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The Atheist and the Cathedral

Occasionally, on a quiet Saturday morning, when my chronic physiological and emotional issues subside to a manageable nadir, an adventurous voice in me will perk up and compel me to take a walk of several blocks over to the SeaTac Airport light rail terminal. For $6, I purchase an all-day train pass and get on the northbound, heading into Seattle.

Traveling on the light rail always makes me think of my high school graduating class motto: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey there. On this particular journey, I was half-smothered by an avalanche of Huskies fans heading into the city in their purple University of Washington gear for the big game.

I had not started out with a specific aim in traveling to Seattle, but the Frye Art Museum had been on my mind of late. I was then reading The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, an account of the plundering of the European art world by the Nazis. Partly with this in mind, and partly to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the sports fans, I got off at the Pioneer Square station and set off on the grueling hike up First Hill.

Coming to the summit, I looked to my left and noticed the towers of St. James Cathedral rising over the tree-lined boulevard. Almost without conscious thought, my feet turned in their direction. Like Ken Follett, I am an unbeliever with a passion for cathedrals.

My step-grandfather likes to brag that his grandfather was one of the master builders who worked on St. James at the beginning of the twentieth century. He also boasts about the role his grandfather played in its reconstruction when the dome collapsed during the record blizzard of the 1915-16 winter (during which my maternal grandfather was born, coincidentally).

Entering the cathedral vestibule, breathing in the waxy ambience of the modern Catholic church, I examined the tall, square museum-style display off to the right of the sanctuary doors. One panel detailed the history of the cathedral (with a sizable paragraph devoted to the destruction of 1916). Another described the life of a local saint. One lengthy paragraph explained the rather amusing statue of Pope John XXIII situated on the north wall of the nave, at 54″ high “slightly smaller than life size.”

A homeless man came out of the sanctuary and asked me for money. I declined, like the bad Catholic I am. A cleaning woman, meanwhile, eyed me suspiciously. I could not blame her: after my hike up the hill, unshaven, dripping sweat, I must have looked as much of a menace as the vagrant. St. James has suffered from Seattle’s homelessness crisis. A few months prior, a drug addict had entered the nave and destroyed a two-hundred-year-old Marian statue. The Archdiocese refused to abandon the cathedral’s open-door policy but a new placard beside the sanctuary doors specified some rules of etiquette.

After lingering in the vestibule, I entered the sanctuary as the cleaning lady exited it, holding the door open for me while still regarding me with a hint of suspicion. The white cathedral interior was dim, occupied only by the cleaning lady’s supplies and one man kneeling in the pews.

I walked around the sizable, marble baptismal font that is the first thing one sees upon entering, occupying a large square space beyond the doors, directly behind the tall holy water font. After circling the fonts, I proceeded toward the rightward wall of the nave, where a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, holding her characteristic roses, stood over her votive candles.

I had been inside St. James before but never had the time to explore it. The dim silence beckoned me, making me feel like a glaring aberration, but not an unwelcome one. I proceeded up the right aisle of the nave, admiring the colorful glimmers cast by the stained-glass windows that feel transplanted directly from 13th century Europe. I gazed up into the glaring eyes of another saint, a man this time, carved out of white marble, Saint Paul perhaps. He had the look of an unforgiving anti-sexual paranoiac.

Coming to the right transept, I noticed the cathedral’s Stations of the Cross, carved in elegant wooden engravings mounted on the walls at eye-level.

A side-door led from the transept to a room filled with desks and a lectern, with an open door leading outside to the cathedral bookstore. Turning back inside, I noticed for the first time a shrine, enclosed by black iron fencing but with an open door, to the right of the chancel, containing a dozen prie-dieus. At the head of the space was a beautiful bronze rendering of the Burning Bush, a spindly sculpture looming taller than a person. On the right wall stood a marble relief of the Last Supper.

Crossing to the other side of the cathedral, I crossed paths with an elderly Latin or Filipino woman bearing a bouquet of flowers, heading toward the opposite shrine. There, I continued examining the Stations of the Cross, noting one with a copper plaque explaining that the carving was damaged by arson in the 1990s.

Passing the left transept and proceeded down the aisle, I heard a cough and glanced back toward the shrine. Unlike the rightward, this shrine was enclosed by a wall and dark, lit only by votive candles enclosed by red glass, beneath a painting of the Virgin Mary. The lady had placed her flowers alongside several other bouquets and knelt in prayer.

Continuing onward, I paused at the colorful statue of John XXIII, the pope who initiated Vatican II. I picked up a card from the plastic box beside him (suggested donation $0.50), bearing the special prayer the Vatican had sent around to all the parishes of the world before the unprecedented ecumenical council. Known to this day in Italy as “the Good Pope,” John initiated a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Catholic theology, an effort largely undone by his successor, Paul VI.

How did I feel during all of this? Critics of Catholicism find it fashionable to criticize cathedrals. They are decried for their extravagance. Protestants accuse cathedrals of being about themselves and not Jesus. That may be, but as an atheist, I view all religion as being about itself. This is truer for Protestantism than of the more structured Catholicism. Structure is external to the self. Catholics all over the world feel a strong common bond while Protestants have virtually nothing to bind them together. This is why I find plain Protestant churches infinitely more narcissistic than cathedrals. Blank slates exist so one can impose oneself upon them.

That said, what purpose do cathedrals serve?

I am an atheist, but that common bond that pulses in Catholic veins is in me still. Religion is a conductor of the human imagination, nature’s greatest invention. To experience a cathedral is to experience the complexity and strength of the human imagination: glorious, subtle, sweeping, intricate, strict, liberating. As the brilliant summer sunlight cast the glow of the stained-glass windows across my body and my surroundings, I understood why decades of scandals, lawsuits, and cynicism have not sufficed to break the bond that brings Catholics back to their heritage.

The cleaning lady was pouring water into the holy water font. A pair of laypeople were standing in her vicinity. The man who had been in the pews when I arrived had left.

I crossed back to the other side of the cathedral and gazed at the statue of Saint Therese, a patron saint of healing. I have no patience for religious writings or tales of the saints, so I’m not intimately familiar with Therese of Lisieux, but her image is one of my favorites: the Little Flower who died of tuberculosis at 24, always depicted clad in her black Carmelite habit, bearing a cross and a bouquet of roses.

Drawing a taper from its cup of sand, I used one of the gleaming candles to light another, my first time lighting a votive candle. I knelt on the padded kneeler beneath Saint Therese’s image and crossed myself, a gesture I continue to find therapeutic. The words of Francis of Assisi’s Prayer for Peace, the only prayer I have ever liked, rose in my mind: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope….

When I was done, I crossed myself again and stood, sensing that my solitary tour had reached its natural end. I had to step around the cleaning woman’s supplies to dip my fingertip in the newly replenished holy water font. Then I walked out the sanctuary doors, back through the vestibule, and out the side door that leads to the cathedral steps. The sun was shining still, a gentle breeze was rustling the leaves of the trees that lined the boulevard, and for a few moments, my perennially troubled mind retained some of the cathedral’s peacefulness.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Non-Fiction, Personal Narrative

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