The Birth of a Church

As I write, I am sitting in the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano. There is a sort of profanity in what I am about to attempt; to resort to written words in such a moment, hoping to capture something of this place, carries a tinge of blasphemy, aside from it being a fool’s errand. Sitting in the middle of the hall under the towering statue of St. Thomas, who gestures toward the altar with his mighty hand of marble, I have undertaken the audacious task of relaying something of its beauty. So be it. My own errand here today is itself only a small imitation of all those priests and artisans who have given this place its shape and life since its inception.

I feel yet more affirmation in this impulse, because I am surrounded by a crowd of artists spread throughout the hall, each devoted to sketching their own piece of it. They are drawing with lead pencils, and I use my letters. There is a young woman, a student I think, away to my left on a bench. She is holding her sketchbook near her face with a steady left hand, her right wielding the pencil. Every few minutes, she will stretch out her right arm, holding the utensil at various angles against the backdrop of the statue of St. Joannes directly across the hall, measuring its proportions for her page. Immediately next to me, I can overhear a professor assigning his student a particular vantage point from which to work, imparting to her the wisdom necessary for unlocking its beauty. “The more you draw, the better it gets,” he says afterward with a grin. I’m not sure if he is referring to her skills as an artist, the sketch itself, or her subject. Perhaps he means all of them.

Here, it is impossible not to be moved by the history and beauty of such a place. And like the tourist that I am, I have gladly partaken in the awe that impresses itself so easily upon those who wander into places like this. But there is something else embedded within this art and architecture, something which remains hidden even from our best attempts at sketches and escapes all our frenzied photographs.

I am speaking here of a kind of faithfulness that is altogether foreign to our age, one which would require a thoroughly ancient imagination to truly decipher. The sort of faithfulness that enables a sustained project like this cathedral to thrive over the course of generations, to become ever refined and restored through the efforts of its loving caretakers. And more than this, a dedication that is often wrapped up within and understood through a kind of sustained suffering. This beauty, all gathered in one place with such craftsmanship and foresight, does not come into this world without a commensurate sacrifice.

I do not think that a capacity for this kind of faithfulness—and the willingness to suffer toward its preservation—is wholly lost in these modern times, but it would certainly appear to be fading, and much faster than we might like to admit. We pride ourselves on our advanced modern machinery, but it takes more than mere science to assemble this kind of grandeur. If we were to set out tomorrow to build such a cathedral as this one, perhaps we could accomplish something resembling what was done here, but I am not so sure. It takes a singular obsession with a grand story, and I fear we no longer possess this anymore.

In the space between these paragraphs, I have made my way up the Via Merulana to the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, and am sitting inside its long hall. This place works upon your soul in a different manner altogether; the light appears a dimmed yellow compared with the prominent blues and greens that pervade San Giovanni, there are far less statues here and far more carvings and paintings on the ceiling and walls, and it even smells different. Off to my left are the sounds of Mass, liturgy and song spilling through the grating that separates the chapel from the main hall.

As I walked here and pondered the kind of longevity that gave birth to San Giovanni, I was reminded of something I had read a few days ago from Susannah Black. She tells of teaching a class for visiting Baylor students shortly after the fire that consumed the ceiling and spire of Notre Dame. Like many of us, she was in the midst of wrestling with the question of how to set about the task of rebuilding such a priceless piece of religious and cultural history.  More specifically, how did they do it the first time around? What kind of planning does this require? How many and what sorts of professions are necessary for such a mighty task? What kind of virtue did they need to possess to see it through?

She posed these questions to her students, and the ensuing discussion bore insightful fruit. Stonemasons were needed, they said. They needed carpenters. They needed foresters who grew the wood for the carpenters to use. They needed architects to place those beams. They needed to be virtuous, with integrity as their guide. And so it went. But then, an entire lifetime passed during their discussion, and they saw those stonemasons and carpenters and foresters as old men and women, with the task only just begun.

That was when they arrived at perhaps the most vital profession of them all: the midwife. Notre Dame had taken around a hundred years to build, and so its completion required not only the direct work of these men and women, but the faithfulness of midwives to bring its new artisans into the world.

This had moved me when I read it, but it wasn’t until I stumbled on a story displayed in the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) yesterday that I understood the broader context needed for the work of a midwife to birth not only children, but a cathedral as well.

The story is found on a plaque under the altar. It relates the account of the execution of seven sons and their mother, found in 2nd Maccabees chapter 7. King Antiochus had arrested them, demanding they abandon the Mosaic tradition and eat pork. Each in turn resisted this order, dying a gruesome death in front of their mother. The unwavering declaration of the eldest brother, who was first to die, seized me as I read it: “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Another day has passed, and I now find myself enfolded in the expanse of St. Peter’s Basilica. Near the entrance on the left, there is a spot on the floor where a stream of light has landed. The slight haze in the air helps me trace its beam up at an angle to the peak of a high dome, where a window pours in its light from above. Looking up along its path, I cannot escape the feeling that this illumination signals the quiet blessing of Heaven. I suspect that was the designer’s intent.

As I pondered the account of the seven brothers last night, I began to understand more clearly the close relationship between the work of a midwife and the work of the true hero of this tale. The mother, of course. It was from her that all this courage flowed, for she was the one who lovingly anchored them to the weight of tradition, even in the face of a painful death. And judging from this passage, we can be damned sure this wasn’t the first time these men had felt the weight of their ancestral tradition emanating from her:

“Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother, who saw her seven sons perish in a single day, yet bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord. Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly heart with a manly courage, she exhorted each of them in the language of their forefathers.”

These are more than just stirring acts from a mother and her sons—they embody, it seems to me, the sorts of radical things which our entire modern project has undertaken to dismantle. Not only would most of us today fail to act in such a manner, we wouldn’t even dare let a diluted version of those sentiments slip out in polite society for fear of embarrassment. Here we see a dedication to tradition bordering on fanaticism, a sacred understanding at work between those who have gone before and those who are yet far off, with us as their intermediary advocates.

Some say this kind of traditionalism is foolhardy. Some say it keeps us shackled to a broken past. I say it is the only thing that builds cathedrals.

My wanderings have finally taken me up the spiral staircase, out onto the balcony that encircles the inside of the church’s towering central dome. It sits easily three hundred feet off the ground, and yet the dome’s peak still appears staggeringly far off. People have come and gone, but I have stayed here, gazing up at its mosaics for an hour or so. And although I looked down for a few moments, I soon understood and felt the defining truth at work within a cathedral: even at its top, your eyes are unceasingly drawn upwards.

As I succumb to this magnetism, I can hear the choir below me, accompanied by the organ and the rhythms of Mass. I cannot quite make out what they are saying or singing most of the time, but that matters little to me. Whatever it may be, I know they are the same sounds that have been echoing upward here for centuries. That is enough for me.

Perhaps it is the case that we can still build places like San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Peter’s, but I see now that it would demand infinitely more than the admiration we offer up as tourists, or the grief we feel when it burns from afar. We come to these places with a curiosity, with a fascination, sometimes even with tears in our eyes. Yet until our midwives deliver children to mothers who raise sons who would “die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors,” I do not think we can call forth once more such beauty into this world.

3 thoughts on “The Birth of a Church

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