A Thought to Woodrow Wilson on Veterans Day.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day, in the 11th month of 1918, the guns of the Western Front fell silent, and the massive, almost incomprehensible slaughter known as The Great War, “the war to end all wars”, and later as World War One, was over. Over 37 million people, both civilian and combatant, had been killed in a little over four-and-a-half years, and there was, literally, a dark, 430+ mile scar, the Western Front, running through the center of western Europe, from the North Sea to the Swiss border. This date, November 11, is celebrated in many nations as a date of somber remembrance, and in the U.S. we honor all of those who have served our nation in the military services.

As a docent at Washington National Cathedral, this day, almost necessarily, is also a day for honoring President Woodrow Wilson, the man given much credit for the end of the Great War’s carnage. Honored as a great hero by some, and vilified as one of the worst U.S. presidents by almost as many; Wilson was a man of his time, and, given the nature of his time, probably did as well with the circumstances as almost anyone could. His detractors love to point out that he would not even have been the President of the United States, had Theodore Roosevelt not run as a third-party candidate and split the Republican vote. Sour grapes. That sounds like a story about Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Party to me. Time, fate, the American people and God put Thomas Woodrow Wilson in the White House, and I firmly believe he was THE man for the job.

President Woodrow Wilson holding his grandson, Francis Bowes Sayre Jr. Known in the family as “Frank”, the young Sayre would grow up to become Washington National Cathedral’s sixth and longest serving dean.

President Wilson was an intensely intelligent man, and very well spoken. I believe he understood that the people of the world were going to have to start thinking and acting globally, as one, or we might otherwise simply do ourselves in. Following the war, President Wilson destroyed his own health, touring exhaustively to promote ratification of the treaty ending the war and for the formation of the League of Nations, forerunner to the present UN. Despite the fact that it was largely the idea of their own president, the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. Within one year of the armistice, the end of fighting, President Wilson suffered a severe stroke, and his case, as an incapacitated President, was pivotal to the creation of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which sets forth guidelines for such situations.

On February 3, 1924, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States of America, died in his post-Presidency home on S Street, NW, in Washington D.C. While he was to be laid to rest at Washington National Cathedral, President Wilson’s funeral actually took place at his home, before his remains were brought to the cathedral for interment. The only public entrance to the cathedral, at the time, was a door to the first crypt level chapel, Bethlehem Chapel, known as The Way of Peace, and this is how President Wilson’s remains entered the cathedral for the last time. I’ve always felt that was particularly appropriate for the man who was given a lion’s share of the credit for ending The Great War.

Wilson to the Way of Peace

In 1924, the casket and remains of President Woodrow Wilson were brought to what there was of Washington National Cathedral, and interred beneath the only chapel completed at the time. As can be seen, the Cathedral environs were mostly a muddy construction site at the time.

He was laid to rest in the sub-crypt beneath Bethlehem Chapel, which remained his tomb for over 30 years. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, December 28, 1956, President Wilson’s remains were translated to his permanent tomb, on the south side of Washington National Cathedral’s nave, where he is surrounded by images and symbolism from his life, and quotes from his writings and speeches.

The Tomb of President Woodrow Wilson

Located in the south outer aisle of Washington National Cathedral’s nave, President Wilson’s tomb is in about as glorious a setting as that of any U.S. presidential tomb, and the final signature of approval on all art and architecture in the space would have been the signature of President Wilson’s grandson, The Very Reverend Francis Bowes Sayre Jr., dean of Washington National Cathedral at the time the tomb was constructed.

Visited by many, admirers and detractors alike, President Wilson, in his current circumstances, does not lack for company. I often like to spend time at Wilson’s Tomb, praying for the man; son, father, grandfather, educator, President, who God thrust into the gap at one of history’s darkest moments. I pray that he has found the peace that he so fervently desired for the world.

So, today, as we thank our veterans, I also recommend to all a moment of caring and thanks for Thomas Woodrow Wilson, The War and Peace President.

