Sunday, August 26, 2007

Essay: Lifeless Dwelling of a Living God

As I walk through the narrow, cobblestone lanes, following a pilgrim’s path through Canterbury, the air is chill yet vibrant, waking up every cell in my body with its brisk massage. The cobblestone under my feet feels smooth yet bumpy. To my right and left are tight rows of houses and stores, all jammed on top of one another, joggling for elbowroom. The antiquity of the buildings is evident, even to an uncultured eye, making one wonder at the history of this place. Before me, tips soaring above the rooftops, lies a glimpse of the Canterbury Cathedral. Leaning down from an arched entranceway to the Cathedral, a metal, forbidding statue seems to glare upon all individuals passing under its guard. A look at my guidebook informs me that this is a statue of Jesus Christ. The wind seems to blow colder, and I shiver in response to this revelation – this forbidding image, my gracious Lord? I pass underneath his watchful gaze and head for the heart of the huge structure.

The building’s outer structure is intricately engraved with the images of saints and bishops, worshipers and pilgrims. The whitish stone walls seem to rise higher and higher ending in spires that look like the fingers of a giant clawing at the sky. Archways line the sides of the building protecting stained-glass windows that lie hidden in their depths. While awe inspiring, the building is no more than another cathedral, many of which I have visited, admired, photographed, and left. Later, I have shown the pictures and talked about the beauty of the building, but never have I encountered a cathedral with a soul – with the presence of God residing tangibly within its walls.

I enter the building at the far side, noticing a hush fall over all who enter with me. Immediately, I feel like an insignificant thorn on a rosebush. Taking a few steps forward, I turn and face the far reaches of the massive edifice. Above me, the ceiling rises so high I have to strain to admire its intricate design. To my right and left are two rows of seemingly endless columns that climb to the ceiling and reach out to one another, forming an archway beneath which to walk. At the far end of the columns, I can barely perceive a screen of stone which I assume leads into the inner sanctuary. Taking a breath, I step confidently to one side of the church and walk along the rows of columns. To my left, covering the wall of the cathedral, are tombs and plaques of those who have died. I could easily take days reading all the inscriptions and tributes found within the plaques. My guidebook provides a succinct recounting of the lives of the numerous archbishops who are buried inside many of the tombs. Looking at the ornately decorated tombs, I wonder if the archbishop’s lives were really as simple as the book portrays. Military officers and soldier’s memorials also line the walls in great profusion. “In Memory of…having faithfully served his country…World War I, World War II, India, South Africa, America…leaving behind his wife and children.” The inscriptions are endless and yet ever similar in idea. The cathedral seems a place of death and burial.

While there appear to be miles of never ending tombs and plaques, I do eventually reach the outer wall of the inner-sanctuary. My mind tells me that the beautiful stone statues of the archbishops standing over this wall are amazing. My heart remains untouched. I walk into the sanctuary and look at the wooden pews built for the upper class of society. Many of the seats have names on them: important people, religious people, people beyond my social standing. A note informs me that last week the 104th Archbishop was just enthroned here. Moving farther on, past the pews, I see encased in glass a Bible that is used only when an Archbishop is enthroned. Ahead of me are the altar and a set of stairs leading up to the Archbishop’s chair. Dating from the Thirteenth century, it is an impressive throne cut from cold stone. Seeing a throne for humans in a Cathedral that is supposed to be God’s strikes me as odd. I walk forward to take a closer look at the altar and throne, and it is then that I observe him.

A middle-age man is standing motionless before the altar. As I move around to the side, I examine his face. He seems to stare unseeing at the altar, body upright, hands loose at his side, no emotion in evidence. Just then a voice comes over the intercom system asking all to please find a seat or stay where they are and join in a moment of prayer. I move to one of the pews and sit down. As the voice prays for the nation, for leaders, for the world, the man reaches out pleadingly towards the altar, and a look of utter heartbreak spreads across his face. Falling unheeded to the floor, tears begin to roll down his cheeks. Oblivious to any around him, he is silently crying out to the Lord like a hurting child.

I bow my head in awe and feel the exhilarating presence of life flowing through my veins, even as tears form in my eyes. I have felt the warm presence of a living God in this cold sanctuary of prayer.

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