In Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral,” a woman and her husband are visited overnight by an old friend of the woman’s. The guest’s blindness makes the husband uncomfortable. Nevertheless, after a meal and some small talk, the husband and blind man find themselves alone, watching and listening to a television program on cathedrals.
Mystified by the situation, the husband asks Robert, the guest, “If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about?” Robert spells out a brief understanding and then asks the husband whether he’s religious. Moments later, the husband responds as though answering his own question, “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.”
As if suddenly aware of the husband’s own blindness, the blind man suggests they draw a cathedral together, and so after fetching some paper, the two men frantically sketch one with both of their hands wrapped around a single pen. They draw a cathedral with spires and buttresses and great doors, and finally, the blind man says, “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?” At the blind man’s prompting, the husband puts the last marks on the page with his eyes closed. Although the story’s ending is not without ambiguity, the final remark by the husband, “It’s really something,” rings of his having entered into that cathedral, of his having passed through those great doors and found the blind man there as a result of putting it down on paper with him.
I read the story providentially in the sophomore year of college, when I was precisely as blind as the husband. Like the husband, I had regularly detected a hollow vacancy in the words I spoke and heard spoken. Language and life seemed dry wells, deserving the appellation of ‘nothing’ that the husband bestowed upon the word ‘cathedral’. But as I read the story and discussed it with my classmates and professor, I discovered like the husband, there’s a way that language can become a place in which to come together, that stories can be places in which to discover ‘the people’ in our lives. The world didn’t seem so absurd in its light. I remember leaving class that day with a sense that I too had entered into Carver’s cathedral through our reading and discussion of his story and that I had met my neighbor there as a result.
In Abbot Suger’s twelfth century account of the construction of the abbey church of St. Denis, there are passages that raccount an historical occurrence of that kind of community building event portrayed in Carver’s story. In those passages, the people are drawn together, not by sketching, nor by entering into the word ‘cathedral’, but by moving into the holy and ineffable Word in whom all abide. Suger wrote at one point: “Whenever the columns were hauled from the bottom of the slope with knotted ropes, both our own people and the pious neighbors, nobles and common folk alike, would tie their arms, chests, and shoulders to the ropes and, acting as draft animals, drew the columns up; and on the declivity in the middle of the town the diverse craftsman laid aside the tools of their trade and came out to meet them, offering their own strength against he difficulty of the road, doing homage as much as they could to God and the Holy Martyrs” (De Consecratione II).
The population literally rose up around, or more accurately, through those holy and majestic works of human creation. They were fonts for human life. Their beauty, their living geometry, the golden section, imaged forth the very nature of their function, a place in which to gather and flourish. When the people came together in their shared work, in the struggle to raise the columns, the population of the town raised itself up, a cathedral, a spiritual temple giving praise to their Divine Architect, the Master Glazier, the most Holy Stonecutter, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together.
For many years, I have hoped to write a book that could produce that kind of moment, a story that required the reader to put it together with the author, in such a way that by their work, they might enter into and pay homage to God in a textual cathedral. As John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, there is a prevailing tendency in contemporary philosophy to exclude from our reflection and the grasp of our language any metaphysical truth. The arts also evidence that constriction, and John Paul’s letter to the artists is an earnest appeal to recall the holy work that God would give to us as creators who mirror His divine work.
In the early 12th century, when Gothic cathedrals began to flourish, Villard de Honnecourt traveled about Northern Europe creating a sketchbook of the new architecture and of other features of the world he encountered. The contents of the sketchbook, its rose windows and arches, chapels and labyrinths amounted to an account of the design strategies that could be employed in solving a variety of architectural problems that arose in the construction of those temples. As he gathered together the practical wisdom on the leaves of that album, he not only depicted new architectural strategies, he also employed new techniques in representation to convey the building designs. Still more, he seems to have invited others he encountered during his travels to draft there as well. Through those designs, it became possible to open up whole walls to stained glass windows in which other artists then depicted the stories of the Christian faith. When the sun lit those windows, the gathered faithful could read them like the pages of a book.
