St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria ~ January 19, 2008
We are in the Imperial city, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, surrounded by the glory of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There is so much to see, and so much to experience. Horse drawn carriages are still dancing through the streets, and in an archway, a descendent of Mozart serenades the tourists on his violin. It is like stepping back in time, meandering by the elaborately decorated houses, their glory and lavish ornamentation speaking of the power and elegance, the aristocratic glory of the Enlightenment, and the Napoleonic age. We are overwhelmed by the majesty, and convinced of the glory and power that this empire must once have had. The streets are crowded, and the taller buildings around us create a close, stifling sort of feeling; a sense of enclosure: as if shutting out the surrounding world, and making this center of the Empire the whole extension of life. It is a safe, full, comfortable society, closed in on itself, without much concern for what happens beyond these luxurious streets.
And then suddenly, a great wall of darkened stone appears at the end of the long avenue, and we are all drawn to it, down this vibrant street: an air of mystery and wonder surrounds it, so different, so seemingly out of place in the ornate glory that surrounds us.
We emerge from the twisted, narrow street as if from a tunnel, and suddenly, the scene is opened up, and the world has expanded. We stand as if turned to stone ourselves, while the rest of the world rushes by: all eyes drawn up, following this sight to the heavens pierced by the towering steeple of the Gothic Cathedral. Suddenly, all eyes notice the sky, and the vastness of it transcending these busy streets. Suddenly, there is more: just when we thought there couldn’t be. And suddenly, this old, blackened stone appears hundreds of times more glorious than all we have just walked through. The magnitude of it! The beauty and intricacy of the tiny curves and arches, and the figures brought to life out of the stone by the shaping of loving hands. And I try to imagine how large it would seem if it was not surrounded by the three-story buildings, but rather little peasants’ hovels made of clay and straw. How much must they have thought of their God, to build His house like this…
We approach the large, thick, heavy wooden doors, and slowly push them open, and step into the cool darkness of the interior. I am arrested by the cold, damp, old smell of the musty stone, mingled with the warm aroma of melted wax, and the remnants of incense years upon years old, layer upon layer, until the air perpetually carries its’ flavor. It is the smell of every old church in Europe. I step slowly inside, and a feeling I have never felt before envelops me. I do not think that it can ever be described, and I stand in awe, arrested, overpowered, overcome. Words slowly forming themselves over time… glory… majesty… Divinity…heaven come to earth…the Holy of Holies… holy ground… sacred… reality… richness…depth… Presence…
I stand still at the back of this structure so large, it could somehow take in all of time, all of space, all of reality. And it does, because it was built for this purpose: to take up and unite all, in a sweeping motion, toward the throne of God.
I am aware, after a moment, of the silence. The place is filled with people, all milling about, and yet I could be the only one, so filled is this place with a hushed sacredness, so enveloped in a silence that is deep and thick enough to feel. It is so full of meaning, it is almost more than a silence: and as I listen, I am sure now that it is not real silence at all: it is the whispered hymns of angels, calling, pointing, drawing you in hushed awe and reverence toward the focal point of the whole structure. And the light is somehow part of the silence: so clear and white and pure, spilling over and filling the whole space.
But if you listen to the silence, you hear more than angels’ songs: I can hear the sounds of hammer and chisel, the loving devotion of generations pouring all their heart and sweat and tears into the structure that would house their God. Fathers passing it on to their children, and these children to their own: being raised with the sense of pride and devotion, an urgency and responsibility in dedicating their lives to the building of God’s house. And I can feel the pride with which their grandchildren came here to worship, and stroked the loving craftsmanship of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and I can feel the tears in the eyes of the oldest man, perhaps the only one left that remembers when this cathedral was not, and thus, knows all that it means…
And I can hear the whispered voices of a thousand years captured in the air, giving form to Ave’s and Pater Nosters. The high, squeaky voices of children, and the tired, crackling whispers of the old. I can hear the pleadings of every young maiden that came to pour her heart out to the Virgin, and the requests of every father seeking support from the man who raised the Son of God. And I can feel the prayers of every peasant who has ever knelt before this image of the Mother of the Poor: and I can hear every song raised to heaven on the voices of the grateful citizens who had once more been saved from death and destruction at the hand of the Turks outside their walls. And I can see the beauty that the saints had seen, who had grown up worshiping in a house of prayer such as this. Somehow, the whole history of the Church seems to have taken on flesh and bone… or rather stone and mortar and glory, and I am walking through it. And I suddenly feel so small, surrounded by such vast greatness: and yet as I move ever onwards, I also feel lifted: drawn up and out, from littleness into the greatness that surrounds me; being transformed in order to approach the fullness of the King’s Presence that I am drawing near to. It is as if the vastness, and majesty of this place has the capacity to lift even my humbleness up to divinity.
I look down at my hands, overwhelmed with thoughts. How could these small, simple, faulty human hands create something so gloriously divine as this place? Merely human creators have shaped a place seemingly worthy of housing the God of all creation. It recalls the ancient Temple, built to house the Presence of the Almighty.
Still, even this beauty is not enough: it can be felt in every corner, mixed in with the angels’ songs…even the best that we can do, even this place cannot contain Him! For He in turn has created every single person that built Him this house. Even David’s Temple was not enough for Him… And if even the wonder of this place falls short, than what is left? Is there any place fitting for God to dwell in?
The thought makes me catch my breath in wonder, for I can hear the Father saying still what He spoke long ago to David, “Will you build Me a house? I will build you a house…” and even as I wonder what more worthy place than this could possibly exist to hold the God of the universe, I am reminded of His answer: “And the Word became flesh, and dwells among us.”
And the words echo through my head: “Not made with human hands.” Yes: there is a place, designed by Him, capable of receiving Him. The place He chose for Himself, when He descended into a Virgin’s womb, and clothed Himself in flesh… And I can hear St. Paul chiding me, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
In me? In my humanity? And surrounded by this glory, I suddenly realize how much I have missed… the same God who condescends to live with us in this house of stone, fashioned us in order to dwell with us in the mundaneness of our lives…in the young mother overwhelmed with her tasks, with a sink full of dishes and a pile of dirty laundry, and three children yet to be bathed before bed… in the lonely heart of the young soldier, weary and worn, haunted by images more awful than anything human eyes should have to see, and he’s long past ready to go home… in the wrinkled old man with no family left to speak of, who sits every day alone in a house whose emptiness is stifling… in the nervous college freshman, whose biggest worry is whether or not she’ll know someone in the cafeteria to have dinner with…
And I am stunned by my own glory: by the glory of being shaped by the hand of God. A glory that is somehow more tangible, more real to me now, having stood in this cathedral.
Everyone is leaving. They are waiting for me, and so I must somehow pull myself away: from the cold, damp smell of ages and layers of incense, the whispered songs of angels, and the prayers of generations, the flowing purity of light and the glorious stillness of pillared stone. Yet somehow, I can… because the lesson built into these walls has penetrated to my heart, and it leaves with me: the realization of a glory not made with human hands. And I smile to myself, back out in the sunshine, in gratitude for the lesson: because sometimes it takes the splendor of a Gothic Cathedral to see the glory of the human heart.