Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to squeeze in another 4-day break, and visit daughter number 2 in Chartres, France. They are trying to buy a house there. It needs a lot of work, but it’s a great house, with a distant view of the magnificent, 12thcentury Gothic cathedral.
The Cathedral is awe inspiring in so many ways – perhaps you have been there, or seen pictures? Do look it up if you can. In some ways, it is very un-English, with its two very contrasting, magnificent spires. One is as you might expect from an English cathedral spire – straight, smooth and true, pointing high into the sky. The other is elaborate in the extreme, seeming to consist of a number of towers and sub spires, all condensed into one structure so elaborate and complex, the eye can scarcely take it all in.
Everyone will have their favourite aspect – because there are so many to choose from – from the elaborate prayer labyrinth in the floor to the dozens of fascinating stained class windows, to the encyclopaedia of theology and church history, all told in the extraordinary stonework, both inside and out. The terrifying gargoyles alone, with their hideous animal leers and snarls, are a subject study in themselves!
My son in law asked me why I keep being drawn back to the place, staring at it for as much visiting time as I can steal, whereas for most, a quick visit, and then a taken for granted passing by, is plenty.
Well, I think it is worth saying – and asking – what is being depicted, what is being said, what is being remembered in this gargantuan temple to the Almighty. Larger than the eye, more powerful than any individual human body or soul can comprehend – what is being said? Well, so many things. The story of the Bible, and church history, is depicted in a thousand stained glass windows, paintings and masonry. The size of the place is enough to give one the shivers just looking at it – especially if you cannot stand heights, like me. But is that it? Size, power, grandeur, money, time and the human ambition to create a great cathedral? Or is there something more? What is really being said?
That God is great, and powerful, and higher and larger and more detailed and more mysterious than out eye can understand, or our hearts comprehend? Yes, certainly that.
But even more, there is a sense of human powerlessness in the face of the magnificence of the divine. These vast structures are not something we can fully comprehend, or God forbid, control. This is a sense of the Almighty which is fearful, magnificent, mysterious – almost beyond imagining. This is no shrine to human architecture, art or ambition. Rather, it seeks to convey something of the spiritual power and mystery of heaven, demanding that we expand our imaginations, our thinking and our worship.
Our smaller Surrey churches are, of course beautiful, historic and very special of themselves. I think we are all perfectly happy with the size they are – especially when the heating and the repair bills come in!
But cathedrals remind us, I think, in a unique way, of the huge danger of reducing our faith, and our vision of God, and the eternal, to a smallness we can control.
About a year ago, Boris Johnson was joking with Canada’s President Trudeau as to whose PM jet was larger. (In fact, Canada Force One’ is apparently the larger jet, unknown to both of them.) Clearly, all of us have our own vision of what is large, what is important, and what is lasting.
May God help us to choose wisely.
Have a good week, everyone, and keep in touch when you can.