By Patty Silva Fallon
I’ve been captivated by old cathedrals since the first time I saw one two years ago-the breathtaking beauty of Santa María de León Cathedral in León, Spain.
Two years ago, I was hiking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I flew into Madrid and took the train to León to begin my camino, and when I got off the train there I (sorry, Mom) had no idea where I was going. This was, I promise, by plan. The camino went through León; there was an albergue for pilgrims to stay at. I spoke the language. I’d find it.
I left the train station and looked around-I’d find the scallop shells that marked the camino, or I’d see some backpackers, and following them would get me to my destination. In the distance I saw a Gothic tower rising over the city, and like so many pilgrims before me I knew that going towards the cathedral would get me where I needed to go. Over the bridge, past the Irish pub and the Texan cowboy boot store, I made my way to the Plaza de Regla, and the cathedral was in front of me.
It took my breath away. Towering above me, it was intricate but solid. Imposing, yet welcoming. I stared. I stared like a tourist, I stared like I could memorize every detail. I stared in childlike wonder.
It was mid-afternoon, so the cathedral was closed to visitors for a siesta- after exploring the outside of the cathedral and marveling at the delicately carved towers, flying buttresses, and weathered statues, I followed a group of pilgrims to an albergue run by the Benedictine sisters and checked in for the night. Leaving my pack safely stored, I headed back to the cathedral for Mass and the chance to explore the interior.
It was beautiful. The vaulted ceilings soared stories above me. The rituals of the mass in the Virgen del Camino chapel had been performed daily since the first church was built over a thousand years before. The choir seating, intricately carved dark wood, was worn and polished from centuries of use. The tomb of King Ordoño II, dead in AD 924, is just feet from the memorial to victims of the Spanish Civil War not even a century ago. Pilgrims filed through the cathedral awestruck, now just as they had centuries ago. It was ancient, yet somehow outside of time.
And the windows- this cathedral has 19,000 square feet of stained glass windows, most of it from the 13th to 15th centuries. Nineteen thousand square feet-over a third of a football field. One end of the cathedral is dominated by a giant rose window that is illuminated every day by the setting sun; opposite it, behind the altar, a soaring wall of stained glass panels held together by impossibly small stone columns and arches catches the dawn light. The riot of colors and beautiful, careful artistry took my breath away in the 21st century…I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the 1200s. I stood, in awe, for a long time, drinking in the beauty surrounding me.
“The León cathedral,” I wrote later that night in my travel journal, “is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and is quite possibly the most beautiful thing made by man I have seen.” It was-and is-in the truest, most original, Latin sense of the word, magnificent.
Last month, I had the opportunity to go back to Spain for a few days on my way home from a work trip. In the cathedral of Segovia I wrote, “castles reflect power, palaces reflect wealth, but cathedrals reflect Glory.” The beauty of man-made things can reflect and magnify the beauty and glory of greater things. As the soaring stained glass windows of León drew my attention in and my eyes upward, they drew my heart and my soul up with them.
Beauty, truth, and goodness are transcendental. There is philosophy in this, and theology, and writings by Aquinas that can all be discussed, but in short the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty draw us to something greater than ourselves. The true, the good, and the beautiful draw us to God.
In the building of cathedrals, every detail was focused on glory, and on beauty. Looking at the towering ceilings and artful construction of a Gothic cathedral, I am always astounded by the decades, centuries, of hard labor that created it. I am in awe at the engineering and math that made these buildings possible before we had reliable indoor plumbing. I think of the danger faced by masons and builders suspended from ceilings and perched on walls stories above the ground, all to create something glorious. Through all of these runs the common thread of creating something enduring, something beautiful, for a greater glory.
In the making of this cathedral, there were kings and princes and architects. There were priest and bishops, monks and master builders. Glassmakers, dyers, apprentices and journeymen, masters and novices. Masons and mathematicians. There was someone who, day in and day out, put a careful layer of mortar on a flat stone, and put another stone on top of it. And another layer of mortar. And another stone. There was someone whose job was to bake the bread, and someone to brew the beer. Of all these people, very few would ever see the cathedral fully finished- but each of them, in some way, created the enduring, transcendental beauty of this cathedral.
I’m sure that most of these people did not start their morning every day by saying “I am going to create something that, in a thousand years, will still stir the souls of the faithful and inspire them through beauty.” Many of them probably started at least some of their days by saying “if I have to lift one more damn piece of limestone…” “If my apprentice drops a bucket of mortar one more time…” “If one more builder complains about my cooking I swear he’ll end up in the walls.” In all the beauty of these cathedrals, I see work. I see hard, back-breaking, often tedious work. And in that, I find so much more beauty.
Do we always see the beauty in our daily work? On the days when we feel like we are putting one stone on top of another with no view of the final result- which we’ve heard will be beautiful, of course- do we remember to step back and look for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful in what we are doing? In our professional, personal, and spiritual lives, keeping ourselves in the pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful- although it’s not always easy-gives us precious opportunities to recognize and magnify them. To be, ourselves, magnificent.