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Karl Schmude: Christmas and the Cathedral

Cathedrals - they're far more than works of impressive architecture. And at Christmas they've had even more special spiritual meaning for many

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Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, currently under restoration after a devastating fire in April 2019. Photo: 123rf

One Christmas Day an unhappy French teenager walked into the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  He came to High Mass, more out of curiosity than devotion.  His Catholic families on both sides had lapsed from the faith, and while he had made his first Communion, it was, he said, “both the peak and end of my religious practice.”

The Mass did not inspire him.  For some reason he returned for Vespers. As he listened to the choir singing the Magnificat, he was profoundly affected.  He experienced an immediate conversion, reminiscent of St Paul’s on the road to Damascus.  It was to revolutionise his life.

The teenager was Paul Claudel (1868-1955).  He went on to become a renowned Catholic poet and playwright – nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature – as well as French Ambassador in Tokyo, Washington and Brussels.

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Instant conversion

Paul Claudell

For Claudel the memory of that Christmas Day in 1886 in Notre Dame remained vivid – as he recalled half a century later:

“Suddenly my heart was touched and I believed.  I believed with such power, with such force of my whole being, with a conviction that was so overwhelming and a certainty that shut out so completely any tiniest doubt – that nothing since, neither books nor reasoning nor the vicissitudes of an extremely varied life, has been able to shake or even touch my faith.  I was overcome with a sudden and overwhelming sense of the innocence and the eternal infancy of God – an inexpressible revelation.”

Claudel spent the next few years absorbing this intense experience and unpacking its meaning.  He never forgot where he was standing that day in the great cathedral – “near the second pillar at the entrance to the choir on the right of the sacristy.”   When I visited Notre Dame, I found that an engraved floor plaque marked the historic spot of his conversion.  I was moved, at that moment, to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the life and witness of Paul Claudel.

Graced Christmases

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP blesses the censer which will carry the incense at midnight Mass for Christmas on 24 December 2021. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

While a sudden surge of God’s grace may be experienced in any place, there is a special interest when it takes place in a cathedral at Christmas.  It is as if God has picked the most impressive setting at the most important time to bring about a dramatic change of heart.   The fire which almost destroyed Notre Dame in 2019 lends a certain poignancy to Claudel’s conversion – that this great setting in which a soul was transformed could have been lost.

The Little Flower

St Therese in the garden of the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. Christmas was also a special moment of conversion in the life of the young woman who was to go on to become one of the greatest saints of the Church in the modern era. Photo: Archives of the Lisieux Carmel

Nor was this transformation the only one that took place on that Christmas Day in France.  Two hundred kilometres from Paris, in the small town of Lisieux, Thérèse Martin went to midnight Mass in the local cathedral.  As Louis Chaigne recounted in Paul Claudel: The Man and the Mystic (1961):

“That same day, . . . the future saint wrote in her autobiographical Story of a Soul that on that Christmas Day she ‘received the grace of emerging from childhood, or in a word the grace of my full conversion.’ . . . Claudel was surprised to learn, years later, of the future saint’s simultaneous conversion.”

In the years to come “the Little Flower” was to bloom ever more impressively.

The cathedral – and perhaps especially the Gothic cathedral that was built in different cities in medieval France – captures in a striking way the transcendence and the immanence of God.  The vaulting splendour of the interior testifies to God’s being above and not bound by His creation, but it is softened by the intimate beauty of the art which reflects His incarnational presence in Christ, His indwelling in material form that matches His personal presence in our lives.

Catecheses in stone, art and majesty

One of the remarkable framed entrances to Chartres Cathedral in France. Photo: CNS, Stephane Mahe, Reuters

Throughout the centuries the cathedral has served an instructive as well as uplifting purpose.  It tells the story of our redemption in stone and statuary and glass, as an artistic counterpart to the Mysteries of the Rosary.  Fr Don Richardson’s recent book, Beauty and Light with Faith, beautifully illustrates the profound impact of the stained glass windows in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral.

The magnificent 12th Century Chartres Cathedral in France, seen from the south east. It has been a site of devoted pilgrimage for centuries, especially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Photo: 123rf

The introduction of the stained glass window in the medieval Gothic cathedral was of exceptional importance.   In G.K. Chesterton’s judgment, it highlighted an essential difference between paganism and Christianity.  In his study of the British artist G.F. Watts, Chesterton argued that, in a pagan culture, light shines on things, and to that extent reveals and does honour to this world; but in a Christian culture, light shines through things, illuminating their ultimate meaning and purpose.

