photograph rather than pray. Marcel Proust, an agnostic in practice who nevertheless deeply admired his Catholic roots, wrote in his 1904 article “La mort des cathédrales” (The Death of Cathedrals) that “the simple dreamer, who walks into a cathedral without any effort at understanding,” is still “overwhelmed by his emotions and receives an impression which, though perhaps less precise, is certainly just as strong.”1 This impression—this something—is etched into every stone placed painstakingly over the course of centuries, and indivisible from the architecture of the space itself. And it has the power to make the contemplative visitor, if she is attentive and reverent enough, begin to dissolve.
What is this strange dissolution? The magic of the cathedral, I believe, lies in the way in which it reflects the structure of our own interiority. Proust affirms that “never has a sight comparable to such a giant mirror of knowledge, of the soul, and of history as this been presented to man’s eyes and understanding.” If the cathedral is a mirror of the soul, and reflects the glory of God, then the soul, too, must reflect divine glory. In Books X and XI of his Confessions, St. Augustine constructs an intricate theory of time and memory, arguing that God is accessible only through the inner self. If we truly see ourselves, Augustine explains, if we see where we come from and for what we are made, then we cannot help but see God.2 In other words, our own interiority can teach us that “[we] no longer live, but Christ lives in [us].”3
This is the interior cathedral. St. Teresa of Avila, too, wrote about an “interior castle,” composed of many mansions, which we strive to explore through private prayer.4 Our interior selves—castles, cathedrals—are the most direct means by which we develop our relationships with God. Upon entering this cathedral, the self begins to dissolve. But it is not as much a dissolution as a resolution. Through prayer, we are resolved in glory; we are resolved in Christ.
The physical cathedral, then, reflects the human relationship with God. Like a human being, the cathedral is firmly anchored in space and time: it is a physical entity that is created and can be destroyed, in which different stages of life, from baptism to death, are celebrated and mourned. Proust observes in his masterwork A la recherche du temps perdu that what gives a cathedral or church its fourth dimension—that of Time—is its materiality.5 Statues, paintings, and stained-glass windows accumulate dust; the cathedral must be restored. Its susceptibility to time and change is a testament to its humanity. It is a testament to incarnation.
But the cathedral also transcends space and time. The spire and bell-towers point towards the heavens: “It was Saint-Hilaire’s bell tower,” Proust writes, reflecting on the church in the village where he spent his childhood summers, “which gave to all occupations, at all hours, at all points of view of the city, their figure, their crowning, their consecration.”6 In the cathedral, the ordinary is made sacred. Bread is made Christ on the altar; we are reconciled, for an instant of eternity, with our risen God. The cathedral is a testament to resurrection.
In “La mort des cathédrales,” Proust argues that the cathedral stripped of its rite—the cathedral as mere museum—is dead. But this is not true. The cathedral directs us towards Christ, no matter how distant we are from Him. Its very structure compels us to enter our interior cathedrals, to celebrate the incarnation and the resurrection. Proust himself writes that “this mansion is grand enough for us all to find our place in.”7 The cathedral of the soul, too, is a place of communion rather than solitude, for prayer is inherently relational. Even in private prayer, we are not alone. Though each of our interior cathedrals are different, they draw us closer to the same God. Sometimes, when I stand at the door of my cathedral, I like to imagine Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, deep in the crypts of his own.
It seems impossible, even now, to imagine an Easter without community, without ceremony, without church. But though this year we are kept away from our physical spaces of worship, we can take the time to discover our own inner cathedrals, which, unlike structures of stone and wood, are indestructible. These cathedrals are vast, intricate, and far more glorious than any edifice in Paris, London, or León. No fire can destroy our interior lives of prayer. No virus can prevent us from resting in the house of God.
Aliénor Manteau ’22 is a sophomore in Dunster House studying English and Philosophy.
|↑1||Proust, Marcel. “The Death of Cathedrals and the Rites for Which They Were Built.” Translated by John Pepino, Rorate Caeli, 13 Jan. 2015.|
|↑2||See Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Carolyn J.-B. Hammond, Harvard University Press, 2014.|
|↑4||See Avila, Teresa. The Interior Castle or The Mansions. Edited by Benedict Zimmerman, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1921, sacred-texts.com, www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1515-1582,_Teresa_d%27Avila,_The_Interior_Castle_Of_The_Mansions,_EN.pdf.|
|↑5||See Proust, Marcel. Du Coté De Chez Swann. Vol. 1, pp. 61, Nouvelle Revue Française, 1919.|
|↑6||Proust, Marcel. Du Coté De Chez Swann. Vol. 1, pp. 63, Nouvelle Revue Française, 1919.|
|↑7||“The Death of Cathedrals.”|