“I am building a cathedral”
It takes hard work to construct a building that can last a life time. Building a structure to last for forever takes something more.
To build something like this (Point to Church)
Involves the marshaling of resources, so many tons of concrete, wood, glass and steel. This is combined with thousands of hours of physically and emotionally intensive labor, along with the commitment of astronomical financial resources.
In the grand scheme of things nothing is more improbable to occur then a cathedral. But that is exactly what all three workers in our reading where building.
Cathedrals do not simply appear out of nowhere. As with any massive architectural project they are built in standard phases, and only the ultimate phase, the last phase, involves shovels, mortar, brick and steel-frame.
In architectural speak, the first few phases are:
Schematic design (and)
Design Development phases
But, I combine the three and them the “Dream Phase”.
The Dream Phase is the vision of things, not as they are, but as they could be.
This is looking reality as it is.
Looking at the site,
is it a downtown location in the heart of the city?
is it rural?
is the site perched on a dramatic seaside cliff?
This vision sees the needs of the potential occupants, the end-users.
The needs of Physicians and Patients are different from the needs of hotel managers and patrons in obvious ways.
Although, hospitals and hotels both serve transient populations, people moving on holiday, or people moving beyond life as we know it.
The Dream phase also sees beyond present day needs, it sees the needs of the future. It anticipates some of the ways that the end-users might change and how the space could respond to the inevitable changes that occur.
This phase sees old patterns of development, environmental and demographic changes. Sometimes it even anticipates the ways that political changes will impact the site, the structure and its occupants.
Perhaps a new regime prefers green drapes instead of blue.
This kind of visioning usually means looking at how a population might grow?
“Will the structure be able to expand to accommodate the change?”
Maybe they will be able to add pavilions on the sides, or grow taller with additional storeys?
I am sure that this is the kind of conversation has occurred right here in this congregation at some point. Or perhaps you’ve had this thought on more than one occasion?
Can we carve out an extra bedroom by dividing the living room, when the baby comes,?
When mom can no longer live on her own?,
When Jim is out of work and needs someplace to stay?
This dream phase isn’t just about the fun stuff. It’s also about more mundane, some would say, the more grizzly aspects of building.
It is about building code compliance, issues with deeds and restrictive covenants.
It is about things like: “only homes of a minimum of 10,000 sqft can be built on this site” –no Nehemiah houses here!
It’s about budget controls and consulting with engineers of various disciplines, these are the people whose proud duty it is to say
“no, you can’t do that!”
The abrupt ending of every architect’s flight of fancy.
Yes, there are limits even in the dream phase, and beyond.
It can be years before the ceremonial gold shovel in shoved into the earth and the photographs of the visiting dignitaries are taken.
Seeing all of the work involved in designing a structure, it becomes clearer to see why they take so long to build.
When will ground zero, be something more than a gigantic crater downtown?
Hopefully, the 9-11 Memorial will be completed by the tenth anniversary of the tragic event in 2011?
But, know that the 9-11 Memorial has been built and torn down a hundred times over in the minds of the architects, construction managers and engineers before even one steel beam was placed in the ground.
“It has to be just so”
Structures are not designed just for a lifetime they are designed to stand the test of time. The dream phase involves planning structures of lasting strength and endurance.
Structures that can weather the tests of climate change.
And, I am not just talking about weather extremes. Lasting structures don’t just need to withstand tornadoes over Brooklyn (Queens) and flooding in SoHo.
They need to withstand that force of changes in the political climate, changes in the economic climate and all the changes that can occur in a cultural ecosystem.
It needs to be a structure with integrity that can be counted on. Values that can be trusted.
The dream phase in our architecture of the spirit, also holds the promise of the unknown that is the promise of “destiny”.
Here, in this place one not only holds on to the reality of things as they are, and things as they would be, or could be.
It also holds fast to a measure of uncertainty, Our creations are strong enough to support the known unknowns and unknown-unknowns.
We design niches to hold the humble spirit of inquiry, she that speaks, in a still small voice and says:
“leave room for doubt” (whisper)
This whisper echoes through the ages, but we must create moments in time and spaces where we can--- very attentively, very purposefully, and very lovingly hear it.
Our structures must stand the test of time. It must have structural integrity, that is, the ability--
to resist at times,
to bend at times,
to adapt at times,
but always remain true to the dream at all times.
