Column: An epiphany in St. Paul's Cathedral
LONDON — We missed it by 30 seconds. My husband and I had high-tailed it from the Tower of London — not all that far away but through a maze of Underground Tube stops — to make it by 4 so that we could tour St. Paul’s Cathedral, but as we rounded the corner and began paralleling the cathedral on our tourist-weary legs, the bells began to chime the hour, and as we climbed the front steps, we saw people being turned away at the door.
Never one to give up, I said to the gentleman at the door, “It’s closed? Really?” And he said unequivocally, “Yes. But you can come back for Evensong at 5”
I don’t think he thought we would. I think he thought I was just another tourist, wanting to see a pretty building.
He didn’t know I’m the Disheveled Theologian.
So we crossed the square for coffee, and at 4:45 once again climbed the well-worn stairs and entered the cathedral for the evening service. We walked in, and as in every cathedral I’ve ever been in, my eyes were immediately drawn upward.
My eyes and heart and mind were agog with all that I saw. It is staggering in its beauty.
When Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, following the destruction of the previous cathedral in the great fire of 1666, his Reformist vision was that it should be simple and even stark, keeping pilgrims from worshipping the place rather than God. But Queen Victoria found the plain white walls to be dreary and dull, and she suggested that the cathedral needed a little livening up. So we have her to thank for the gilding of the lily.
We took our seats beneath the glittering dome and feasted on the golden mosaics, the arches, the vast, awe-inspiring space. And then we were told that if we liked, we could sit in the quire for the service instead, and we felt as though we’d received the cherry on top of this fabulous dessert. So we sat in the wooden choir stalls, farther up toward the altar, and therefore closer to the action, so to speak. I could hardly believe we were so blessed.
And so, for 45 minutes, we sat mere feet away from the choirboys, the scripture readers, the high altar of St. Paul’s Cathedral. We participated in the responses, we followed along with the Miserere, and we reveled in the echoes of this church, site of more than 1,400 years of Christian worship.
I have said before in this column that I did not fully appreciate liturgy. Perhaps it’s because I’m a wee bit of a rebel. But on that day last month in London, I had an epiphany. To be there, in the center of that breathtaking space, with the Word of God echoing in the centuries-old stones, was to become a part of the story of that church. To join in with so many others — those both present at the time and those whose voices echoed throughout history — was a revelation. To speak the exact words that had been spoken so many times before made me finally understand that there is meaning to be found in shared ritual, that there is joy in accepting one’s place in the greater church story, in joining one’s voice with like-minded people to worship the living God.
I will forever be grateful that I am part of that story.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving-kindness.” — Psalm 51:1
Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in rural Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, runs monthly.