Saturday, January 27, 2007

Why Church? (I)

It's in the windows.

The reason I go to church. You can find it in the windows. And in what surrounds them. In the buildings.

Chartres Cathedral is not like other buildings. For one thing, it has been built at least five times and, if in nothing more than your imagination's tracing of its earliest outline beneath the current stone floor, you can submerge yourself in 1500 years of worship there. Probably even more, as it is argued that perhaps the Druids were there first.

Chartres has stone carved into a myriad of possible formations. Arches, buttresses, pillars, columns, walls, window frames, statues, towers, stairs, massively placid, airily fragile.

Chartres has the labyrinth. THE labyrinth.
A few weeks ago, in sadness and turmoil over my grandmother's death and the family chaos it unearthed, I went to a local Catholic college early in the morning to walk its model of the Chartres labyrinth. Back and forth, and half way round, and back and forth. . . . The labyrinth at Chartres has served similar purposes for centuries.

Chartres has the towers. Sun and moon. Asymmetrical. Unbalanced. A surprise. Like human life.

Chartres has the portal statuary. It seems endless. I'm not sure how many statues grace the exterior of Chartres. More than hundreds, each unique. Each one, like all the rest of the building, crafted by an unknown individual, by someone who labored for months to create something of his own that would blend into a structure so vast that only the occasional visitor's eyes would light in appreciation on his particular contribution. And only those who care to explore at length would understand that the stone stories on the outside live in relationship with the glass stories on the inside.

And yes, Chartres has the windows. There are no other windows on earth like the windows at Chartres. The blue is not like any other blue. The stories, elaborated in ways that speak to us hundreds of years later. The conversation between Hebrew and Greek Bibles. The reminders of the near-destruction of that conversation in the twentieth century.

Last summer, I wrote, "As far as I'm concerned, a cathedral has everything ~ God, us, faith, history, prayer, war, music, light, darkness, joy, despair, clarity, chaos, solidity, spirit ~ and Chartres is the best one of all. "

I've been in lots of cathedrals. Attended mass in a few, heard concerts in several more, and wandered around many. I've spent two days, only two, at Chartres, the one that says, "Come back. This is you. This conglomeration of belief and question, of mystery and chaos. Come back. Come back."

Mostly, and oddly enough in light of what I've just written, I worship in Presbyterian churches. And most of them do not resemble Chartres at all. Sparse. Brick or clapboard on the outside. Bare walls on the inside. Clear glass windows. Not a statue or shard of stained glass anywhere in or on the building. One tower, elegant in its simplicity.

Oh yes, the Puritans have been here.

I love my church. I love its heritage, straight from Plymouth to the Western Reserve of Connecticut. I love its stark beauty. I love what it says.

It says clarity. The Protestant claim is to the clarity of the Word of God. The lines of the pulpit and lecturn are straight, clear. The windows are straight, clear. God is not told "slant," as Emily Dickinson would say. The voice of God is a clear voice, the words of God are clear words.

God is, after all, Word. In the beginning, God creates through words. In the beginning Christ is logos, Word. Words distinguish us from all other creatures. A Presbyterian church is about words. Words that we speak and words to which we listen. God seeps into our very beings through words.

I love them both. The windows of Chartres and the windows of the church that I call home. The collection of color and chaos that merge in the light to tell the story one way. The open clarity that tells the story another.

My own story is both.


jo(e) said...

What a great post. I do so love the cathedrals of Europe.

steve said...

What a lovely meditation on space, art, religion, and meaning. It was thought provoking for me, in part because I've struggled with the idea of church lately.

Lisa :-] said...

Lovely comparison and contrast between these two expressions of the Christian faith...

Cynthia said...

This is one of the best pieces of writing you've done in your blog, and you set a very high standard. This is evocative, calm, reflective and transcendent. Thank you.

Carol said...

Beautifully written, Robin.

Waterfall said...

Wonderful writing. And I was at a Bible study with fellow Presbyterians the other night ... and found myself waxing eloquent over how much I love Catholic churches, particularly the sense of awe they inspire.

Laura said...

I love both kinds of churches....the grand ornate architectural masterpieces in Europe, and the spartan Presbyterian and Methodist churches that I have always attended. Different kinds of beauty, both powerful.

Magdalene6127 said...

G.G. this post took my breath away. So beautifully written. Like you, i feel this is my story. Raised in/ trained to love the ornate cathedral, but worshipping as a Presbyterian in that Puritan aesthetic. Both me, both vehicles for discovering the Divine.



Quotidian Grace said...

Great post and I love the new blog look!

Paul said...

Windows I can do. It's Calvin, Knox, and the Order of Orange I have trouble with.

Kathryn said...

The space is important. My most recent church switch was quite difficult in that I gave up wonderful stained glass for a more modern building. I am trying to take pleasure in the nature I can see but...

Wonderful journal entry.