“It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on…’Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.’ Death is a part of life. My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.”
Most of you recognize Washington D.C. by its neoclassical buildings like the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the ancient Greek temple-style memorials of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
But off in the distance, away from the National Mall and all the government buildings and memorials, on the heights of Mount Saint Alban, is probably my favorite building in all of Washington D.C.: The Washington National Cathedral.
The Washington National Cathedral is among the largest of its kind in the world. The massive stone structure sits at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in Northwest Washington, D.C.
For me it’s always been that initial right turn from Mass Avenue onto Wisconsin that gets me. The gothic stone facade of this colossus immediately awes you. Believe me they don’t make them like this anymore.
The full and complete construction of the Cathedral took 83 years. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the corner stone in 1907 and the final finial was placed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
The view as you walk into the main sanctuary is magnificent to say the least. Your eyes are drawn up toward the heavens.
The above picture of the nave is only a narrow part of the main sanctuary area. At the far end of this photo is the entrance to the choir stalls and the alter, another 3rd or more of the building.
My family and I visited the Cathedral yesterday for the New Year’s Day communion service and to hear the full peal of the Cathedral’s massive bells (a small sample below).
I’ve been visiting the Cathedral off and on over the almost 30 years I’ve been living in the D.C. area. I’ve attended services and communion a number of times, but we’ve always sat in the nave during those visits. But yesterday we had the rare privilege of sitting in the choir stalls. These wooden benches are located just prior to the main alter. In my experience, this area is typically not open to visitors.
It was interesting that only a small group of people showed up for the New Year’s Day service. There weren’t many of us, maybe 150 people at best. We (my family and friends) were all feeling a little special that the cathedral staff had decided to have the service in choir/alter area. As we quietly made our way in and sat on the choir benches, our eyes were drawn up to the religious art, architecture, and stained glass, and our mood was made even more solemn by the majestic sound of the cathedral organ playing low.
The message given at the service was about the power of words and their meaning and the importance each of us has in choosing our words wisely. From the use and meaning of our words we reveal the state of our soul.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s hard not to be moved by a group of people reading aloud together the beautifully simple words of the Common Book of Prayer. The beauty and meaning of those words draws you out of yourself and makes you feel connected, if only momentarily, to something greater than our own little ego. It’s in this sacred space, these moments of grace, that we feel our capacity for greater love, charity, and forgiveness.
I cannot say for sure, but this may have been my last visit to the Cathedral since there is a good chance we’ll be moving this year. If that turns out to be true, then I was fortunate and saved the best for last.
After the service we all went outside to hear the bells.
Even on vacation I rarely sleep past 7 a.m. Decades of being up at o-dark-thirty for work have worn some solid grooves. And, truth be known, whether by habit or disposition, I love the early morning.
So while everyone was still asleep this morning, I was up and out of our vacation condo walking down to the beach. The time was around 6:30 a.m.
Walking along the access path, through the dunes, and out into the open beach at this time in the morning has a spiritual feel to it. It can feel like you’ve entered some sacred space, some verge, between two worlds. (I suspect a yearning for this religious feeling is partly why some people love to live near the beach.)
Usually there are other fellow supplicants on the beach at this time in the morning. There are joggers, meditators, shell hunters, couples and individuals walking, and all of us, it seems, in a solemn silence, our souls mesmerized by the sound of the surf and the gentle, caressing light, of the emerging sun illuminating that infinitely awe–inspiring horizon.
One early winter’s morning, before anyone was awake, I went for a walk in the snow. For me, the wintery wonderland provides a unique chance to be alone with my thoughts and to do some deep reflecting and communing with nature. It’s a good time to just be. Henry David Thoreau would surely have approved.
I quietly put on my cold weather clothes, slipped on my snow boots, and gently opened the front door. My face was immediately flushed by the icy air and the prickly like chilly tingle of blowing snow. As I stepped off the porch into the snow, the sun was just starting to peer over the horizon. Its gentle caressing light pierced the air and shimmered the pale blue dawn with shades of soft amber. I could hear the wind gusts roaring through the tree tops. As I turned toward the woods, I could hear each of my footsteps as I tramped through the virgin white powdery snow. The air was sharp and crisp with the faint smell of wood from fireplaces.
I walked into the woods and made way toward the stream. The snow was deep enough to keep my pace slow and deliberate. It was at this time, along this path to the stream, that I slipped into a semi-meditative state. My mind cleared. I began paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the steady stream of impressions coming from all around me. It was calming and peaceful. I had drifted into a state of heightened self-awareness and total absorption in the present moment.
I briefly lingered at the stream and listened to the gentle flow of the water over the rocks. I then began walking toward the road. My mind was quiet, relaxed, and clear; yet focused and engaged. I began to think about life and the meaning of it all. A philosophical mind like mine can wander across a vast landscape of ideas trying to find some kind of coherent and satisfying answer. But sometimes the best answers come from just being in the moment, from just letting go. After reaching the unplowed road I stood and took a deep breath of the cool moist air and looked up at the morning sky through the mists of my exhale.
Thoughts and ideas flashed across my mind. The environment invoked awe and a sense of amazement and wonder. I thought of how many millions of other people over the centuries must have had similar thoughts while out on a quiet morning walk in the snow. Looking up at the millions of fading stars in the morning light made me think of just how mysterious it all is. I thought of just how impossible it seems that we (Man) will ever truly understand it all.
An old philosophical argument sprung into my mind. How can a finite mind understand the infinite? The very concept of something being infinite in nature, always existing, never having a beginning, whether you believe it’s God or the universe or just matter, is almost impossible to conceptualize or understand for a finite, limited being who resides on a tiny little planet, amongst a sea of planets, in one universe amongst thousands of other universes. Man’s presence on this planet has so far been a mere blip in time. Vast infinite time existed before us and vast infinite time lies ahead when we’re all gone. Are we, as Conrad Aiken said, “Cosmic Mariners, destination unknown?” Or is this short journey of ours somehow the plan of some divine providence?
Of course the simple truth is we don’t know with certainty either way. We know many small “t” truths about life and things. These can be answered mostly by science and reason. But we don’t have any sure answers for the big “T” truths about existence and the universe. Exactly how did conscious beings come to exist in a universe of lifeless atoms in the void? Having a scientific turn of mind, I can hypothesize and attempt to scientifically explain how this could have happened based on our current scientific understanding. But each possible answer I could give would only generate a number of philosophical and scientific questions that would cast some doubt on my scientific explanation.
And so it is with every big “T” truth in life, we live and believe by faith, religious or otherwise. The secular-materialist may shudder at the idea, but they’re as much a faith community as religious believers are when it comes to the big “T” truths about existence. The great question of existence asked by Gottfried Leibniz still remains unanswered: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Which brings me to an important understanding about faith. Genuine faith is always based on doubt. One commits oneself to an idea after having processed it, after having raised and analyzed doubts about it, after having applied it in the front trenches of life and found that the idea still lives and breaths. One rightfully has faith in such ideas. It has worked. It may not be “proven” true. More evidence may be needed to determine its truth. But despite these hesitations and doubts, one continues to live by the idea. That, my dear reader, is faith. “If doubt appears,” said Paul Tillich, “it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith.” In the general sense, faith is that courage that allows us to live by possibilities rather than certainties.
My thoughts were broken by the sound of a snowplow off in the distance. It was time to head back to the house. My wife and children would be getting up soon. I had enjoyed these brief moments of meditation and reflection and the chance to commune, Waldenesque like, with nature and the mystery. I cherish moments like these. We all need time to clear our heads and momentarily cast ourselves adrift in the flow of our thoughts.