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In Between, with Samuel Yellin

Among the great glories at Washington National Cathedral is one of the most amazing collections of 20th century wrought iron to be found anywhere in the world. That collection is anchored on the incredible work of one Samuel Yellin, considered by many to be among the greatest wrought iron artists in all of human history. Yellin, who lived from 1885-1940, was known in the metalworking industry as “Devil with a hammer”, both for his incredible skill and for his sense of humor. At Washington National Cathedral, Yellin was afforded the opportunities of immense scale and produced many noteworthy works of art. The gates to Holy Spirit Chapel are considered his masterpiece, and, perhaps, the pinnacle of his career. For me, of all Yellin’s work at Washington National Cathedral, my favorite is a screen between St. Mary’s Chapel in the north choir aisle, and Holy Spirit Chapel, situated where the choir meets the north transept. This screen is obscured on the Holy Spirit Chapel side by a hanging tapestry, but is seen from the St. Mary’s Chapel side, backed by the flat, tan backing of the tapestry. It is a design wonder.

The St. Mary’s Chapel screen is simpler, in many ways, than some of the more highly acclaimed Yellin works in the cathedral. While the Holy Spirit Chapel gates, and the gates to Children’s Chapel are marvels of complex, detailed, representative imagery, the St. Mary’s Chapel screen combines simple, bold strokes with a design genius that, for me, rivals the creativity of M.C. Escher. Look briefly at the picture below, and then quickly continue on to the next text.

St. Mary's Chapel screen

St. Mary’s Chapel screen at Washington National Cathedral

When you looked at the picture, what figure did you notice first? Did you see a screen of large, four-leaf clover shapes, or a screen of eight-pointed star shapes? I wonder if we could analyze a person’s personality, based on what they saw first? Anyway… In the visual language of Christian art, the quatrefoil, or four-leafed clover shape, is, of course, representative of the cross, and, therefore, representative of Jesus. The star is an artistic attribute representing Mary, the mother of Jesus; the St. Mary, to whom the chapel is dedicated. In bold iron strokes, the two images interlock in an incredible, one-and-the-same design. The depth of suggestion continues, as, at the heart of each quatrefoil, at each intersection of the larger, grid-like framework, Yellin has placed a decorative, five-pointed star; Mary again, and this time at the heart of the Jesus suggestion. Even further, among the clever artistic references in this incredible screen, is the fact that each of the larger, eight-pointed stars is constructed of four Ms, turned head-in. Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. Awesome.

St. Mary's Chapel screen - stars

Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary

While I am really most amazed by the design in the St. Mary’s Chapel screen grillwork, I must also mention the beautiful flowers and spirals of the decorative, horizontal band that runs across the screen at waist height. The spirals add a delicate counterpoint to the bold strokes of the larger grillwork, and, even as I’m writing and viewing the pictures myself, I see that what seem to be flowers at the ends of the spirals are, more likely, stylized fleur-de-lis, another Christian art attribute commonly referring to Mary.

Fleur-de-lis

Fleur-de-lis?

Among the great glories of Washington National Cathedral, how many people stop to consider this one, seemingly non-descript screen? On the north side of the north choir aisle things can get a little dark, and most passers-by will be understandably distracted by the 500 year-old, David and Goliath tapestries. Nonetheless, in this one architectural device, a screen between two chapels, there is a richness and depth of meaning and detail that speak of faith, of the interconnected-ness of everything, and of the wonder of God to be found in the heart, mind and hands of a profoundly gifted artist. What did you see first, a cross or a star? They’re both always there, come find them for yourself sometime.

St. Mary's Chapel screen - horizontal detail

In between, with Samuel Yellin

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Jamming with Brubeck

If I recall correctly, it happened on a day, about a dozen years ago, when I was taking pictures in the Bishop’s Garden at Washington National Cathedral. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the garden was resplendent in all its blooming glory. As I worked from shot to shot, I began to realize there was music coming from inside the cathedral. It was hard to determine exactly what I was hearing. The music was alternately upbeat and classical, with occasional choral accents and an electrically amplified quality to the sound. Well, I like good music as much as, if not more than, the average person, so it wasn’t long until I headed inside to see what I was hearing.

Climbing the steps of the cathedral’s south transept and entering through the south transept doors, I was greeted by the sight of a large chorus, a small orchestra, several classical vocal soloists and, believe it or not, the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The Dave Brubeck Quarter, with Dave Brubeck in front, and behind, from left-to-right, saxophonist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones.

