What is the purpose of a cathedral? In Raymond Carver’s well-known 1983 short story “Cathedral,” two men—one of them blind—sit in a living room talking when a late-night documentary about cathedrals comes on television. The narrator tries to describe a cathedral to the blind man, but he gradually realizes that, try as he might, he cannot verbally depict the spatial reality of a massive medieval building. As the narrator explains,
I wasn’t getting through to him, I could see that. But he waited for me to go on just the same. He nodded, like he was trying to encourage me. I tried to think what else to say. “They’re really big,” I said. “They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”
As the story progresses, the narrator and the blind man join hands and draw a cathedral together. The narrator puts in windows, arches, flying buttresses, and great doors. When they finish, the blind man runs his fingers across the drawing and appears to understand: “Sure. You got it, bub, I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now.”
Carver’s story has been widely read and taught, in part, because it represents the way one person touches another and so can make both a human and spiritual connection. Great as it is, though the story “Cathedral” begs an important question: what are cathedrals for? They mean everything to those of us who love them, but what do they signify for others? As the narrator says, “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.” Cathedrals belong to the “olden days” when “God was an important part of everyone’s life” (Raymond Carver, “Cathedral,” in Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories, New York: 1989, pp. 356–375).
What are cathedrals for? Today we celebrate Cathedral Day, the yearly anniversary of the founding of Washington National Cathedral on September 29, 1907. As we gather for this observance, we hear two passages of scripture: the first, in which Solomon prays at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple that when God’s people gather in this place the one to whom they pray will “hear … heed and forgive” (1 Kings 8:30). The second is Matthew’s account of Jesus cleansing the same temple. As Jesus famously says,
“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matt. 21:13)
We cannot hear the second story without keeping in mind the first. King David established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his son Solomon built the temple there. The temple was meant to be the place where Israelites would find reliable access to God. It was the building in which both as a people and as individuals, Israelites could call on God to hear, heed, and forgive. That’s what Jesus means when he calls it “a house of prayer.”
But why does Jesus accuse the temple leadership of having turned it into a den of robbers? Certainly the presence of the money-changers seemed at best hypocritical, but the temple had an even worse scandal at the center of its life than mere commercialism. When Solomon’s father David was dreaming of the temple he declared, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house” (2 Sam. 5:8). Not only had the temple become the living embodiment of a religious system that turned prayer into a financial transaction. Even worse, it had been founded on a principle of segregation, of exclusion. “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” Only the able and healthy were welcome.
When we read the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, we are quick to notice the overturning of the money-changers’ tables but slow to hear the following sentence: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them” (Matt. 21:14). The temple is a house of prayer. It is the physical embodiment of God’s love and justice. Jesus cleanses it by making it truly embracing and inclusive. His first act of outreach is to let in those excluded for centuries. “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”
Which brings us back to the question: “What are cathedrals for?”
The best ways to answer that question lie in the two actions of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus drives out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he lets in the blind and the lame. A word about each.
The temple money-changers stand for a lot more than mere “commercialism.” They stand for a whole system of religious purity and privilege that goes against the deep truths of God and the Spirit. This system of false power and authority is common to every religious tradition, even and especially our own. Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, have managed over time to build up systems that often subvert the original intention of the religion they serve. They have tried to bolster their authority by making claims of an exclusive hold on the truth. Jesus’ public ministry was, in a sense, an extended critique of the temple cult. It should not be lost on any of us that over 2,000 years, Jesus’ followers have built up a religious system almost exactly like the one that he criticized.
The first point, then, is that a temple, a cathedral, a church is a house of prayer. It is not the house of prayer. A cathedral is a place where we are invited to be open to God and what God is up to. It is not the only place where God can be available. It is a focal point for the holy, but it doesn’t have an exclusive patent on the divine. Money-changers thrive by convincing you that their system is the only way to get to God. Then and now, that’s a self-serving lie. As Karl Jung said, “bidden or not bidden, God is present”—a statement as true on the street, at home, in the wilderness as it is in here.
And then there’s a second point. “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” The Israelites of Jesus’ day were neither the first nor the last to become confused about God’s purposes. As finite, limited beings, you and I set up all kinds of false divisions and hierarchies within the human community. We separate people into categories and define some as more desirable than others. In Jesus’ day as now some of those categories were about racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual identity. In Jesus’ day as now, other of those categories were about ability and health.
Jesus consorted with notorious sinners—the lepers, the demon-possessed, the lame, and the blind—because he knew what you and I need always to learn: that God’s horizon of love and blessing and acceptance and forgiveness and justice is limitless. Each of us, all of us, are made in God’s image. Each of us, all of us, are worth everything to God. Jesus opened the doors of the temple to the blind and the lame because he knew that he was potentially one of them himself. Ability and health are differences only of degree, not of kind. For those of us who love this Cathedral, God extends a similar invitation to drop our pretensions with one another and get real about our mutual need for healing and grace.
On Cathedral Day 2014, we celebrate the 107-year history of Washington National Cathedral, and we rededicate this place and ourselves to the two missional principles at work in today’s Gospel. We seek to be a house of prayer. We seek to extend God’s love and blessing and hope to the human community in all its glorious racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and cultural fullness. We are not a purity system doling out religious commodities. We are a living embodiment of grace and gratitude in a world desperately in need of hope and forgiveness.
Near the end of Raymond Carver’s story, as they have finished drawing the cathedral together, the blind man says to the narrator, “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?” When the narrator finally pauses to consider what they have achieved, all he can say is, “It’s really something.” Putting some people in there and imagining a cathedral is really something. Opening these doors to all is what Jesus would have us do. It’s what cathedrals are for. Amen.