Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Gothic Cathedrals by Robert Barron, 2000, 128 pages. The great cathedrals of the Middle-Ages were built with one thought in mind – to be material symbols of the ethereal reality of God. Our modern minds are grounded in the concrete, and we can’t see beyond it. These massive buildings served and still serve as pointers to the spiritual world, if we let them. Barron says that these edifices produce a tone and then overtones which are echoes of heavenly harmony, and that we moderns are deaf to the noise of these sounds.
Barron is concerned that over the last thirty years to now, churches have become sterile and cold. His book is a pilgrimage to various Gothic churches built in the Middle-Ages. His spiritual journey in the book encompasses these churches and their characteristics.
Barron’s first stop is Notre-Dame of Paris. Named for Mary, he compares the church to a womb. Like Mary’s womb holding Jesus, it is sheltering and protecting. Following through with the simile, he further likens a prayerful visit to the church to being in a womb, calling it a preparation for and birth to fuller life. It is also a place of security that is a safe harbor for all who come to the church. Mary’s consent to being the mother of Jesus did give peace, but is was a difficult peace. It was like the serenity that is the result of totally aligning oneself with God’s part for us in his plan. We submit ourselves to his will, not our own, but this is not easy.
The cathedrals are also compared to a ship. Indeed, the central portion of a Gothic church is called a nave. It is shaped like a long and narrow vessel of the sea. The simile is further enhanced at Notre-Dame de Paris by the fact that the church is on an island surrounded by the Seine River. Furthermore, looking at the flying buttresses gives the impression of a ship with oars. Barron is saying that the church is a place of safety that keeps the traveler from harm on the journey in all kinds of weather.
In the Creed at Mass we say, “Light of light, true God of true God.” The God worshipped at Chartres is a God of light. The absence of light as the worshipper walks in is deliberate. Entering the dimness, a person is reminded of the essential sinfulness of humanity. Walking deeper into the edifice, the dark is replaced by the light, a lesson in how the light of God replaces our shadowy, illusionary world. The light of the church reveals the truth, the truth about what is real and how we need to live.
Gothic churches were light-filled because of the simple architectural expediency of taking the weight of the huge vault off the wall by using flying buttresses on the wall’s outside. This enabled the placing of enormous windows filled with colorful glass high in the walls of the church.
Barron describes the importance of light in this way: “Beautiful, evanescent, all-embracing, in itself invisible but that which allows things to be seen, light seems to be the perfect symbol for the alluring, creating, omnipresent, but finally elusive God.” So the light coming into the cathedral illuminates both our darkness and the glory that is God.
Another aspect of light in the cathedrals is the beautiful compilation of pictures in colored glass and incoming light that are called rose windows. A young boy taken to see one of these exclaimed that the window “sings.” Medieval people didn’t consider beauty to be superficial; to them it had an intrinsic value in reflecting the beauty of God. The three principles of beauty according to medieval scholars are: wholeness, harmony, and radiance. The rose windows are an example par excellence of these values.
Illustrating the spiritual principle of the center, rose windows are organized around an image of Christ in the center. Medallions of scenes from the Bible and the saints are arranged around this central focus, in a way that is full of meaning. This ordering is meant to manifest a life that is lived with the right priorities. Putting God and his will above all is the only way of living that works. Any other core value, from money to power to pleasure, will take the soul from health to illness. A healthy soul is one that puts God firmly in the center and builds everything else around that. The person who does this will find that life is richer in more ways than ever could be dreamed. This serenity can be obtained in other ways, but contemplating the rose windows is one way to arrive at this destination.
A trip inside one of these great cathedrals is a way of the cross, since that shape of the building itself is a cross. The nave and the transept form the main part and the crossbeam of Jesus’ cross. This form of the Gothic cathedral reminds us that the cross is an inescapable centrality of Christian life. Jesus’ whole life was for the purpose of death on the cross. The imbalance that occurred when people sinned needed God’s hand to put it back into balance. After Jesus’ death, the world that was turned upside down was turned right side up.
To enter into the world of the cathedral is to enter into the world itself. Nature is evident everywhere in depictions of plants and animals. The universe surrounding the earth is also represented, as objects of the firmament like stars and planets are shown. Added to these spheres is the multiplicity of the saints who have gone before us and the pure spirits we call angels. All these different areas of creation in the one building show the viewer that creation is one entity. Cathedrals are a manifestation of the unity that brings all the elements of creation together for one purpose, that of praising God.
The orientation of the cathedrals’ footprint is significant. The apse is where the priest stands when talking to God, and this is facing the east. This is because both the sun and the Son came out of the east. The other façade of the church shows a darker side. The main idea here is the depiction of good and evil and the fight between them. Several churches, including Notre-Dame, have a detailed Last Judgment scene on the side of the building opposite the apse. Notre-Dame’s is situated prominently at the central portal.
We don’t usually think of Jesus as judge, but the Biblical narratives show him to be one. Essentially, the deepest meaning of his whole ministry is that he is judge in the Biblical sense, which is to shine a light on human matters and show what is truth and what isn’t.
Evil has a propensity to deception, often pretending to be pious, which is exactly what it is against. Real Christianity does not hesitate to call evil what it is. Though based on love, the church realizes it must discriminate between right and wrong.
