If I were Christian, I think I’d be an Episcopalian. I’m basing this on a T-shirt I found in the Washington National Cathedral’s gift shop last week, one that listed many convincing reasons, including “All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.” Another reason, not listed on the shirt, is that Episcopalians can attend services at the National Cathedral — one of the most gorgeous buildings in the D.C. area.
I’d been to the cathedral for concerts, but before last week I’d never taken a tour. The $12 fee seems fair for a place that runs entirely on donations and volunteers. One such volunteer, a woman in a purple robe, called my tour group to order.
“Welcome to your church. The cathedral was started by some men who lived here in town, Washington, in 1880,” she said. Before then, “there was no place in the nation’s capital for the whole country to come together to celebrate anything. There was no place in the nation’s capital where the whole country can come together to cry for a president’s death. We needed a cathedral for the whole country.”
Our guide drew our attention to the flying buttresses and pointed arches, which mark the cathedral’s architecture as Gothic. That struck me as odd. Why would cathedral designers at the turn of the 20th century hew to a 14th-century style? I asked the guide.
“We thought it would be good for your church,” she responded.
That didn’t really answer my question, but I can’t quibble with their decision. The National Cathedral — like all Gothic cathedrals — was designed to overwhelm and awe. The pointed arches draw the eye up toward the heavens, while stained-glass windows bathe you in glorious multicolored light. Intricate carvings cover nearly every surface — some so high up, you can’t appreciate them without binoculars. It’s way too much to take in, and that’s the point. Gothic architecture reinforces the idea that there are worlds beyond comprehension.
Given this backdrop, I think we were all surprised when our tour guide pointed out a stained-glass window devoted to science and technology.
“That’s the Space Window,” she said of the deep-blue piece — added in the 1970s — with spheres representing the planets, and a line suggesting the trajectory of a spacecraft. “The astronauts liked the design, but they said, ‘You know, something’s missing.’ So they gave us a piece of moon rock — you can see it up at the top in the red sphere. Your piece of moon rock. Your cathedral.”
Our guide had me so convinced the National Cathedral was my cathedral, I asked if there might be Jewish services on occasion.
“No, not really,” she said. “The Muslims have tried to have prayers in here, but everywhere you turn there is a Christian symbol. So it’s a little difficult.”
Throughout the cathedral, you can find two stories, our guide continued. One is a religious story — the Old Testament and the New — and the other is the story of America. Our next stop, the War Memorial Chapel, illustrated that fascinating double narrative.
“It honors those who died for their beliefs: belief in faith, belief in freedom,” our guide said of the chapel. The stained-glass window above the altar depicts biblical scenes alongside ones inspired by American history, including Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Abraham Lincoln emancipating the slaves and the D-Day invasion of World War II.
“The latest addition to the chapel is a small stone cross that was cut from the Pentagon” after the 9/11 attacks, she said. “They carved it and sent it here because they figured that’s where it belongs.”
Our guide then led us to a narrow space between the high altar and the choir seating area.
“There’s our organist,” the guide said as a man quickly disappeared behind wood panels. “Our organ has 10,600 pipes. One of them is 32 feet long. It lies down beneath the floor and it makes a very deep rumble.”
We didn’t get to hear the organ, but I’ve gone to organ concerts at the cathedral before, and I strongly recommend checking one out — they’re held most Sundays at 5:15 p.m. ($10 suggested donation). Our guide noted that Mondays through Thursdays at 5:30 p.m., the boys or girls choirs close out the day with a short evensong program, and attending those concerts is free.
Please don’t tell my rabbi, but I’ve actually sung in the National Cathedral before — at a singalong hosted by the Cathedral Choral Society — and it was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. We were performing Mozart’s Requiem, and as the last light of the day flickered through the rose window, I was overwhelmed by the beauty, the mystery and the majesty of creation.
I also had a more mundane realization: Immersive art is all the rage these days, but you don’t have to stand in line at the next big Hirshhorn show to experience a large-scale, site-specific installation. Just visit “your cathedral” — ideally when there’s music inside.
More adventures with the Staycationer