Twice this summer, I spent some time in old cathedrals, and loved the visits. A month ago, we walked through one of California's ancient Spanish missions, San Luis Rey de Francia, in Oceanside, founded in 1798, the largest of California's 21 Spanish missions. Last week, a whole cultural world away, I spent some time in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, a beautiful house of worship that has served New Ulm, Minnesota, for more than a century.
Cathedrals, even in small Midwestern towns, inspire awe. Ceilings rise like inspired visions, creating space for the astonishing art work unlike anything in the Protestant and Calvinist churches in which I grew up. Sculptures sit in every corner, on every wall--saints and holy mothers and suffering Christs. Cathedrals offer so much to see that it's almost impossible not to meditate.
In New Ulm, late morning, I walked in to the sanctuary and interrupted a woman who was singing an evangelical praise song--not well, I might add. Despite my assurance that I didn't want to interrupt, my walking in embarrassed her. Not long after, she quit and left. But if you really (and simply) want to sing to the Lord, an empty cathedral is as good a space as you'll find--no matter whether you're Catholic or Protestant.
At least part of the motivation for all of the artwork, the visual imagery in any Roman Catholic mission, is nothing more or less than the motivation to tell the good news. After all, parishoners were poor and often as not illiterate. "Show, don't tell" was the guiding principle for bringing the stories into the hearts of the people--Native Americans in missions like Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, or German-Americans in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
During the Reformation, when my own spiritual ancestors cleaned up what they thought of as the papist mess, they called their stripped down church building a "meeting house," and ripped out every last shred of image-making, delighting in their own new squeaky-clean, bare bones aesthetic. Something got lost.
Yesterday, back in our own church, I noticed that someone--probably the pastor--had laid that bulky pulpit bible on the communion table and spread it open to the congregation. That open Bible reminded me of an English law, circa 16th century or so, that demanded churches create just such a display--and for good reason. What the Reformation stood for, as much as anything, was the people's right to the treasures of the Bible, the Word of God. Post-Luther, what was formally accessible only to the priests became open to the people. If you want to know the beginnings of American democracy, all you need to know is that English law. Or else, just walk into Covenant Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa. What's inside won't take your breath away, but what's there right now is just as historic and just as fundamental to faith.
What's more, it's that tradition--the Calvinist tradition--that valued education like none other. Calvinists threw out with the pictures and hailed the printing press. The Puritans were not anti-intellectual; after all, it was the Calvinists who created Harvard. The Puritans--America's most famous Calvinists--honored education because now that the Bible was opened, it had to be read, had to be understood individually. Hey, power to the people!
Not that that ethic is divine either. Today the democratic church is so fragmented that talking about unity in the Word or Spirit is all but impossible. Politics divide believers across a Grand Canyon gulf.
Today we all simply get a piece of the divine pie. Someday we'll sit around eating the whole thing and just chuckle at the way things used to be.
Until that day, I guess, it's our job to find beauty in inspired art work and open Bibles and the whole bright and wide world. But that's no cakewalk. Take it from me. I'll be starting a new semester next week, and I teach literature to a visually-inspired generation, writing to Tweeters.
But then whoever said it would be easy?