Last Sunday Richard Cohen's column entitled "Vanity" disapproved of the Washington Cathedral out of "unhappiness about spending even more money at an attempt to reproduce a 14th century cathedral in contemporary Washington." It went on to say that "a bigger cathedral is just a church . . . buying something it really doesn't need before it turns to help those who really are in need"; and it concluded that "all the great cathedrals are built not so much for the glory of God as the vanity of man."
My problem with the column, despite its generous sympathy with the poor, is that it misses a whole dimension of the Cathedral, misses it entirely. What are cathedrals for? Why should all of us be happy that the one rising over Cathedral Avenue will someday be completed?
George Herbert calls prayer "an engine against th' Almightie." Of all the prayers of man, a cathedral best fits that image. It houses the liturgy where ritual can be celebrated in all its power, all its complexity. The liturgy is a kind of dance, and the finer the stage on which it stands, the more beauty it holds for those who share it and for those who watch.
Any church is a place for private prayer, but a cathedral has a way of holding that prayer in proportion, of reminding us even when we are alone that against the vast design of creation and redemption small indeed are the private woes of any man or woman. Finally, a cathedral draws to prayer an entire community, from bishop to choirboy, holds it and shelters it, and at the same time welds it in pride and joy. "I belong here" is a rare enough statement for any of us in the 20th century, and a great cathedral helps us make it.
A second gift a cathedral makes is to remind us of the Incarnation, the heart and center of Christian belief. The God of Christian worship is not only a distant, transcendent God of majesty and power, enthroned and inaccessible as most of our own leaders. He is also Jesus of Nazareth, Galilee and Judea, the God-made-man on dusty and crowded streets, the God who shares with us our time, our pain, and even our death.
Before such a God the things of time have meaning. For centuries Christians have painted and sculpted, danced and sung in their worship, their art drawing all beauty into the service of God. A cathedral is not a museum but a storehouse of beauty, answering the deep instinct that art in the service of God is itself enhanced. The beauty can be massive or detailed, decorative or structural. The balance of a gothic arch, with its poised forces pressing constantly against each other, reflects for one critic the give and take of scholastic argument and for another the Church's effort to recall us to eternity despite the mire of time. We use rich material, not because it expresses our own power but because it reminds us of God's. Above all we want God amidst us to be surrounded by man's makings, man's faces, man's designs, in all of which we in turn know "the myriad masks of God."
A great cathedral also mirrors for us the justice of God. All of us face judgments. Those of the law deal with facts and words, take us as we are and judge what we achieve. We so desperately want the judgment of God to treat us differently. We want to be judged not by what we did or said but by what we meant to do and say. We cower before the doom that "what might have been is an abstraction . . . possible only in a world of speculation." Thus we rear a "best" vision of our city, a dream of ourselves as individuals and as a community, a vast hope that alone and together we will be judged not by the little we did but by the much we wanted and dreamt and hoped. A cathedral's stone fabric with all the beauty that rides under is not a boast but a plea for forgiveness.
Of course there is vanity in any human building, as there is in all human doing. The taint of original fault is inescapable. There is vanity in our art, in our scholarship, in our service, and there is vanity in our prayer. The vanity of a "14th century cathedral in contemporary Washington" is no greater than the vanity of Greek temples in which we honor Lincoln and the Supreme Court, no less dated than the Roman dome on the Capitol or the Egyptian shaft that rises to honor our first president. These beauties of our city may indeed serve the vanity of their builders (or of those who paid for them) but we miss their beauty if we see that alone.
Washington's Cathderal Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul belongs principally to the Episcopal Church that built it and to its faithful. But it also belongs to all of us, even Richard Cohen, even me. Each of us enjoys and shares it in his own way, out of his own need. Along with many others I have visited it and prayed in it.
Great beauty has its own way of catching us unawares. Last winter I spent several days in Georgetown hospital in a room with a window that looked north. Every day as the sun declined and the shoal of the city filled with darkness, the last light to be seen was the glow on the west side of the Cathedral's tower. All else was grey and dark, but the warm stone held the sun for precious minutes in all its brightness. It is good for any city to have on its highest hill that watch of beauty, of light, and of prayer.