Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Long View

It is the tradition, when building a cathedral, to lay the first stone at the east end of the church and build backward from there. The Washington National Cathedral was built in this way. Its first stone was laid in 1907. Five years after construction began, the first services were held in the Bethlehem chapel. Construction continued until the final stone was placed in 1990. The finished structure has over 83,000 square feet, is 102 feet high in the middle, has over 200 stained glass windows, and tombs containing the remains of several notable Americans, including Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller.

I recently took a tour of the Cathedral and left pondering the sheer magnitude of this project. Who could conceive of a project that would take 83 years to complete? The original architect of this project, George Frederick Bodley died less than a month after the first stone was laid. All told, a total of five architects contributed to the building of the Cathedral.

One of the most famous features of the Cathedral is the "Space Window" which contains a rock brought back from the moon. It was hard to imagine a plan that would be flexible enough to incorporate such an artifact when the first flight at Kitty Hawk had just happened. According to the docent on my tour, the south windows were designed from the beginning to represent the gifts that people use to serve God. This particular opening was designated for the Scientists and Technicians window. The white spot in the center of the red circle is a slice of moon rock brought back and donated by the crew of Apollo 11.

In the instant world of the 21st century it is almost impossible for us to think in terms of decades, never mind centuries. That is partly a consequence of the pace of change in the life we live today, and partly the result of our ego-centric worldview. In the midst of this, the one place where we are perhaps still called to take the long view is the family. Having children is an act of hope. It is a dream of the future; an act that tells the world we believe in life. When we become parents, we have to remember that we are raising children who will most likely outlive us. We need to prepare them for a world we cannot see or even imagine.

Can we learn something about life architecture from the great architecture of the cathedral? The cathedral is shaped like a cross - reaching up, yet reaching out. It points toward God, and is put together of millions of smaller pieces - each small piece someone's best work. It is surrounded by enough natural space to allow time and calm for reflection. It incorporates the very greatest stories from the Bible and recognizes the gifts of all people. It acknowledges that there are fearful creatures around us, but lets the light in to chase the dark away. Both life, in the form of the baptismal font and the table where we can gather to eat, and death, in the form of crypts and memorials, are woven into the construction of the whole. What a wise design for a church, or a life!

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