How can a stone structure empower a nation rent asunder?
I got my first taste of the power of a building just about the time when my adolescent hormones began to kick in.
I was a mere seventh-grader at Mt. Olive Elementary School in the southside of Atlanta, in East Point. It was a trip, a sojourn to our nation’s capital city, Washington, DC that brought me to the National Cathedral. The year was 1967 and it was the annual School Safety Patrol trip. We took the train, the Southern Crescent, to transport us to this fabled city. It would allow me my first trip to this “house of prayer for all people”.
I don’t think I had ever been to a big, gargantuan church building like that before. I had been to my own Baptist South of God buildings, but they were pretty simple. A section of pews, maybe a balcony, a choir loft, a pulpit front-an-center, and a table down front that always seemed to be bare. Except in those rare Sundays when the table was draped with a cloth, making me think there might be a body underneath, like on the TV shows that featured work in a morgue. There was the first time I saw it, and I soon discovered that there were only stale saltines and Welch’s Grape Juice in impossibly small shot glasses. It became the sign that the service would run LONG today.
I had been to country churches out in west Georgia for some preaching and singing, but the buildings were simple. In fact, my memory is more of fellowship halls, where people gathered to eat, talk, and sing.
My church in East Point, Dogwood Hills, was more modern, with colored glass set in concrete frames, more modern in style. I loved the sun coming through the glass, and understood the “big deal” about stained glass. It was about engaging your senses. I missed it when I visited other churches with more simple appointments and clear windows like in houses. Not much play with the senses here, but that was the point in such strict surroundings.
That was clearly not the point in this thing called the National Cathedral. My own mind wondered as to why we would waste our time visiting some church, when there were memorial buildings and amazing museums. Who put this on the list? But, I quickly and experientially learned “why”.
The National Cathedral was huge. Vaulted Neo-Gothic architecture, with stone arches, stained glass rich with images and deep blue glass. It was begun in 1907, with President Teddy Roosevelt, a good Episcopalian, witnessing the laying of the cornerstone. Construction would go on, and on, and on. It was completed 83 years later, in 1990, as President George H.W. Bush saw the placing of the “final finial”. I guess God was waiting on another good Episcopalian, this time from my own Diocese of Texas. God has a sense of humor, and timing, obviously.
Even in the middle of construction, the architecture did what it was supposed to do, that is, lift me heavenward. I listened to a stone mason talk about the careful, painstaking work of crafting the various columns and statues. I remember the gargoyles, in particular. However did they get Mitch McConnell to pose, I will never know.
The woodwork was impressive as well but it was still in progress. This would be my introduction to the idea of a National Cathedral. I would visit on many occasions, almost every time I came to our nation’s Capitol. One time in particular, I spent two weeks in residence there as I taught a course at the College of Preachers, which is housed at the National Cathedral.
That magical week allowed me to reside in the Bishop’s quarters, with my private elevator to my third-floor perch. Quite heady for a priest from Tyler-damn-Texas.
I would use the time well, spending the early mornings in the garden, meditating before my lectures. The Prodigal is a sculpture placed strategically in the middle of the garden. The gray statue so captured my imagination, and a small version sits on my desk today, as it has for twenty years, re-minding me of the Grace that is at the heart of the Gospel.
There are various chapels, many nooks and crannies that I would explore there. But there was nothing like the nave of the Cathedral with the vaulted ceilings that suggest a reality that is more than what we perceive with our senses. It provided the magical, mystical stage for the apprehension of the numinous, as Rudolf Otto would frame it. That was true for me on my first day in this space, and it has only increased through the years.
It has been the site for many state funerals and events. Its very design meant it to be a gathering place for this country, and it has served that purpose well.
And so last week, the National Cathedral was the scene for such a time, to bring us together. The occasion was the funeral of General Colin Powell. a soldier and statesman.
The congregation gathered were a testimony to his power to cross boundaries. Democrat and Republican Presidents were there, those with whom he had served so well, both in military and civilian roles. When I looked and saw our current President Biden, along with President Obama and President Bush, I was filled with a sense of unity that I had not felt for some time. Memories of the insurrection on January 6th receded if but for a moment as we remembered and honored a boundary-spanning American who served our country, not some political party, ideology, or demagogue. This was the best of what our country has to offer.
General Powell is one of a number of generals and admirals that I have met through the years, the majority of whom are Episcopalians. The reason for this is the strategy employed by several Presiding Bishops of the Episcopal Church, to place some of our brightest clergy in the role of chaplains at our military academies. How brilliant is that, placing stellar spiritual leaders in a place where we train our military leaders. The effect is evident in many of the warrior leaders who I have talked with about their sense of servant leadership and deep commitment to life. Their formation took place and root in the chapels of our military academies.
One of those Presiding Bishops, John Hines, talked to me at length about this strategy when he was visiting at the Cathedral in Atlanta in the late 80s. His brilliance and commitment to social justice made him controversial among some of the faithful, although I saw him as a Moses figure, much as in the style of my South of God mentor, Carlyle Marney. Truth is, they knew one another in Austin, both roared like lions, smart as whips, and quick with wit…..just the way I like my mentors.
Watching the funeral of General Powell caused me to pause. What would Hines and Marney think about where we are as a nation. Marney had been up close and personal with the infamous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee, where intellectual freedom and science were in jeopardy. Both men had lived through the explosive and tearing times of the sixties. Both had fought fiercely in the civil rights battles over the issue of race. I paused to wonder if they might give me a mere word of encouragement for where we are in this country, as party loyalty trumps commitment to our founding Constitution, and brash lies question the legitimacy of our elections. a wily tactic when you know you are bound to lose. Could they offer me a word, even a single syllable that might buoy my soul in these times?
And then there it was. Not one word, but three. Three syllables, in fact. They were both eloquent but could go lean with no fat.
Faith. Hope. Love.
Faith, being a trust in a process that undergirds this whole Creation of which we are a part, a process we can rely upon.
Hope, a mindset that leans into the future, looking to the horizon with an expectation of good coming, even in spite of evil clearly present..
And, Love, that transcends self-interest, reaching beyond one’s self to the needs and concerns of others, even to one’s enemies.
This National Cathedral, on this hallowed day of honoring General Powell, stands in stone, rock-solid, with it undercroft of faith that is its foundation, its vaulted arches lifting our hopes heavenward, and with a cruciform shape of space that reminds us of the promise of love that is poured out, emptied for the Other.
Hines and Marney. What a pair to draw to!