The flightpath and descent into Washington Reagan National Airport have a cinematic quality. The plane traces the Potomac, coming in above the snaking Capitol Beltway, the rolling hills yielding to urban sprawl. Washington DC is remarkably park-like–nearly 1/4 of all the acreage are parks. Atop the highest rise in the district sits a distinctly out-of-place Gothic pile amid the government buildings in Roman orders, Greek Temples to men of marble, and brick rowhouses in Georgetown. That building is the Washington National Cathedral.
The cathedral sits atop Mt. St. Albans, nearly the highest point in the District. You can see the Cathedral from Georgetown, from the airport, and from most points along the Potomac. The edifice dominates the skyline in some cases more so than the familiar Washington Monument or Capitol dome
When living in DC a few years ago, I lived in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul—the official name of the Dom. Once a week, I’d head up Wisconsin Avenue to a smaller chapel on campus, where my chorus would practice under the shadow of the spires. Around 7 PM, the great bells of the carillon would ring for about twenty minutes over this corner of DC–proclaiming the close of the vespers within. I’d wander in the bishop’s English gardens facing out toward the Capitol. The placement of this Cathedral was no mistake–as the house of worship gazes downward on the secular state at its feet–the Capitol dome and Washington Monument appearing as miniature tourist baubles below.
Despite the frequency of my visits to this place, I have always found a new revelation in these aisles–whether aesthetic or spiritual. Of the latter, this building was designed as a house of worship first. Yet since the founding of the Cathedral in 1907 by bishops of the Episcopalian church, the nation has changed around it. While still administered by the Episcopal Church (as it always has been–the building is not government owned, nor has received government support), the cathedral offers itself as a national house of worship for “all faiths and none.”
All faiths and none. I find that mission to be rather compelling. Why would a person of no faith need a cathedral? This big church represents the formal “high church” movement of its founders. The cathedral was begun in 1907 and finished in 1990—lightening speed for a cathedral built in the medieval style—almost as fast as American “progress.” In 1907, most Americans were protestant or Catholic. And if an American worshiped something else, that American was not visible in the nation’s capital. By the time the final finial was placed on the tower, America was a lot less WASPy and a lot more diverse. The largest growing denomination in America is “None.” Old Protestant sects like Episcopalians and Methodists are hemorrhaging membership to independent, non-denominational Christian churches. Those churches seemingly scorn the opulence of a cathedral, opting for a stadium and a charismatic preacher in the manner of Joel Osteen instead. The Mormons established a large temple of their own in the DC region in the 1970’s, and the Catholics have their own enormous basilica near Catholic University in Northeast Washington. Amid this splintering, the Washington National Cathedral searches for an open approach.
This is the house, after all, where Presidents and great citizens are given state funerals. The cathedral, perhaps by virtue of being the first big house of worship in DC, is the unofficial “prima inter pares” among her neighbors. And for those with no faith, the cathedral houses art and history and inspiring moments appreciated in their own way.
As for the aesthetics of the cathedral environs, the church art progresses from severe to abstract. In doing so, the art reflects the expansive mission of the Cathedral as a national sanctuary. Walking the nave, one can observe the stained glass move from a modern abstraction of color to a severe, formal British Gothic representation in glass. This is because the cathedral’s oldest end is at the altar, and as the century rolled on, the aesthetics changed as well. Old symbolism yield to ecumenical representations of spirituality, rebirth and renewal. Where the older part of the cathedral houses mosaics of the Resurrection, near the front door, tourists find chapels dedicated to George Washington, and stained glass with the moon and the stars as themes.
Certainly the cathedral founders could never have conceived of the Dalai Lama lecturing in the transept or Crosby, Stills and Nash singing their controversial song “Cathedral” in the nave. The magnitude of change, of cultural acceptance and understanding has weathered the original purpose of the cathedral—diluting it for some and enriching it for others.
As a result, the house of worship has a spiritual quality that transcends one interpretation of gospel and creed if one is willing to explore it. Compared to a truly ancient cathedral in Europe, the church is missing saintly relics, imagery, incense, and monks. Yet the church has the relics of secular Americans, like Helen Keller and President Wilson. The open spaces compel a sense of eternity, the high buttressed ceilings create a lofty space where spirits might dwell, the weight of Indiana limestone might persuade you to take a knee or bow a head in reflection.
My last experiences in the grand space were over a year ago. On the last Tuesday of each month, the Cathedral places a large labyrinth on the floor of the transept. The labyrinth is drawn on an untreated natural canvas. While the labyrinth maze predates Christianity, the concept of walking a path to sort out one’s thoughts is sympathetic with Christian thought. The Cathedral’s labyrinth is based on the same design found in the Chartres Cathedral in France. A lone flautist plays a chant-like meditation over the long hall, her random pitches and tones resemble no traditional chant and are wordless, but create serenity as the tones dance among the stone carvings and dissipate into the endless spaces in the hall. Here, is spirituality for all faiths and none. And yet despite the diversity of worldviews, the wars fought among the forefathers of our denominations and faiths, here, in this abstraction, people find a bit of what they seek.
Whether the path-takers view is of biblical inerrantcy or ecumenicalism or no view at all, I have yet to witness anyone in the labyrinth who did not leave the maze with a sense of serenity.
For those seeking less serious inspiration, the Cathedral’s exterior offers a collection of whimsical grotesques–or gargoyles. Some follow the design of those ancient gargoyles found in Europe. Others take their inspiration from homegrown monsters. Lying on the grass with a set of binoculars, gazing at the carved marble, has its own reward.
Washington National Cathedral has found a niche in the spiritual heart of the nation. Its leadership have found ways to appeal to an increasingly diverse country, whose search for meaning can still be found in these cloisters. Where the founders of the Cathedral seemingly desired to use grandeur and heft to impose a particular view, the Cathedral has become a cipher–where the pilgrim sees what they want to see in the limestone and stained glass. That sentiment is better captured in the Tao Te Ching:
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11 [emphasis added]