Cathedrals still inspire worshippers and controversy

After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake made unusable the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, church leaders envisioned a new structure that would inspire modern people. Almost 20 years later, Bishop Vigneron consecrated Christ the Light as the first cathedral of the 21st century.

This magnificent structure, known for the beauty of its geometric shapes and the quality of gently filtered light, has quickly become a spiritual landmark in our region. Still, most Bay Area residents have not forgotten the controversies that raged over construction costs and settlements between the Diocese of Oakland and sexual abuse victims. Some may wonder if cathedrals in our time are simply obsolete.

Margaret Miles, the former dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, taught Christian history for decades. She writes that between the years 1170 and 1270, Western Europeans built 580 cathedrals. From their perspective, they were not creating architecture but new ways to worship and experience God.

For believers in those days, Jesus seemed mostly like a judge — just, impassable, pure, perfect and, above all, distant. For them, Mary felt more approachable and forgiving. During that time, Mary inspired artists to create thousands of songs, devotional manuals, dramas, sculptures, stained glass windows and the cathedrals, almost all of which were dedicated to her. St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco follows in this tradition.

In medieval Chartres Cathedral alone, there were 175 representations of Mary, depicting her both as reigning monarch and humble maiden. The three aisles in cathedrals symbolize the way that Mary contains the Trinity within her.

Cathedrals are one answer to the question: How can I enter into relation with the vastness of God? As a human accomplishment, the system of medieval cathedrals constructed by these relatively simple societies exceeds our modern success in putting a person on the moon.

Even in those days, Christians felt concerned about cost. St. Bernard (1090-1153), Abbot of Clairvaux, writes, “The church sparkles and gleams on every side, while the poor huddle in need; its stones are gilded while the children go unclad; in it the art lovers find enough to satisfy their curiosity, while the poor find nothing there to relieve their misery.”

But the majority of people then believed that beautiful objects lead us to a new experience of God. They designed cathedrals to mystically transport worshippers into the spiritual universe. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (1081-1151) writes about how material things make it possible to rise above the material.

Suger describes the way beauty can trigger mystical experience. He quotes Dionysius, saying, “Every creature, visible and invisible, is a light brought into being by the Father of lights.” Cathedrals help us to see, “the goodness and beauty” of existing things that we might otherwise miss. In fact, Suger believes that cathedrals make this mystical vision more democratically accessible to poor and illiterate people.

At the end of her reflections, Miles wonders how the first worshippers experienced the present moment in cathedrals like Chartres. Did they feel pressed between a painful past and a terrifying, unknowable future so that the present in effect disappeared? Or did this new way to pray and meet God cause them to realize the preciousness of what can only happen in this life?

Every day, I meet visitors to Grace, San Francisco’s gothic cathedral; they come from around the world. Some take fashion photographs on the front steps or regard this as a visit to a museum. But many, whether they are walking the ancient labyrinth pattern or sitting quietly in the pews or lighting a candle and praying in a side chapel, seem to be finding something else, a kind of pathway into a spiritual world. Despite declining religious participation in America today, cathedrals still have relevance for many modern people.

The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral, a position he began in September 2015. He has an economics degree from UC Berkeley and a doctorate of theology from Harvard University. Young and his wife Heidi Ho, a USF School of Law professor, are the parents of two teenagers.

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