The stonework of the vast interior, made to seem even larger by the emptiness of the high, rounded ceiling, creates a cavernous feeling. But the darkness of the stone is interrupted by colorful, translucent light, creating a sense of jeweled infinity beyond the opaque and impenetrable rock. It serves as a visual metaphor of our hope that life, beyond its impenetrable mysteries, is something more. The dark austerity of the daily grind is, we desire, underpinned by something bright and beautiful.
One feels so small and insignificant in a cathedral; and yet, there is intimacy. Watching over the visitors are marbled figures. Some have wings; others have crowns; and there are even those with but simple garb, an unadorned cassock, and serene, knowing expression. They look like us – they have human form – but their strange dress speaks of another world. And their wings, halos, crosses, and crowns tell us that their lives, unlike ours, are anything but ordinary.
These saints, angels, Madonnas, and Christs – whether child, man, or risen Lord – inhabit two worlds: Heaven and Earth. Through these intercessors and intermediaries, the worshipper believes that the promise of rescue from this world through eternal salvation will be granted.
The bright colors and intricate details of the icons frozen in the stained glass windows and painted on the ceiling command the attention of anyone venturing inside. They illustrate the ancient stories we know well – God’s plan for the salvation of the human race as revealed in His Holy Word. The cathedral itself is one giant icon, with the apse at the head, the nave toward the bottom, and the transepts on each side, forming a cross.
Whether a believer or not, the terrible beauty of a cathedral inspires awe. But more so for the believer, for whom the cathedral creates a deep emotional connection to the stories that form her or his worldview.
That worshippers would expend such immense time, energy, and valuable resources to build a cathedral, especially in a time of scarcity such as the Middle Ages, speaks to the power of faith.
Even if such faith is firmly rejected by some, the emotional intensity of this rejection – indeed, the revulsion some might feel – only serves to emphasize the deep chord religious belief strikes in the human heart.
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I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for almost 20 years. At age 18 I decided that I couldn’t become a priest because I didn’t have the absolute certainty that the infallibility of Catholic doctrine requires. Essential doctrines such as the Trinity, incarnation, and so on can’t be mostly infallible – it’s all or nothing.
I became a non-literalist, continuing a sort-of belief in God, which I thought of as a mythopoetic personification of ultimate reality, whatever that might be; an image human beings created as a stand-in for this giant existential question mark.
Over time I decided that deep mythopoetic thoughts are far less important than the way I choose to live my life, and admitting that really I think materialism is all there is to reality, sealed my fate as an atheist.
Still, being Catholic will always be part of who I am, even if I haven’t gone to church in years. And constantly rallying against the Catholic Church, which became so much easier after the sexual abuse scandal, can only become destructive because such opposition means fighting a part of who I am.
But being an atheist is a larger part of who I am. And that is why I am not Catholic.