Despite the rain, Sydneysiders turn out to witness the spectacular annual lights of Christmas at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. The cathedral is the centrepiece of the occasion as special laser technology projects some of the greatest works of art in history onto its facade. Photo: Alphonsus Fok.

This fundamental difference is less likely to be appreciated in present-day culture.  We now sense, inescapably, that we are living through a time of cultural crisis.  On the one hand, we shun the spiritual light that Christianity can shine on our lives, and are abandoning the pathways of moral purpose that it illuminated.  On the other hand, we search in vain for meaning and security by taking refuge in the diversions of unbelief, increasingly offered as an electronic rather than personal substitute for faith.

Part of the view in Kosciuszko National Park in the Victorian and NSW Alps. The mountains, it has sometimes been said, are the natural cathedral of the world which elevate our minds and spirits to God and the transcendent. Photo: 123rf

By contrast with the cathedral as a citadel of Christian truth and a beacon of beauty, the dilemma we face as a culture now losing its Christian bearings is dramatised in our present-day architecture and art – the barren look of our buildings and the confused and depressing images of our art.

One abiding source of inspiration in art and architecture has been the natural world.  We respond to the breathtaking beauty of the created world, such as the Australian Alps and the mountain ranges of the Andes and the Himalayas, while recognising that they hint at a higher beauty.  The 19th century art critic, John Ruskin, captured this connection in a striking way.  “The mountains of the earth,” he wrote, “are its natural cathedrals.”

Sir Arnold Lunn

Sir Arnold Lunn, skier, mountaineer and convert to the Church. His conversion was inspired – in part – my the majesty of the alpine vistas he experienced.

In some cases the mountains have paved the way for religious belief.  Sir Arnold Lunn, the British ski pioneer who invented the modern slalom event, attributed his Christian conversion to the sublime beauty of the Swiss Alps, where he spent much of his life.  The awe and wonder he felt as he gazed across the majestic peaks, and peered into the valley below, challenged his agnostic view of life – as if everything could be explained by the random forces of materialism.  He came to realise that they were an experience of transcendent beauty designed to open his mind and heart to the full revelation of God.

In 1938, after becoming a Catholic, Lunn visited Spain during its Civil War and attended High Mass in the cathedral of Seville.  Remarkably, it had been spared destruction despite the savage fighting in the surrounding city.  The survival of the cathedral gave him hope for the recovery of Spain after the Civil War, and he saw a telling comparison of Seville with the cathedral of Chartres in France.

“One loves Chartres,” he said, “as Martha loved Lazarus before he died, but one loves Seville as Martha loved Lazarus after he had been raised from the dead.”

St Mary’s Cathedral Dean Fr Don Richardson holds a copy of his recently published book ‘Beauty and Light with Faith’ on the majestic stained glass windows of the Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Throughout the centuries Chartres has been a centre of popular devotion and pilgrimage.  It contains the most precious and unique of relics, a silk veil believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary at the time of Christ’s birth.

Following the First World War, a new tradition emerged of students going on pilgrimage to Chartres.  It was inspired by the personal witness of the Catholic poet, Charles Péguy.  When his son fell gravely ill, he prayed to Our Lady, promising to make a pilgrimage to Chartres; and when his son recovered, he honoured his vow by walking from Paris over 100 kilometres to Chartres.

Stained glass windows in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The student youth pilgrimage expanded greatly, growing to over 20,000 in the 1960s.  It then fell away, but was reignited in 1997 with the holding of World Youth Day in Paris.  The young pilgrims have been able to share Péguy’s reaction to sighting the spire of Chartres as they approach the cathedral across the great wheat plains southwest of Paris:

This photo shows a details from the stained glass windows on the western side of St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“As soon as I saw it, I was in ecstasy.  I felt nothing else; not the fatigue, nor my feet.  All my impurities fell away at once.  I was a different man.”

A crippling problem for our culture as it sheds its Christian faith is that it is bedevilled by fear – a fear of transcendence, of encountering a reality greater than oneself.   This is the fear that secularised culture has done its best to conquer, offering the flattering illusions of modernity, where all experiences are thought attainable and all situations subject to our control.

The cover of the new book by Fr Don Richardson, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

A de-Christianised culture cannot answer that fear of transcendence: it can only disguise or divert it.  By contrast, a great cathedral does not deny the fear.  It converts it into awe – allowing our souls to soar, and turning the ordinary confusion of life into an experience of wonder and companionship with God.

In today’s secularised culture we still enjoy Christmas as a feast that draws us out of ourselves so that we can extend love to others.

Christmas is a time when we reach out.  The cathedral is a place where we reach up.



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