Defending the Cathedral Mind

“Boys and girls, can you tell me what reverence means?”

I can’t remember the name of the deacon’s wife who taught the bible class for the 4-to-6-year-olds, but she was a very nice lady who smelled like unbaked pie crust.  She also enjoyed doubling herself over in her child-sized chair and addressing us as though doing a poor imitation of a severely mentally retarded person.

I raised my hand.  I was always raising my hand.

“Um, reverence?  Means that you, um, be quiet?  Because Jesus is there?”

Her face mimed orgasmic revelation.  “Yes!” she mouthed.  “It means we be quiet, because Jesus is there!”

Even as I was learning to spout the rote answers I knew adults wanted to hear, I was lost in confusion and “backsliding” (the church term for engaging in normal critical thought) into the firy furnaces of dark doubt.

For one thing, if we were supposed to be quiet in the church because Jesus was there, but we were also being told that Jesus was everywhere, wouldn’t that mean we were supposed to be quiet and reverent everywhere?  How could school be taught?

More pressingly, would I be sent to hell for watching the Monkees do“Last Train to Clarksville” with the sound up?

These things went through my brain, but I couldn’t articulate them to myself.  People in my world didn’t voice such thoughts, which made the thoughts seem to emerge from some horrible shadow side of me.  I decided in the end I had better be reverent because, well, Satan sounded like a pretty scary guy; hell had been so vividly and repeatedly described to me that I could imagine it much more easily than, say, our nation’s capital; and I wanted the grown-ups to love me.

So I was reverent in the house of God, not really getting what the big deal was, but hoping I would at some point in the future.

Flash forward to 2002 and the dark, delicate months in which we were all still reeling from 9/11.  A shock-jock station in New York broadcast a couple having sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the resulting public outrage did not just come from the usual musty corners of old ladies and Moral Majority firebrands.  People who regularly tuned in for their daily dose of fart jokes and political incorrectness were switching off their radios for good.

Suddenly, in the wake of incredible violence, chaos, and grief, reverence in the house of God was no longer a throwback to empty authoritarianism.  New Yorkers had memorialized friends, spouses, co-workers, sons, and daughters in special buildings that were meant to invoke the sense of another world, of awe and mystery, a sense that even if we didn’t understand everything that was going on in our lives, there was still some great (if often cruel) design at work.

Modern people have an uneasy relationship with reverence.  Holding certain things sacred, or believing certain physical places are special, are seen as signs of intellectual weakness.  It’s clear why.

Despite the supposed free-thinking amorality of the age, plenty of us are still introduced to reverence via some “because I said so” apparatus such as the church.  Once you grow up and spot The Man Behind the Curtain, you see reverence as just another crowd control tactic to keep you scared and unquestioning.

Those of us raised nonreligiously are introduced to reverence, if at all, via images of square, pious 1950s types kneeling and praying in cheesy clip art.  The modern, free-willed person pays no heed to such primitive ideas as honoring a set-aside space in which he or she has to – gets to – relinquish control over self-importance and authoring one’s fate.  This may explain why contemporary church architects create places of worship about as otherworldly and awe-inspiring as an In-N-Out Burger parking lot.

“Irreverent” is now synonymous with I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this hilarity.  If a cringy-funny film like Borat is irreverent, then its polar opposite must be humorless misery, right?  (And I say that as a fan of Borat.)

The last time I really needed some peace, quiet, and change of perspective, I got off the 5 Fulton bus line at St. Ignatius Cathedral on Fulton Street here in San Francisco.  (By the way, I don’t recommend this mid-day during the week, when the maintenance crew is doing their thing.  If you think hammers, power drills, and shouting workmen are annoying in your ’hood on Sunday morning, try them in a vaulted stone airplane hangar designed to echo straight up to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.)

But maintenance racket is small potatoes compared to what happened last time.  Just as I was reaching a quiet sense of comfort about my problems, candles flickering all around me, the side doors banged open and a chirpy admissions volunteer from the University of San Francisco (the Jesuit school whose cathedral it is) trundled a band of about 20 prospective students through the place.

As the volunteer swung her index fingers around like an air traffic controller, yellingly explaining this grotto and that chapel and this altar and that station of the cross, five students were having phone conversations, five more were checking texts or surfing the web, two had iPods, five were having surly exchanges with their parents (who themselves were multitasking, conducting a few important, gum-snapping phone calls whilst in the House of God) and about two were actually listening to the tour and deeply impressed with the place.

By the time this pageant of oblivion had crossed through to the other side and was proceeding on to the library across the quad, I felt like a child whose sandcastle had been trashed by the big kids.  Was I the only dupe left in the world who noticed that a cathedral is meant to shut you the fuck up?

After the irritation of the event had died down I ended up feeling sorry for those kids.  What would they do when one more barf-o-rama kegger party somehow wasn’t enough to relieve the strain of their lives?  Reverence and contemplation wasn’t part of their repertoire; nobody had given it to them.  Young people generally are not reverent (that’s why we love them), but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it every now and again.

If the grand heights and depths and kaleidoscopic colors of St. Ignatius weren’t enough to command it in them—or their parents—then what would be?

Whether you believe in God or not is beside the point.  If you lose the ability to receive messages from your surroundings, the quality of your life will be compromised.  Everywhere will be the same, because you will always be the same in it.

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