It turned out the chorus was a combination of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir, the orchestra was the Cathedral Choral Society Orchestra and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was -need I say it again?- THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET!

This incredible collection of performers quickly explained the combination of musical sounds I’d been hearing outside. It turns out the whole ensemble was rehearsing Mr. Brubeck’s Mass, To Hope! A Celebration for a performance later that evening, and, with the cathedral’s south transept completely empty, I got a front row seat.

Brubeck To Hope cover at 105

The cover of To Hope! A Celebration, features a photo of Washington National Cathedral.

The rehearsal was fascinating, and the music incredible. Then they came to “All My Hope”, a raucous and rousing piece of music near the end of the Mass. I really can’t say enough about this wonderful piece of music; it swings, it rocks, and it jams. The simple lyric speaks to me intensely, and it has become one of my favorite pieces of religious music, of all time.

“All my hope is in you, O Lord, You are my rock and my strength. Hope in darkness, my hope in light. You are my rock and my strength.

You are my rock! You are my strength!

My hope, my light, my peace, my joy, my faith, my God everlasting. You are my rock and my strength.”

I had heard Mr. Brubeck perform the same piece at the Cathedral years earlier, and who knows why I didn’t realize just how wonderful it was then? Maybe it was because I was on a date. Maybe it was because I was listening from a seat high in the west balcony, the full length of the nave away from the action, or maybe I just wasn’t ready to realize. This time, however, I got it.

Anyway, the middle section of “All My Hope” is a real jazz rocker, with a completely absorbing swing beat that reached right out and grabbed the drummer in me. Okay… Admitting to air-drumming is embarrassing, but I admit it. There I was, in the front row of the south transept of Washington National Cathedral, sitting alone at the front of an empty section of seats, just a few feet from Dave Brubeck and his quartet, and I got so swept away by the rhythm of this song, I un-self-consciously started air-drumming along. Well, after a few moments, Randy Jones, the quartet’s drummer took notice of my passionate pantomime, and, as we made eye-contact, began to smile. Unabashed by his display of amusement, I locked eyes with him and continued to drum along. Then, to let him know I might actually know a little about drumming, I threw a couple of syncopated air-drum accents at him. Mr. Jones laughed, and, nodding his head first, mimicked my air accents, but actually drumming the same beats back at me. Then it got way better.

While all this was setting up, Dave Brubeck had his head down over the keyboard, on the opposite side of the stage, with the big grand piano between he and I. Suddenly, when he heard Jones shoot in a couple of unanticipated accents on the drums, his head popped up from behind the piano, to see what was going on. From there it all happened so fast, it’s hard to describe in sequential detail, but looking at Jones, Mr. Brubeck saw Jones was looking at me, and suddenly the three of us were connected. I was air-drumming, Randy Jones was laughing, and a very entertained Dave Brubeck really started jamming. The result was a prolonged and unscheduled jam session that eventually had conductor Russell Gloyd completely lost and tossing his copy of the score into the air. In time, Brubeck pounded on the notes that would bring the whole party back to what was scored, and that particular run-through of “All My Hope” ended in laughter.

During the next break in the rehearsal, I took the opportunity to meet Mr. Brubeck and Mr. Jones and to thank them for bringing themselves and their incredible talents to the cathedral and to the world. It was another moment I knew I’d never forget, as Mr. Brubeck shook my hand and acknowledged the contribution I’d just made to the afternoon’s proceedings. He was so kind, a pure gentleman.

This morning, just one day short of his 92nd birthday, Dave Brubeck, jazz legend and consummate human, passed away at Norwalk Hospital, not far from his home in Wilton, Connecticut. He was a deeply religious man, a humble servant of God, and one of the most important musicians and composers of the twentieth century. His life was long and his contributions to the sheer joy of humankind are too many to be counted. However, in leaving us, today he took one step closer to the God he loved. As for me, I’ll always have his wonderful music and will never forget the afternoon I jammed with Dave Brubeck.

