There are so many beautiful images in the cathedral. I love the art and architecture of St. John’s in the Wilderness. The church has come a long way from being a wood building in which miners, a minister and his two attractive daughters gathered for prayers. There are very few great cathedrals in the world and they inspire me. They exist, in part, to inspire. Each Canon of the cathedral Chapter has a stall around the apse next to the high altar. The one appointed to the Canon Steward is the one closest to the altar on the left as one looks at the altar. I keep a couple of small prayer books and poetry books there and many days I go into the church and sit in my stall mid-day to think or to read a poem. It provides a stop in the day.
Each time I go to my stall, I pass the fantastic carved figures for which the cathedral is well known in some art circles. The carvings of saints and prophets, the last supper, animals and biblical scenes populate the altar like a brown crowd. One wonders if, just before one arrives, they were not all just previously moving about, having little chats – doing business. They remind me of the Gary Larson cartoon in which the cows, having formal afternoon tea upright on their hind legs, go back to being cows chewing cud on all fours only when a car goes by.
My favorite image, for the time being, is this image from the last supper. These disciples are to the right of Jesus and they animate aspects of the last super with all of its confusion, despair, hope, grief, longing, wonder, resentment. In this particular scene, one disciple is comforting another. I love this because in most depictions of the last supper, the scene is so very serene. Everyone is well-behaved and all is calm. But that is not how I imagine a scene the night before a terrible unfolding of events – events which were easily imagined and most definitely anticipated. This scene with its grief and comfort is more authentic than any art I have seen about the last supper (with the obvious exception of a painting in which women and children were present – but that is for another blog on misogyny in the church!)
In a couple weeks, the cathedral will gather for its annual retreat in the mountains. Our themes will be around being together. There will be no big speakers, no silly games, no contrived exercises to force spiritual emissions. We will simply gather and space will be made for us to get to know each other. Questions like “Why do we go to church?” and “How doe we serve each other?” will inspire real conversation and events will unfold which bring people together so that they get to know each other.
I have often wondered what church would be like if, in addition to coming forward to take bread and wine, we gathered near the altar and told our stories to each other. Church would take longer. Brunches and tee times might be missed or delayed.
We all look so good on Sundays. Everyone is well dressed. Anything frayed or disordered is tucked underneath so as to project power, wealth or at least the image that I have it all together and am impressive. But in this scene, this man is devastated. And this other man sees – really sees – that and has reached out to touch him – to connect. This grieving man is not pretending he has it together. He is not pretending he understands God’s plan. He is not casting about knowing glances that Jesus’ story will turn out well. He is not speaking eloquently about God’s unfolding plan. He is just sobbing. And someone nearby is being present to his grief without trying to explain it away.
A cathedral – indeed any church – is for awe and inspiration; but a church is also a place in which people can connect, grieve, tell their story. As I make my way to my stall for my mid-day quiet time, I often pause before this scene and appreciate it as an invitation to be filled with grief and despair about the church, the world and life. The invitation not to be all put together is a relief. The wooden figures of this carving have been rescued from fire and sink-hole. They represent many broken hearts; and many broken hearts have passed by them t get bread and wine. I am glad that one of these carvings reminds us that being willing to express our grief and fury at life, and the invitation to connect with each other in that messiness, is as much a sacrament as a wafer and a sip of port from bejeweled chalices.