The United States is a big country. The continental portion (that is, excluding Hawaii and Alaska), stretches over three thousand miles. This means that to get anywhere interesting or remotely different from your own neighborhood stomping grounds, it is necessary to travel a significant distance by car or plane. Needless to say, I was struck with the boundless possibility for adventure when I discovered the compact scale of the British Isles. Living in a place like Scotland, one can travel to a variety of wild and different cities and landscapes, all in less than a day’s journey. That is precisely what Lizzy and I decided to take advantage of this past weekend. With “the world as our oyster” we set out to spend a couple days in York, England.
Within minutes of alighting from the train in York, we found ourselves walking on the medieval wall that still surrounds the city and gazing at the most stunning building I have ever beheld. York Minster Cathedral, with its soaring Gothic towers, arcaded stained-glass windows, and gleaming white stone is truly an unparalleled sight. This wonder of craftsmanship looms over the city and dominates the skyline.
The Humanities 203 class at Geneva College talks about Gothic architecture and how builders liked to utilize color and light for dramatic and religious effect. The huge windows were intended to catch the sun, brightening what had previously been dark, vaulted, stone interiors. The result was supposed to be conducive to illumination – both literal and spiritual. Walking into York Minster, this fact from a previous class came immediately to mind. And I must say, if that was the intent, the builders certainly succeeded. I do not think I have ever beheld such a magnificent interior space. So much stone and yet the entire thing was bathed in light and color. One cannot help being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the place, almost a quarter mile in length from end to end. A Christian place of worship of some kind has stood on the location for well over 1200 years. With its importance to Christianity in Britain, York Minster is almost as much a testament to the English monarchy as it is to the Church. Statues of kings from William the Conqueror to Henry VI cross the central nave. Political symbolism is as prolific as Christian symbolism in the windows and ceilings. Personally, my favorite space in the building has to be the Chapter House. It is an octagon-shaped chamber with seven sides consisting of soaring stained-glass windows and a massive domed ceiling. It was used by the Parliament of King Edward I in 1297. The sheer beauty of the place left me speechless, and I was not the only one. There was not a sound to be heard among the people gazing up and around; occasionally there was a gasp of awe, but for the most part nobody said anything. What could have been said that would not have diminished the moment?
As I was caught up in all of this, I sat down to think. This marvelous work of art and craftsmanship was having the effect on me that Gothic design was intended to have on the beholder. I wondered for a time: “Is this a good thing? Surely, God has granted so many gifts and skills to men. And over a period of centuries, they used them here to build a house of worship.” Then I studied the windows more closely. The late Gothic period windows in the other portions of the church were full of images and icons, likenesses of historical and Biblical figures at an almost alarming scale. A worshipper would come into the church and be practically assaulted with that which is not Biblically lawful in worship. Instead of having his/her attention oriented towards God, it is oriented around them on all sides to the men from the past staring down at them. A sign by a display of candles implores visitors “To light a candle is to say a prayer.” But it’s not! I then wondered, how did an attendee here know if what they were really worshipping was actually the True and Living God?! I left York Minster awed by artistic and historical splendor, but theologically confused.
I think it is important to be awed by things occasionally. These experiences remind us how small we are in the grand scheme of events, and how infinitesimal our trivial problems are. However, it is important to exercise caution about what we are awed about. As Christians, we need to be sure that whatever it is, it is reminding us of how small we are compared to how big God is. He is the One who truly deserves our awe and worship. When the Object of our worship is correct, a small country church is just as effective as a soaring Cathedral. The small-but-stately, post-Reformation Lyne Kirk in the Scottish Borders area can be just as awe-inspiring as York Minster itself. It is the awareness of our condition before a Mighty God that should fill us with humility and gratitude.
Psalm 107:8 “Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man.”
Lauren Della Piazza