Dave BrubeckDecember 6, 1920 - December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck
December 6, 1920 – December 5, 2012

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A Catalog of States

One can never know the manner by which Washington National Cathedral might affect someone, or to what degree. As many who know me well will attest, I am always completely willing to walk up to a Cathedral visitor and simply start talking about the Cathedral. Perhaps it’s a “sidle”, I don’t k now. That word has earned a bad reputation because of an episode of Seinfeld, where the sidler-in-question was also someone who was routinely stealing credit for work done by the character Elaine. Sidling at the Cathedral is simple. One need only notice that a visitor has focused on something particular in the building and then move closer and say something like “Interesting, huh?”. Anyway, I’ve made many good friends this way, and in almost every case it seems the visitor walks away feeling as if they’ve come to know something special about the Cathedral, and more closely connected to the Cathedral experience.

On one particular day, I noticed a man perusing the seals of our 50 states, which are set into the floor of the Cathedral’s narthex (front hall). Often, surrounded by 50, often complex, heraldric seals, and not recognizing the pattern or order in which they are set, a visitor can have difficulty finding the seal of their own state. Well, on this day, as I so often do, I walked up to this gentleman and asked, “What’s your state?”

A portion of Washington National Cathedral’s narthex floor.

He looked up, and with a noticeable Middle Eastern accent replied, “I don’t have a state. I was not born here.”

“Oh, then…” I asked, “You’re not an American?”

“No,” he told me, “but I am becoming a citizen.”

“That’s wonderful.” I noted. “How lucky you are. As a new American, you could choose to be from whatever state you’d like. Look here! Just think of this floor as a catalog. Pick any state you’d like.” Seemingly entertained and amused by the concept, he started concentrating on the seals again, but this time with an enhanced intensity. At the same time, I also turned my focus to the seals in the floor, wondering what I might suggest to him. Before long though, he stopped and focused on a particular seal.

Pointing to a seal that had attracted his attention, he asked, “What is this? Tell me about this.”

Moving across the room, I said, “Oh, that’s Virginia.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well,” I replied, “this woman, standing, represents Freedom. She stands upright, with her sword sheathed, her spear to the ground, and her foot placed firmly on the chest of a king that she has defeated. See here? You can see where the defeated king’s crown has rolled away. Then, this here,” I continued, “is the state’s motto. “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. That’s Latin. It means, Thus Always with Tyrants; that this is what should always happen to tyrannical leaders.”

I’d never studied the Seal of Virginia, and I realized many years later, I’d not got it entirely correct, but the gist was accurate. It turns out the woman is not Freedom, but Virtus, representing the genius of the Commonwealth, and the king is actually Tyranny personified. Otherwise, I had the message of the image, and how it ties to the motto, correct.

I looked back up at the man, whose eyes were still on the seal, and noticed that he had teared-up, and the tears were beginning to roll down his cheeks. Finally looking up to meet my gaze, he was unabashed by his emotional reaction. With an intensity that seems to come only from a sudden emotional commitment, he looked back at me and said, “Then today it is decided. I am from Virginia.”

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Filed under Something Spiritual, The Architecture of Washington National Cathedral, The Art of Washington National Cathedral, Thoughts on the Cathedral

New “About Me” Page

I know it’s a little mundane and self-serving, but I have added an “About Me” Page to this blog. Actually, the page is about me and this blog. It may provide a little insight into my personal connection to the Cathedral, and a slightly clearer definition of why I created this blog. You’ll find the page listed in the list of Pages, directly below the big “Andy’s Big Church Blog”, near the top of this page. I’ll also put a link at the bottom of this post. If you take the time to read it, I hope you find something interesting there. Thanks.

http://reallybigchurch.wordpress.com/about-andy-and-his-big-church-blog/

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Big Church – Big Miracle

The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as Washington National Cathedral, was built in Washington DC, between the years from September of 1907 to September, 1990. It was built as the seat of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Washington, as the seat of the Protestant Episcopal denomination in America, as a spiritual home for the United States of America, and as a house of prayer for all people.

The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul

Washington National Cathedral

In my opinion, Washington National Cathedral is among the most significant accomplishments of 20th century mankind. I have a list of three. We went to the moon, we split the atom, and we built Washington National Cathedral. Perhaps such comparisons will seem absurd, at first, but bear with me. I’ll explain.

