Archive for September 2009
Huge cathedrals and basilicas always plunge me into a complex web of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I almost always find myself feeling peaceful and serene in the vast spaces under the vaulted ceilings, and I usually feel appropriately inspired by the iconography. If a cathedral is very old, I invariably feel a connection with the dozens or scores of generations of worshipers who have been there before me. All those feelings are just what magnificent cathedrals are meant to evoke.
On the other hand, there is a part of me that rebels against the possibility of being dependent on externals for any kind of religious feeling. After all, I come from a long line of Protestants who were so wary of external symbols that they sometimes physically destroyed them. The actions of those iconoclasts, of course, betrayed a deep attachment to abstract ideals that was every bit as pernicious as the dependence on concrete externals they so feared. I am fully aware of that, and that awareness blunts the the edge of the sword of my instinctive rebellion against institutional structures.
Less easy to moderate is the sense of uneasiness I always feel around anything grand. Huge buildings, highly ornamented vestments, well-crafted religious artifacts, magnificent thrones, bejeweled scepters and crowns and rings are invariably costly and therefore sponsored by the exceptionally wealthy and powerful. It is impossible for me to see such things without being reminded of all the poor who have borne the heavy burden of providing goods and services for the powerful. Even when the wealthy are generous, the very possibility of their being generous is almost always bought at the expense of those who come to be in need of generous aid. I have a difficult time escaping the conviction that there is something indecent about some people amassing as much wealth as several thousand ordinary people could amass by putting all their fortunes together. Using that wealth to sponsor the building of magnificent cathedrals and temples and splendid vestments for priests and the monarchs they bless does not offset the indecency of acquiring such an imbalance of wealth in the first place.
A few days ago I sat in Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. Despite trying my best to get in touch with the inward light that my Quaker practice is based upon, I simply could not get past the distraction of the flashes of the cameras of thousands of tourists who ignored the many signs requesting them not to use a flash if they took photographs. There was hardly any sense of the sacred remaining in the cathedral. But perhaps one cannot expect much of the sacred to dwell in a cathedral in which kings and emperors were once crowned; the secular has always been a persistently invasive presence in that particular cathedral.
My own inability to get beyond external distractions to make contact with my internal guide distressed me and made me feel shallow and somehow inadequate. I found myself longing for the quiet and simple Quaker meetinghouse where my wife and I normally worship when we are in our home town. The Zen Buddhist side of my mentality brought forth images of masters tearing up sutras and burning wooden Buddha statues, not out of contempt but to show that in the end we have only our own inner resources to draw upon and cannot rely on anything else. My Zen background also delivered a sense of being ashamed for being so dualistic in seeing the sacred and the secular as antogonistic opposites.
Outside the cathedral, after my unsuccessful essay at meditating, I blended into the crowds of curiosity-seeking tourists from all over the world and the local pickpockets honoring a long tradition of striving to make a dishonest living. For a moment I felt like a character in a Victor Hugo novel. A brief fantasy of swinging from the belfry like Quasimodo passed through my consciousness. My wife became in my eyes the lovely Esmeralda with whom the unfortunate hunchback of Notre-Dame was enamored.
We went across the street together, Esmeralda and I, and there we ate baguettes with cheese.