The ancient French traveller’s name is not given nor is his destination indicated, but clearly he was on some kind of mission, he was a seeker of some sort, taking delight in his own curiosity. He asked the group of stonecutters:
Mon amis, Bon jours, Qu'est-ce que c'est?
(sa la—point to something)
Quel est votre rêve ici.?
“what are building?” , what do you aspire towards? My friends.
He went on by asking each of the stonecutters, are you making something that will just last your life time,
perhaps your children’s life time,
or are you making something for all time?
Not being satisfied with the answers he received thus far, he finally made his way over to the third stonecutter.
And, said: “A vous?”
“And you,” what do you say?
The last mason raised their dusty, hat covered, head revealing shining eyes, and the mason pointed towards the heavens, and she said “I am building a cathedral”.
She was clearly no ordinary mason, and she could see beyond the reality of the back braking work, and the heat and the sweat of her enterprise.
Some people called her a dreamer, she was really a visionary.
The traveller responded by saying: “so you are making something of lasting value?”
She said “I am creating a sacred space.”
It will be a place that will always welcome all that come through its doors.
It will be a safe space, both for those within its walls and those outside. It will be able to hold all seekers.
It will be the place where the Muslim mystic, with his band of wonderers, worshippers and lovers of leaving could join in harmonious singing with the scholarly rabbi who explained the entire Torah to a listener on one foot.
The congregation will sing songs of righteousness. They will live in a loving spirit, caring and nurturing each other and world. Here they will weave tapestries whose beauty will confound all attempts to define, and categorize them.
And, a river will flow it, and there will be a special tree in the center, and…
The stonecutter could hardly get the words out fast enough. No one had ever asked her what she was making. She went on:
They will wear splendid robes
And, they will laugh out loud.
And they will dance. The congregation will dance to the hymns, whose words are taken from the Baghavad Gita and the Christian New Testament, all while the shaman keeps perfect timing with the beat of the drum.
I am building a place that is needed in the world. I am creating a place for hope, a cathedral.
Meanwhile, the follow masons didn’t know what to make of what they hearing. One of them wondered out loud,
“I knew we should have never let this wacky woman into our stonecutter’s guild in the first place, she is clearly hysterical.”
But, the traveller stood there in amazement, he was stopped in his tracks, awe struck by the very idea of such a cathedral, and the promise it would hold.
Could you imagine the traveller standing there?
It must have been like hearing that all of your favorite holidays had arrived early and all on the same day—today.
“Hello friends, Today is “Thanks-Rama-Hanu-Chrisma-Kwanza-Ca” now prepare to receive your many gifts.”
It all must have seemed to be so fantastic, so improbable, yet so necessary.
You can see that the mason was making a structure that would need to be strong. It would have to be strengthen from within and without.
The stones she would cut would have to be just the right thickness, just the right shape to create strong walls that would support large bays for expansive windows with clear and colored glass.
The stones would have be the right integrity to create the colonnades, the archways and the vaults.
She was hard at work for days on end, cutting the stones that would become the buttresses.
Buttresses are common in the old European cities.
You’ve seen the ones I am talking about, the graceful, sometimes fanciful structures made up of pillars and half arches. They are attached to the sides of buildings, usually old-gothic style churches, but not always. Sometimes you see them on old office buildings and at universities.
Trinity Church at Wall Street, and the Iconic Woolworth Building just a few block up on Broadway are good examples of gothic style architecture and in particular buttresses. One of my favorite examples in City College in Harlem.
Buttresses usually support a building from the outside, externally supporting the structure from gravity and the weight of the walls and roof.
You don’t have to go all the way downtown to see them. We can see them right here in this room. Here our Buttresses are on the inside of our structure. Here the communal supports are internal.
Buttresses are fascinating. They are even more fascinating if you happen to be an architecture enthusiast like myself. There is a very subtle yet profound lesson in the construction of a buttress.
For instance before you build a buttress you have to start with a wooden frame to brace the stones. That frame is called a “centering”.
The stones are laid on the centering and mortar is applied where the stones meet. The mortar and stones conform to the shape of the centering.
And once everything is dry and in proper place, the centering can be removed, leaving what will appear as an elegant void and the buttress will stand on its own.
But it starts with the centering
In the end the Buttress is an architectural element that can support its own weight and the weight of others. It uses its strength to accommodate and sustain life. It allows for wide open spaces to be enclosed without too many obstructions.
What are the elements that give us support without unnecessary obstructions?
What are the buttresses in our lives as individuals and as communities?
