Rod Dreher is fond of quoting a line from Benedict XVI who—forgive my paraphrasing—has said that the church’s two most powerful evangelistic tools are her art and her saints.
Though I have never been fully outside the church, even during my angriest times I still attended regularly and would have called myself a Christian, I’ve felt the weight of that appeal.
I remember picking up Sheldon Vanauken’s conversion memoir A Severe Mercy while in college and reading the whole thing in a couple days over Christmas break my sophomore year. I’d like to think by that time the major crisis in my own life had been averted: I had landed in a good church. I had two pastors who loved me and took my questions seriously. I had the memory of two terms at L’Abri and, perhaps most important, the legacy of faith that has defined my family for generations and which I saw lived out daily in my home as a child.
But nonetheless there was still an important piece that Vanauken supplied for me. I think it was the grandeur of the faith. In Screwtape Lewis talks about how the demonic task is to confuse the patient’s idea of the church. The reality, Lewis writes, is that the church is stretched across time, glorious and splendid, “terrible as an army with banners.” The way to put Christians—and those who might become Christian—off Christianity is to conceal that fact from them and instead show them a church that is small-minded and resentful, hypocritical, utterly lacking anything grand or transcendent. Vanauken, more than any other writer I had encountered up till that point, helped me see the transcendence of the faith.
Or perhaps we can try it this way: At bottom I am a hobbit. I am a fourth-generation Nebraskan and one of my favorite sights in the world is the expanse of brown and green stretching out beneath me whenever I fly back home after a time away. That, I hope, is something I will always love.
And yet Tolkien knew better than many. The world needs its hobbits, but it needs more than just hobbits. There is a homeliness about hobbitry that is familiar and comforting, but it lacks majesty. You need Gondor for that. The Shire reminds you that you can be at home in the world. But Gondor reminds you that you are small in the world.
And both of these things are true.
Writing near the end of The Return of the King, Tolkien has one of the hobbits say,
It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.
There’s a letter of his, somewhere, where Lewis talks about how Christianity is so unique because it unites the high and the low—it places words of high theology in the mouths of uneducated laymen and calls its brightest minds to eat flesh and drink blood. What Notre Dame spoke of, I think, is that grandeur.
To sustain the life of faith, we need both of these things, the high and the low. The simple homely affection I have for my family, for the workers at L’Abri, even for many of the biblical stories, has played no small role in my Christian life.
But then dark times come and the small seems inadequate. In such times, you badly need for your eyes to be drawn upward, to look and see something grand and glorious and thrilling. Ultimately, of course, we look to God himself—we look to him in Scripture as we encounter him through his revealed word. The final chapters of Revelation have sustained me in many dark times.
But also we look to him as he is offered to us in the sacrament. And we can look to him in great works that are crafted in praise to him—works like cathedrals. Calvin notes in one of his works that God, in his mercy, accommodates himself to the means by which we can approach him. He is referring to the Eucharist when he said that, but I think the lesson can, if done carefully, be applied more broadly. Scripture, after all, is filled with metaphor and simile, ways of helping us to better understand God and to love him more truly.
I think that is what cathedrals do for me. I remember the first time I walked out of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in St. Paul, MN. I had walked in through the side door off Selby Ave, but when I walked out I exited through the large main doors. Laid out before me was the city of St Paul—the cathedral is perched atop a hill adjacent to downtown and looks out over the city.
Standing there on the steps of the church and looking out over the city, I think Christ’s words about a hen gathering its chicks took on new significance for me—the church as a kind of hen whose chick is the city. And then I turned and looked up and I saw the relief over the doors: Christ sitting on the judgment seat and beneath him two angels on two thrones, one holding a cross and the other holding a torch—intended to symbolize faith and reason. And I was reminded, again, that, as the reformed truism puts it, all truth is God’s truth, that all the good things of life are gathered up beneath the throne of Christ and offered to him as an act of love and worship. I was reminded that all goodness, truth, and beauty is summed up in the person and work of Christ.
These grand beauties are aids to help us contemplate truth, which is to say aids in knowing God. And when the grandeur is lost, something real is gone. We are right to mourn. But then there is something more. Implicit in the presence of beloved and noble things falling into decay is something else:
There is a call to rebuild.
This is the work before us now. It was the work set before young Christians prior to yesterday as well. That much has been clear for some time.
But when something like a cathedral falls and particularly when that cathedral is Notre Dame the clarity of the call is, perhaps, heightened.
Would that we be people who hear it.