Sunday, August 15, 2004

Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Halfway, stands a church
Large scraggy walls,
Imposing façade,
A bell tower that would do
Nebuchadnezzar proud.
I like to run my finger
Across the wrinkled stone.
Resting my cheek
Against the cool wall,
Smelling the wetness,
Communing to the soul
Of the stone.
I am petrified!

(-from God’s House on King)

I wrote that on a wet afternoon in late fall standing across from the church on King Ave in Columbus many years ago.

I've always liked the vast quietness of old churches and cathedrals. I like the silence and peace insulated from the noise and misery of the world outside. I like the hushed footfalls that echo in the haloed gloom and how whispers amplify themselves within the stone walls. I like to look up to the feathery heights of the vaulted ceiling, supported by carved wooden beams— airy, yet enduring. I like the way the light dribbles through the thick, plain glass wrought high above in myriad petals, and yet how it transforms the coloured panes into a radiant screen.

I scarcely pass by an opportunity to visit an old church. I am not into flashy monstrosities that are filled with people. I prefer the quiet ones trod by few feet. My favourite is the old cathedral in Exeter in the South of England. Though, my fondness has grown in recent years for one not far from where I live these days.

Stumbling across the cathedral was a stroke of luck. I was hunting covered bridges in Montgomery and Bucks counties a few years ago. It was one of those quaint projects I assign myself from time to time. I was driving across Bryn Athyn when I saw the spire rise over the treetops. I was smitten.

I remember the first visit, my footfalls softly echoing as I crossed the length of the church and towards the altar. At the far end, the chancel was cast in a purple haze created by daylight filtering through red and blue stained-glass windows. Later, as I sat and listened, an old chant rose from a side chapel where a priest was saying mass. It punctuated the silence, emphasizing the solemnity of reverence and glory.

Bryn Aythn (Welsh for Hill of Cohesion) Cathedral is built in the Gothic-Romanesque style. Work started in 1913 and it took more than 30 years to complete. When the project was completed, the Great Depression was still raging and the principal patron, John Pitcairn, I am told, commissioned the Glencairn House next door just to keep the workers employed. That is a beautiful edifice too. Its quaint charm heightened by a cloistered garden with a Moorish fountain set in the center and a Julietesque balcony overlooking it.

I have come back many times to walk the grounds and the surrounding landscape, which is almost as beautiful as the cathedral itself. And I try to bring back as many people as possible to its joys.