Many years ago, in fact 12,000 years ago. Long before there was such a thing a “buttress”, a “France” or even a “Middle Ages” there was a site that is today called “Gobekli Tepe” in Southeastern Turkey, it is otherwise known as the “Turkish Stonehenge”.
I have to laugh at the not so subtle bit of European cultural imperialism that is revealed in the name “Turkish Stonehenge”.
Most of us will be familiar with English Stonehenge, with its icon grey stone monoliths.
Turkish Stonehenge, however, predates, “Stonehenge Stonehenge” by 7,000 years.
So maybe the English monoliths should be called the “British Gobekli Tepe” in honor of its more sophisticated predecessor.
(but, that really is beside the point)
The site of Gobekli Tepe is comprised of a dozen or so circles some as large as 100 feet in diameter and surrounded by rectangular pillars, each made of a chunk of solid limestone. These megaliths range from 10 to 50 tons, a piece.
Archeologists say that at least 500 people would have been required to quarry, transport and erect the pillars, each one of them, uphill! Using the best technology of the time, which wasn’t much.
The French traveller would be in heaven, he could talk to hundreds maybe thousands of stonecutters and everyone else involved in erecting the pillars every day, for years and never have the same conversation twice.
Why would so many people come together for such a purpose?
The level of complexity, and coordination, not forgetting the intensive and continuous labor involved is staggering.
It hurts my back just to think about it.
The hilltop sanctuary was a sacred place. And, archeologists there are describing it as the world’s first temple. They say it was the spiritual center of a nomadic people.
Each of the sandy colored, t-shaped pillars has carved on it, reliefs depicting an assortment of wild animals,
(all the animals were wild at this point in history)
There are elaborate representations of snakes, scorpions, foxes, cranes, ducks, bulls, boars, lions, (oh my). There are even cravings of people.
To look at the images of the pillars is to look back on a very different period in time, or maybe not?
Perhaps the carvings were understood to be a protection against the animals they depicted. Maybe they represented the hope for special powers over the natural world. The lions could represent anything from
imperialism or simply a lion.
I think the fact that humans are depicted alongside the array of creatures, suggests that these Neolithic people saw themselves as interconnected with all life, as an integral part of the natural order, without any dominion or special authority, just another form of life.
And, maybe they celebrated this understanding by erecting a hilltop temple.
But in the end all of this is just speculation. Some archeologist say that the site could just as easily been a trading center for the nomads.
Nevertheless, in the past, what you believed and how you lived your life were interwoven, you couldn’t separate one from the other.
Gobekli Tepe could be a case of both/and, both worship and trade center.
The pillars might have even been used to support a wooden roof as a shelter from the elements.
It doesn’t matter what we call them, pillars, buttresses, walls for sacred places.
We just keep building them, we can’t seem to help it.
It’s what we do
The Unitarian poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words for the hymn “All are Architects” which captures the spirit of our never ending desire to build. The hymn goes:
“All are architects of fate, working in these walls of time; some with massive deeds and great, some with ornaments of rhyme.”
The hymn ends with the charge:
“Build today, then, strong, and sure, with firm and ample base; and ascending and secure, shall tomorrow find its place.”
“Ascending and secure”
We rise from the furthest, deepest parts of the past, yet, ours is a tradition, that seeks its place in the future. The hymn ends “tomorrow find its place” we hope to get there by searching, by seeking the best and the highest values in this life.
Each us are architects, builders and archeologist. We excavate the useful relics and cast aside what is not of lasting value.
Ours is a tradition of loving, thoughtful, spiritual, holy inquiry.
A tradition strengthen from within by a faith is the big enough, strong enough to hold both hope and doubt.
This is something to be grateful for, to rejoice in and be glad in it.
“All are all Architects of fate” indeed Mr. Longfellow.
And, Thank you Mr. Longfellow. Thank you Mr. Traveller, Thank you Ms. Stonecutter. Thank you Isaiah,
Thank you Ethelred Brown and Marjorie Bowens Wheatley and Forrest Church and all those who built temples in the heart.
Thank you for building something with integrity. A cathedral house big enough for all to come inside.
I will end here with the words of Patrick Murfin who best captures our “reality phase” way of being, he says:
“Yes, here we build temples in our hearts.
Side by side we come,
Scavenging the ages for wisdom,
Cobbling together as best we may
The stones of a thousand altars, leveling with doubt,
Framing with skepticism,
Measuring by logic,
Sinking firm foundations in the earth
As we reach for the heavens.
Amen, and may it be so!