Lessons in Gothic architecture aren't easy to come by in this Federalist-style city, but the Washington Cathedral offers a good one. Its soaring towers, flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings harken all the way back to the cloud-breaking cathedrals of France and England that were built in the Middle Ages.
Like its medieval forebears, this cathedral was a long time in the making, taking much of the 20th century to complete. The fact that it may be the last of its kind sends people in droves to marvel at its dimensions, its mammoth columns of Indiana limestone and its stained-glass windows full of biblical stories.
Aside from being a powerful testament of faith, the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul (its formal name) is the seat of two ecclesiastical positions -- the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the bishop of the Episcopal Church USA -- a fact that distinguishes it from other cathedrals. Although it's under the direction of Episcopalians and holds some 1,200 services each year, it’s meant to be a house of prayer for everyone.
To reach any heights of quiet spirituality, however, a trip downward may be necessary. The Crypt is located on this level; here you'll find Resurrection Chapel, with mosaics depicting scripture scenes. To the right of this is the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, a carpeted room used for meditation -- there are pillows on the floor and its white walls are washed in candlelight. There are seven other small chapels throughout the church, including the main level's dark, serene Holy Spirit Chapel, which is reserved for quiet prayer.
The cathedral provides a self-guided tour brochure describing points of interest. But absorbing the detail from the windows and bosses (the large projected stones at the intersection of ribs, often carved) may require a hefty knowledge of church tradition. To make sure you're not missing anything, such as the blank choir panel representing Judas among the other 11 apostles carved in wood, the docent-led tours are the way to go. All that's needed to enjoy other pleasures, such as the way certain rays of colored light rest on stone angels, is a good eye.
Taking in everything takes several hours. But 30 minutes allows you a good look around; most guided tours last about 45 minutes. If you opt for the Behind-the-Scenes Tour of places usually off-limits to the public, plan on spending an hour and a half.
The grounds, called the cathedral close, offer as much as the cathedral itself. South of the church is the Bishop's Garden (open daily until dusk), modeled after a medieval walled garden. Across from that is the Herb Cottage (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily), where dried herbs, teas, books and gifts are sold (profits help maintain the grounds). The Cathedral Store, located on the lower level of the Cathedral, offers Cathedral-specific gifts, as well as gargoyle- and gothic-themed items, and a selection of religious books. All the shops are closed on Christmas and New Year's Day.
The Cathedral’s welcome desk has a printed family guide available, well suited for exploring the Cathedral with young ones. Other favorites for kids are the Children's Chapel, with its miniature organ, altar and chairs. They also like the views from the seventh-floor Pilgrim Observation Gallery. Every Tuesday and Wednesday the room gives new meaning to high tea, which is served after a tour of the cathedral. Tickets are $30 and reservations are required.
If you wish, place your written prayers in the box by the Holy Spirit Chapel before leaving. Every afternoon a Cathedral chaplain says these aloud in the Resurrection Chapel. Not only do you later receive a written acknowledgement, you have the peace of knowing your prayers are in good company -- after all, it took more than stone-carvers to raise this cathedral from the ground.
Guided tours run Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.- 3:30 p.m. (only until 3 p.m. on Saturdays), and Sun., 1 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Behind-the-scenes tours are also available, Mon. through Fri., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. In addition, the cathedral is open extended hours (until 8 p.m.) on select dates during summer months; several chapels are reserved for private prayer. Call 202/537-6200 for more information.
-- Margaret Hutton