The richness of the statuary reveals another indispensable fact of Christianity, that it came forth from and still retains much of the Jewish tradition of its founder. The sedate group of Old Testament figures, including Abraham, Isaac and Moses, stands peacefully and serenely at the central north portal of the cathedral of Chartres. This reaffirms the connection between the two covenants and confirms the belief that the God of the creation story is the God of the New Testament as well. In fact, Barron reminds us that the Old Testament is said to mirror the New. Thus the events of the earlier covenant are symbols of the manifestation of Christ in the New.
Meditating on the crypt below the cathedral of Chartres, Barron compares the underground place to the deep religiosity of the whole of the human race throughout history. He recalls that the Church has been seen as taking the best from the traditions it finds itself in contact with. One example of this would be St. Patrick’s Christianizing of the Celtic traditions. As Barron says, “Catholicism … does not despise the innumerable ways in which the Word is partially, yet truly, revealed.”
The most startling aspect of Gothic cathedrals is their verticality. It is an observable phenomenon that people walking in these cathedrals will inevitably spend most of the time looking upwards. This upward orientation is done purposefully, to send the mind to another realm. Christians believe in the otherness of God, but not all faiths are so oriented, some thinking that God is a part of or is this world. The striking vertical naves of these churches send the observer to a realm that is not this world.
Since everything about the medieval cathedrals has meaning, what are we to make of the gargoyles? In one explanation, Barron thinks that the fantastical creatures call to mind the strange combination of God and man who is Jesus Christ. The gargoyles show that there is comedy in the story told by the cathedrals. Humor comes from the incongruous, the unexpected, next to the normal. The humor represented by the gargoyles provokes healthy laughter, and gives a comic break in the solemnity of the message of the cathedrals, just as Shakespeare provided comic interludes in his most serious dramas.
The ultimate goal of the cathedral stories is to affect the lives of the faithful, and so there are many instances of depictions of vices and virtues. Barron calls charity the “virtue of virtues.” Barron reminds us that Thomas Aquinas called caritas friendship with God. Because God became a human person, we can be equal to him. No other religion can claim this. But this great privilege gives great responsibility also. We must think and act according to our dignity.
The virtue of faith built the cathedrals and also gives them their purpose. Barron tells the reader, “…for faith is the capacity to see beyond the senses to a deeper or higher reality.” Barron explains that believing in the revelation of God “introduces us to a dimension of being vibrating at a higher pitch. To be a person of faith is to know that the universe of the senses is but the tip of the iceberg, but a gateway, but a hint.”
An ancient tradition incorporated into the cathedrals is the labyrinth. The labyrinth in the cathedral at Chartres is for walking, not merely looking. The spiritual exercise results in a slowing down of both the body and the mind, which is especially beneficial in our hectic times. It is a well known axiom of the spiritual life that the deep parts of the soul are oriented toward the slow.
The labyrinth is also a metaphor for the various times in our lives when we are close to and then further away from God. As we walk this convoluted path, we are sometimes near the center and sometimes far away from it. But the best thing about the labyrinth is that we know we will reach the center. Christ has told us he is the way, so if we but follow him, we will find that center.
Because in medieval times the study of mathematics and geometry was considered one way to study God, it is understandable that the composition of the cathedrals of the Middle-Ages manifests many examples of numerology and sacred geometry. For instance, at Notre-Dame de Paris, the number of medallions and figures added together is 232, which stands for the Trinity surrounded by the four corners of the earth. This is to say that God is a harmony. The doctrine of the Trinity, according to Barron, “declares that the most fundamental reality of all is a relation … a lovely three-part harmony.”
But above all, the “arithmetic musicality,” in Barron’s words, of the cathedrals is a manifestation of the fact that they in themselves are instruments which can be played by humans as well as by the divinity. This harmony is one way these churches stand between heaven and earth.
Finally, it is well to remember that the basic purpose of these magnificent edifices is to celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist. Re-enacting the drama of the death and resurrection of Christ, the two main events of his earthly life, is not only an act of supreme faith in Jesus, but it is communicating with him and all of the saints now with God, and asking for help in imitating him.
All the many aspects of the cathedrals reflect one thing, and that is the Eucharistic presence of Jesus in our world, in our lives. The statues, windows, pictures, and building materials that are part of the great Gothic cathedrals can be read like a book, but there is also a story that is told in the Eucharist. Barron reminds us that after his resurrection, the Apostles recognized Jesus when he broke the bread with them. It is the same breaking of the bread that occurs in the Eucharist, and so it is then that we too see Jesus in that act and realize that his presence with us is real. Barron concludes with the profound statement, “To know the Gothic cathedrals is to know the Christ in whose form and image they are.”
Author Information Robert Barron Father Robert Barron was born in Chicago and is a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He earned a Masters degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C. and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic Institute of Paris. He teaches systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He has written five other books, including And Now I See--: A Theology of Transformation;Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master; Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic; Opening Hearts, Minds, and Doors: Embodying the Inclusive and Vulnerable Love of God; The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path. He often gives retreats and workshops on spirituality.