Oh the Places You’ll Go: Ely, Durham, Provence

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Solomon’s temple was designed, not to be a spectacular religious building, but to evoke and to give its worshippers a sense of paradise, of natural beauty, of the best of God’s marvelous world. So it wasn’t just imported, exotic stone, but lots of wood, and decorations that were more green than any other color, suggesting life, growth, flourishing. Even the stone, we should add, has a kind of living-ness, and is a testament to God’s good creation.

Medieval cathedrals were also geared to re-present the glories of God’s creation in albeit humanly fashioned form. The extraordinary ceiling of Ely cathedral comes off as a heavenly canopy, drawing our attention and adoration upward. The pillars, the substantial columns of the Durham cathedral are like a thick forest of massive trees, each one uniquely crafted, reminding us of the Garden of Eden from which humanity had fallen, and the wonderfully restored creation into which we will one day be restored.

The goal of these cathedrals, either in the forethought of the architects, or just as we experienced them today, is “to facilitate flight away from the tiny, cramped room of the ego.” To get there, “God’s house ought to teem with life. Accordingly, everywhere you turn in a Gothic cathedral, you see, carved in stone and etched in glass, God’s exuberant creation: vines, leaves, tendrils, trees, birds, fish, dogs” (Robert Barron). Indeed, what amazes when you visit any and every medieval cathedral, is the way the art, the stained glass, the very columns holding up the building, all remind us of the very natural world outside the building – which is where the worship within the cathedral was designed to prompt people to perceive and live for God.

Church isn’t designed to be an alternative to the real world. Worship is a time and space apart from the world in order for us to find our way out into the world. Worship isn’t a man-made place distinct from the beauty of the natural world; at its best, church is a place where we realize God’s glory in the world we find ourselves in.

The very elements of even of an admirable, humanly constructed worship space: it’s all God’s stuff. The ingenuity to think up sacred space. The wood in the rafters and in the walls, having grown for decades out of God’s good earth, finding its ultimate purpose in a space of worship of God, no less moving than a forest. The stone itself, the most solid conceivable witness to God’s ancient creation of the earth and the very stone finding its way into the church walls and floor. Indeed, every item in a manmade structure, any manmade structure, was ultimately crafted by God in creation, and so any and all beauty bears witness to that same God.

So it’s never a choice you have to make: do I find God in a church? or out in nature? The answer is always Yes. The church exists to notice the glory of God in nature – and in the things human being create too. If you ponder this semi-regularly, and keep your eyes peeled for signs of God’s presence, surprises await. I recall driving through Provence, and so many roads were lined with those elegant plane trees that arch over the road, as if mimicking what a cathedral does. There’s life, and shelter, drawing our attention upward, and forward. My gosh, I’m driving through God’s cathedral.

What’s outside isn’t a substitute for going to the literal house of God. By worshipping in the house of God (and with some imagination, even a low or flat ceiling will do!), you develop the ability and the desire to discover the house of God everywhere. It’s in the trees, maybe in the city’s tall buildings, down the street – or even in the mirror, as Paul reminds us that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

If the house of God really is everywhere, then that might mean you are at home everywhere and anywhere, at home with God. Oh… the places you’ll go!