Religion Today

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Plain Cathedrals

I often visit religious buildings and sacred sites when I travel. On a recent trip to England, I toured the cathedrals at Canterbury and Durham. Canterbury Cathedral has been the premiere cathedral of the English church since the 12th century and the center of the Anglican Church since its founding in the 16th century. Durham may be the most picturesque cathedral in Britain; situated atop a hill in a bend on the river Wear, it dominates the surrounding countryside.
The exterior of each cathedral impresses the viewer with its majesty and the imperial character of its architecture. But upon entering, one is struck with a sense of emptiness. The interiors are quite plain, emphasizing the soaring architecture, but seemingly without further decoration. This is because the present decoration of these buildings results from the transformation of English Christianity from Catholic to Protestant.
The cathedrals of Canterbury and Durham were built about the same time. The present Canterbury cathedral was erected between 1067 and 1077. Durham’s cathedral was begun in 1093 and completed over the next 40 years. Both cathedrals formed the center of a monastery and both contain the tomb of a saint. They, thus, became important pilgrimage destinations. St. Thomas Beckett lies at Canterbury and St. Cuthbert at Durham.
As monastery, pilgrimage center, bishop’s seat and place of worship for the community, each cathedral received a great deal of decoration in the decades and centuries after their construction. Their current plainness is not reflective of their early history.
While we know little about these cathedrals’ furnishings, a comparison with cathedrals that still retain their medieval character is suggestive. The basilicas of Italy, for example, remain ornate. The walls and ceilings of the older basilicas in Rome, for example, are decorated with statuary, carvings and paintings; the Bergamo basilica is covered with paintings and woven tapestries, while the interior of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica is covered with gold mosaics from floor to ceiling. All of these cathedrals have extensive collections of silver and gold candlesticks, offering plates and other liturgical items --often encrusted with valuable jewels.
While it is unlikely there was much gold artwork at Canterbury and Durham, it is likely that they had many paintings, statuary and tapestries, along with many valuable liturgical utensils. In Durham, there are a few shadowy remains of artistic scenes on the wall, indicating it was once covered with large, colorful murals. So, rather than being plain and empty in their early centuries, the Cathedrals of Canterbury and Durham were crowded with artistic and religious items serving the needs of the cathedrals’ varied constituencies.
So, how did these cathedrals become so plain?
In the 1520s, King Henry VIII could not get an heir, and so he asked the Pope to annul his marriage so that he could (hopefully) marry a more fertile woman. The Pope refused. In response, Henry withdrew his country from the Catholic Church in 1534 and created the Church of England, with himself as head. By 1536, Henry realized the enormous wealth the church controlled and began to appropriate it for the crown. In 1538, he ordered St. Thomas’ shrine in Canterbury destroyed and its vast hoard of treasure and gifts confiscated. In 1539, both Canterbury and Durham monasteries, and their cathedrals, were closed. The cathedrals were reestablished in 1541.
Henry’s actions began the despoliation of the two cathedrals and, by the end of the 16th century, most of their medieval furnishings were gone. Anything that remained at Durham into the 17th century was destroyed in 1650 when the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell used the cathedral as a prison for 3,000 Scottish soldiers. Other cathedrals and monasteries across England and Wales were treated similarly.
Although the treatment of these monasteries and cathedrals in Henry’s time, and afterward, was essentially looting, the resulting plain look of the cathedrals fit well with the growing influence of Puritan theology in the now-Protestant Church of England. Puritans desired to “purify” the English church of what they considered to be the mistakes inherited from the Catholic Church. One of these mistakes was the widespread use of art in places of worship, which made them seem “idolatrous,” the Puritans believed. So, once the cathedrals and churches became plain, they were left that way until modern times.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Time: What We Really Believe In

We believe some things that go so deep into our soul and shape our lives so totally that we are not even aware of them. These beliefs are so accepted and so widespread that questioning them would be as unthinkable as questioning the difference between down and up.
Belief is often associated with religion, but these remarks do not refer to religious dogmas, whether Christianity’s focus on Jesus’ offer of salvation, or conservative views that marriage is between a man and a woman, a belief held across many religions.
No, I refer to something even more fundamental, namely, our belief in time and the way it is organized. Every day is divided into 24 hours, each hour consists of 60 minutes and each minute comprises 60 seconds. Every country in the world organizes time this way, not just those in the Americas and Europe.
All of us use timepieces, such as alarm clocks and watches. Our cell phones display the time on their main screens. Time is the same everywhere, tied into a system of time-keeping that provides the correct time for any location around the world. True, there are local differences, but those differences are defined in terms of the one international system of time.
Furthermore, we organize the activities of our lives on this system of time. We wake up, go to school or work, have meals, watch TV and travel according to this pervasive organization of time. So, from shared international time down to the everyday lives of each of us, we all assume and participate in the same belief in time.
It was not always this way.
Early medieval Europe practiced a notion of time passed down for centuries. Monasteries took the lead in tracking the passage of time and marking it. The “hour” indicated a time for offering prayer, for monks to gather and worship God.
But, the “hour” did not consist of 60 minutes; it was not even a fixed length of time. Nor was a “day.”
The term “day” referred to daylight, and was divided into quarters by three “hours:” the third, sixth and ninth hours.
As the length of the day lengthened and shortened, so did the length of the hours. Around the Mediterranean Sea, which is fairly close to the equator, this did not cause much change. But in Europe, the further north one went, the more the hour’s length changed as the seasons passed. The daily passage of time was thus measured by nature, but the purpose of measurement was for prayer.
In the early Middle Ages, clocks as we know them had not yet been invented. Elaborate mechanisms using water or sand rang bells at the key hours to gather the faithful to prayer. There were no clock faces. Time measurement was heard, not seen.
The mechanical clock measuring equal amounts of time was apparently invented in the 13th century. The profession of clock maker is known by the end of the 1200s, and public clocks with faces and hands were installed on the towers of European city halls in the 14th century.
Such cities became a cacophony of bells, with the monasteries and churches ringing the old nature-based time and the city halls ringing the new time of equal measurement. Today, we say “o’clock,” as in three o’clock, which is a shortening of the phrase “of the clock.” It was said to indicate which measurement of time one was using, that is, the new “clock time” rather than the Church’s time.
Why did equal hours and equal measurement of time become so pervasive? Because of employment and loans. Employers needed a consistent length of hour to know how much their employees worked and so how much to pay them. Banks and money-lenders needed dependable and equal measurements of time to determine the length of a loan and, thus, work out how much interest should be charged.
In the end, the needs of industry and finance for equal measurement of time overcame the church’s nature-based time-keeping for prayer. Eventually, the church adopted the business world’s concept of time and, so, it became the fundamental and unquestioned way we organize our lives.
Note: This column draws on the research in Jo Ellen Barnett’s book, “Time’s Pendulum” (1998).

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