Note: This piece is being published in an the July-August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Reprinted with permission.
They laid the first stone April 14, 1434—three hundred and forty two years before American’s Declaration of Independence. It took 50 years just to complete the façade. Inauguration of the nave and aisles occurred in the late 1500s. On December 25, 1891, 457 years after they began, Bishop Jules François Lecoq inaugurated the completed St. Peter and St. Paul’s cathedral in Nantes, France.
On a recent visit with our daughter after her semester abroad, I stood in the nave of this edifice, gazing upward 114 feet to the roof. The interior is 116 feet wide and 313 feet long. The outside towers raise 192 feet. These somewhat cold statistics cannot begin to instill the awe that overwhelms you as you stand in this magnificent holy space.
As I stood in this vessel—a message sent from the Middle Ages, and delivered to me in this moment—I realize the stones in the columns I stand beside were carefully, perhaps lovingly, put in place by a mason more than 500 years ago. My mind is flooded with questions I fear we have lost the ability to answer. When we find it difficult to create plans that survive four decades, how was it possible 600 years ago to design a structure that would not be completed for more that four centuries—and last a thousand years? In an environment in which every generation is encouraged to leave their unique fingerprint on the future, how did more than 20 generations refrain from changing the cathedral’s original design? When the technologies we use to transmit information to the future change every 2 or 3 years, can we even conceive of passing plans entrusted to fragile parchment across more than 400?
However, the questions that most intrigue me relate to the mason who laid the stones in front of me—perhaps a hundred years after construction began. Even if he began as an apprentice and spent the entirety of his life dedicated to the completion of this monument to his creator, it would have risen only a few meters as he lay on his deathbed. He woke every morning, and invested all of himself for his entire life, inspired only by a vision of this gift to generations so distant their lives were simply unimaginable? Would any of us be willing to toil for our entire lives on a project begun by our great, great, great, great, great grandparents, which will not be completed before the birth of our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren?
In an ironic coincidence, I began reading Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch before we began our two week pilgrimage. As MacCulloch relates the history and derivation of the Christian faith, he touches on the origin, meaning and symbolism of the world’s great cathedrals. As I read MacCulloch’s words and chapters, and stroll the masons’ nave and aisles, I am struck by the juxtaposition of the creation of a cathedral and the formation of humankind’s great wisdom traditions. Each is a gift from the past, built from seemingly infinite, small, often courageous contributions by mostly anonymous individuals.
I am left to imagine generations 600 years hence. What will they come to know of us? What messages will we have left behind that speak of our visions and passions? Are we building any edifice—with the bricks we lay or the wisdom we formulate—that will invite them into a feeling of awe? Then the final questions emerge: What have I done, what will I do today, and to what will I dedicate my remaining days to help craft a message of wisdom, grace and beauty to be left for my great, great, great, great, great grandchildren? The masons of the 15th century had answers we may have forgotten.