Within the last seventy-five years, writers have developed innumerable literary innovations and transformed the textual architecture of our world. By exploring new modes of narration, non-linear and fragmented plots, and many other ways of creating with language through literary form, their writings have generated a number of techniques for building text. Works of literature that employ these modes of narrative construction regularly accentuate the presence of the reader in the text, engaging the reader explicitly in the putting-together of the narrative. Often, these creative developments lie in works of literature written from within the confines of a culture that no longer knows of God or in works of art that parody the Christian tradition.
As a result, these artistic innovations may seem inextricably linked to spiritual blindness. However, the Christian Church, in light of the Incarnation, understands its faith to be most fully itself within particular cultures as it is lived in particular historical situations. Moreover, Christianity views the human person to be a discerning and creative creature. Taking the Christian mystery of salvation and its law of charity as our chief artistic principle, we can fully adapt the literary innovations of our time to the eloquent articulation of that life which is to be found in Christ. With the grace of God, we can create a sketchbook like Villard’s that houses the available literary and artistic strategies. In doing so, we would enter more perfectly into that daring tradition wherein Augustine made off with the wisdom of the Platonists as the Israelites had with the gold of the Egyptians. We would align ourselves with Thomas Aquinas in his astute redemption of Aristotelian thought. We would seek to bring glory to God and enter into communion with the 12th century poets and artists like Allen of Lille, Hildegaard of Bingen, Bernardus Silvestirs. We would write in the legacy of such figures as Dante Alighieri and Jean de Meun. And by so doing, the Christian faith would prove itself again open to the fullness of Wisdom and show forth that God is indeed one who makes all things new.
J.L. Heilbron, in his book The Sun in the Church, examines how in the 17th and 18th centuries, driven by a similar desire for the fullness of truth, astronomers pierced the ceilings of some cathedrals in order that they might make astronomical observatories of them. In need of a precise way of determining Easter’s date, they laid meridian lines in the floors of their cathedrals, across which a beam of sunlight would pass at noon each day. An aperture in the ceiling transformed the cathedral for those Christian scientists into a large camera obscura, with which it was possible to capture an image of the heavens. Today, employing contemporary literary forms, we can create such an aperture by opening our narratives to the orbiting light of the human intellect, the beam of which gleams with the radiance of its source, brilliant Wisdom. Tracing the shining course of that divine light across the polished words of this cathedral, we may perhaps enter more deeply into the Easter truth.
My aspirations are greater than myself. They are aspirations I have for literature and for those who find in language an artistic craft. In the conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau commends his readers to venture off into a wilderness of their own when he writes, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” My dream is not of a castle, but of a cathedral, and I trust that it will be built up word by word by writer and reader alike and that its dome will open to the heavens and their eternal light.
We offer our lives to God not all at once, but continually through their course, as we render to Christ each day, each hour, and the gestures and words that comprise them, one at a time. Through that labor, our stories are bound together in Christ, so many pages in the great Book of Life. There, we may come to view our acts with less emphasis on how they are situated in relation to our own lives and more and more so in relation to the life that Christ lived for us. For at its heart, the story of every Christian is an unfolding, a flourishing, not merely of one’s own life, but of the life of Christ and of the many lives enfolded in his breast. No events figure so prominently in the Christian’s life story as those of the Paschal Mystery, for through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we have eternal life. In this mystery, we read the word, which as the Word of God, commands our reverence, and therein, with a graced audacity, we read the pattern of our lives.
The foundation for my cathedral stands already in Christ. Now it is for us to build upon it. Your eye falls on this page now: as I hold the chisel, you strike with the hammer, and the seam will be cut. Your eyes are now a lever, prying open this stone. The iron chisel of your mind draws by remotion the hidden image from the ashlar. Strike! Strike! Let charity be our mortar, faith our quicklime. Our template, the Trinity. We are the quarry, living stones to be built unto a spiritual temple. We are the stone cutters called to cleave from ourselves all that is sin. We are sculptors and glaziers, blacksmiths and quarries, masons and plumbers and roofers, artists and laborers. We are stone and glass, lead and oak, sand and water, the fire of the forge, mallets and crane. Let us raise ourselves up with the grace of God to the heavens like spires and dome. Let us rise up to our full human stature and bring glory to God, bound all in all in his ineffable Word.