I am currently engrossed in Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter. Halfway through this novel I dare say that when I am finished it will rank right alongside Island of the World by Michael O’Brien as the greatest character novel I have ever read. Not only does Undset recreate the world of 14th century Norway and allow her readers to lose themselves in the characters, culture and countryside, she does it so effortlessly. And realism? The novel oozes realism, from the innermost thoughts of the characters, their faults, foibles and triumphs. That I waited so long to finally pick up this novel is my own fault. I would have missed much, including interludes such as this one near the end of Part 1 of the second book in the trilogy. Kristin makes a pilgrimage to St. Olav’s shrine in Trondheim, and in the following paragraphs Undset does a masterful job of describing the grandeur of the cathedrals of old.
The bells of the churches and cloisters were ringing for vespers as Kristin entered the courtyard of Christ Church. For a moment she ventured to glance up at the west gable—then she lowered her dazzled eyes.
Human beings could not have done this work on their own. God’s spirit had been at work in holy Øistein and the men who built the church after him. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Now she understood those words. A reflection on the splendor of God’s kingdom bore witness through the stones that His will was all that was beautiful. Kristin trembled. Yes, God must surely turn away with scorn from all that was vile—from sin and shame and impurity.
Along the galleries of the heavenly palace stood holy men and women, and they were so beautiful that she dared not look at them. The imperishable vines of eternity wound their way upward, calm and lovely, bursting into flower on spires and towers with stone monstrances. Above the center door hung Christ on the cross; Mary and John the Evangelist stood at his side. And they were white, as if molded from snow, and gold glittered on the white.
Three times Kristin walked around the church, praying. The huge, massive walls with their bewildering wealth of pillars and arches and windows, the glimpse of the roof’s enormous slanting surface, the tower, the gold of the spire rising high into the heavens—Kristin sank to the ground beneath her sin.
She was shaking as she kissed the hewn stone of the portal. In a flash she saw the dark carved timber around the church door back home, where as a child she had pressed her lips after her father and mother.
She sprinkled holy water over her son and herself, remembering that her father had done the same when she was small. With the child clasped tightly in her arms, she stepped forward into the church.
She walked as if through a forest. The pillars were furrowed like ancient trees, and into the woods the light seeped, colorful and clear as song, through the stained-glass windows. High overhead animals and people frolicked in the stone foliage, and angels played their instruments. At an even higher, more dizzying height, the vaults of the ceiling arched upward, lifting the church toward God. In a fall off to the side a service was being held at an altar. Kristin fell to her knees next to a pillar. The song cut through her like a blinding light. Now she saw how deep in the dust she lay.
Pater noster. Credo in unum Deum. Ave Maria, gratia plena. She had learned her prayers by repeating them after her father and mother before she could understand a single word, from as far back as she could remember. Lord Jesus Christ. Was there ever a sinner like her?
High beneath the triumphal arch, raised above the people, hung Christ on the cross. The pure virgin, who was his mother, stood looking up in deathly anguish at her innocent son who was suffering the death of a criminal.
This passage inspires a lot of varying and admittedly random thoughts. Thoughts about a mere building, about Creation, about sin, humility, penance and forgiveness. Faith, Hope and Charity.
I got to thinking about what keeps people out of a church cathedral built in this grand manner. About why have we stopped aspiring to build such structures and visit them. I know some of the more common responses involving expense and it being a mere building.
“Standing in a church makes you a Christian as much as standing in a garage makes you a car.”
Yeah, I’ve heard all that before. And I don’t disagree with it, except when it becomes a smug crutch used in the spirit opposite of humility in order to justify the destruction or neglect of a building that when designed and constructed properly tells the Greatest Story of All. That story is told in the design: the dipping of fingers in holy water and making the sign of the cross; the baptismal font; the Stations of the Cross; stained glass reminders of holy men and women as role models; the confessional, where miracles happen, burdens are dropped and grace…sweet glorious grace…is embraced; the red candle lamp lit beside the tabernacle that tells me Jesus is here; the altar, crucifix and tabernacle itself; all pointing to the Center of Creation: Jesus Christ. All of these signs…sacraments…tools…assisting God’s children as we shuffle off this mortal coil, carrying our crosses and journeying to Golgotha and beyond.
The grand cathedral inspires. It reminds us of how small we are, and how big God is. It is not man’s attempt to box God inside four walls, but man’s attempt to capture just a taste of the glory of creation and inspire us to aspire while pointing us to Him.
Is it not necessary for one’s salvation to sit or pray in such a place. It is, however, a vital aid in assisting us when we stumble. The beauty, the smells, the silence that surrounds one inside such a beautiful church building lifts our eyesight, our senses and our very souls upwards towards the heavens. It reminds us that there is so much more to this life than laying deep in the dust.
While I am at home in any Catholic Church I love the grand cathedrals. These are the places that inspired mankind for centuries and still continue to do so. Even those in neglect, as seen in this Huffington Post article, still possess their inherent beauty and stand as a stark reminder of what we lose when we allow neglect to creep in.
They are a reminder that the greatest temples of all…our body and soul…is a testament to God’s creation and a sign that points us to Him. The empty and decrepit churches may serve as a metaphor for what happens to our bodies and souls when we neglect them through our addictions, our arrogance, or our pride. We become hollow shells of what we once were and of what we were created to be.
Seeing these still beautiful shells makes me sad. I wonder if it’s the same type of sadness felt by God when He sees the shells we allow ourselves to become.
Too many of us seem to fear success or happiness and self-sabotage our efforts or waste our gifts through procrastination or addiction. Do we also fear entering into a grand cathedral, looking around and upwards into the silence, and seeing just how small we really are? For we are very small. And that’s the crux of it right there, isn’t it? We don’t like to be reminded of our dependence upon anyone or anything. To see the incense, hear the voices of the chorale, and envision our prayers floating ever upwards towards the heavens and leaving us behind is too much for some to take.
It is humbling to have our self-importance taken down several pegs in this realization, and so man continues with vain attempts to shrink God in derision and dismissive tones in order to make himself “bigger.”
We remain small. Yet still he looks down into the dust and remains deeply, madly in love with us.
God is very patient, it seems, toward our presumption of knowing him when we keep superficial relations with him. He surely requires, however, a more humble realization of how ignorant we have been before he stretches toward us the deeper truth of his incomprehensibility to our soul. Every approach of our soul closer to the mystery of God entails a humbling of intelligence, not more impressive thoughts. – Fr. Dan Haggerty, Contemplative Provocations, page 39. (emphasis mine)
The photos included within the selection from Kristin Lavransdatter are of the very church she is visiting, known as the Nidaros Cathedral since the Protestant Reformation. The others are from the website of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, recently renovated and visited last weekend by my wife and her best friend. Her friend is a Protestant, and the beauty of the church held her in awe and inspired many thoughtful questions and conversations between them.
Photos from the Huffington Post article I cited are credited below each photo.