‘A living, breathing Cathedral’ in America

Ken Follett said that the inspiration for his novel, “Pillars of the Earth,” was the centuries-old architecture of European cathedrals. The book, and its sequel, “World Without End,” are set in 12th and 14th century England, respectively, and include several extremely long passages — some might use the word “boring” — discussing architectural terms like nave, transept, crossing, etc. As with a lot of great books, beautiful architecture provided the backdrop against which the more memorable action of the novel takes place. Kind of like the arcane details of whales did for “Moby Dick.”

So after reading both of Follett’s 1,000-plus page novels, it was cool to take a trip to the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. It was, as my girlfriend Laura said, “a living, breathing cathedral” — one which is actually being used at the same time as it undergoes construction today, and right here in America. The cathedral is not Catholic, but Episcopalian, which — I learned in the hour-long tour I went on there — is a purely American religion. It was founded in the U.S. as a reaction to the Anglican church created when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce and split from the Catholic church, placing himself at the helm of the new religion. Essentially, it’s Christianity with all the same ostentatious, awe-inspiring Gothic buildings and props common in Catholic services, but headed by Americans and steeped in American culture.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine has now been under construction now for well over a century, reminiscent of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages (described in Follett’s novels) which took many generations to complete due to shortages of money, politics, wars, etc. The main “nave” — the central part of the church sanctuary — is mostly complete, but the side transepts (attached building off to both sides of the nave) are not. One recently had a fire, and the resultant smoke damage took years to clean up. Also, one of two towers off the front is maybe halfway done, and the other has not been started yet. Other interesting, modern details of the church include:

— A 1920s vision of modern television in one of the stained-glass windows, an attempt at the time that the window was designed to incorporate what was then an as-yet-unknown modern technology.

— A stone carving of the New York City skyline, pre-Sept. 11, 2001, next to a spooky image of skulls and bones.

The NYC skyline, pre-Sept. 11, 2001.

— An altar to pray for the unemployed (particularly appropriate in the current economy)

Altar to the unemployed.

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About Don Seiffert

I'm a reporter and writer in the Boston area.
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