Upon its completion, Washington National Cathedral underwent a 10 year, exhaustive, electronic study, detailing its relationship with the ground beneath, and its movement as a massive, monumental, masonry structure. It is the largest completed masonry structure on the North American continent. That is to say, it was constructed entirely without the use of structural steel. It is approximately 150,000 tons of Indiana limestone, milled or handcarved, and wrapped around a brick core. Masonry structures, particularly very large ones, move. They move with the settlement of the earth below, and they move constantly as they are heated and cooled. Washington National Cathedral moves at the affect of the temperature changes that come with the changing of the seasons, as well as daily movement as the sun moves across the sky. As the building was completed in 1990, it became the focus of a team of structural engineering experts, geophysicists, and other specialists, as an opportunity to detail the physical facts of a very large, new, masonry building. The general finding of this study was, as long as Washington National Cathedral is not knocked down by earthquakes or by humankind, it should stand for the better part of the next two millennia. I ask the reader, what is the second beautiful building, built entirely within the period of the 20th century, that is likely to last 1500 to 2000 years?

When we consider the monumental Gothic structures of Europe, mostly built between the years 1200 to 1400, it seems to be the engineering that amazes us. As people of the 20th and 21st centuries, we are amazed that someone in the 13th century managed to raise such heavy stonework so high in the air. “They got that 5 ton stone 300 feet in the air how? A treadmill crane… What the heck is a treadmill crane?”

Washington National Cathedral and its crane in the late 1980s.

As modern people, the sight of very large, highly-powered construction cranes is commonplace; allowing us to discount, at some level, the construction work at Washington National Cathedral. The real answer, as to how the medieval Europeans built their big churches, is manpower. During the European medieval era, the people with the skills to build the great Gothic cathedrals were found throughout northwestern Europe. Every major city seemed to have built at least one of these great churches, and sometimes, some cities would have several secondary or lesser Gothic style churches, which were built during the medieval-era, as well. The masons, the stone carvers, the blacksmiths, the glass artists, the woodcarvers, and the experienced labor, were everywhere to be found. This is where I find Washington National Cathedral so amazing. As amazing, if not more amazing, than the ancient cathedrals. As 20th century behavior, the building of Washington National Cathedral was freakish. Building structures like Washington National Cathedral just wasn’t what 20th century people tended to be doing with their time.

For me, the miracle that is Washington National Cathedral begins with the very fact that someone in the 20th century even chose to embark upon such a project. It continues, with the unlikelihood that anyone would be able to convene a team capable of building such a structure, during the 20th century. Very few people would argue it is the most incredible collection of 20th century carved stone anywhere in the world, the most incredible collection of 20th century stained glass anywhere in the world, the most incredible collection of 20th century wrought-iron anywhere in the world, and the most incredible collection of 20th century needlepoint anywhere in the world. I believe it is likely to be considered, eventually, one of the great wonders of the architectural world, and that it was accomplished by 20th century mankind, in my opinion, renders it as improbable as its ancient siblings, if not more.

I believe Washington National Cathedral could very well be the longest lasting beauty mark 20th century mankind leaves on the planet, and for me, that, in itself, is profound. In a place like Washington National Cathedral even time becomes spiritual. Can we even imagine the perspective of those who might visit our great church in 1000 years? 2000 years? I think the only way we can even come close, is to carefully regard the way we look at the ancient European cathedrals.

I believe there could come a day, let’s just say in the year 3612, when a tour guide will stand in front of Washington National Cathedral and tell his or her group, “Washington National Cathedral was built by 20th century man.” As I consider that, I cannot imagine the guide will add, “…excluding Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Iran.” Such a thought makes me wonder about “God’s time”, a suggestion that beyond this mortal coil, time needn’t be linear and sequential; that God sees and knows all. In a turn-of-phrase that is almost Buddhist… that everything always already is.  If this is the case, and if someone deep into Washington National Cathedral’s future simply sees 20th century mankind as a united whole, then it already is so. Perhaps I’m wrong, or perhaps we’re simply too close to see it, but perhaps 20th century mankind is healed on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, and we don’t even know it.

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