Finding magic in the cathedral

Published September 1, 1999

‘le chateau, Opa!’

EMMA AND I were walking in the park by Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina, and she pointed to the towers of the cathedral, tall twin spires that mark the western skyline of the city, and said in French, her first language, “Look at the castle, Grandpa!”

My first reaction, as an adult speaking with a three-year old, was to correct her. “Emma, ma chare, ce n’est pas un chateau, c’est une cathédrale.” But I decided against that, and she and I and Grandma walked on to the swings and the slides, our real goal.

[ Michael Peers ]

Later in the day I began to think about the perception that a church could be mistaken for a castle. Certainly many medieval cathedrals dominated their surroundings as formidably as any castle could. Built of stone, when most houses were built of wood or even less substantial materials, they communicated that domination by outward appearance.

And, I further ruminated, what was true of the building could be true of its occupant. The castle had its lord; so did the cathedral. Lords temporal and lords spiritual, as they say in England to this day. But not only England. I have attended the consecration of a newly-built African cathedral where the bishop’s “throne” was high up the east wall, facing the people, more than a dozen steps higher.

I recalled a conversation with another primate about the problem of trumpets at installations of bishops. Trumpet music is inspiring in a very special way, but used misguidedly it can communicate a message about leadership that runs absolutely contrary to Jesus’ words on the subject, words about servanthood and friendship.

I recall the Episcopal ordination of a friend where the sermon was all about servant ministry (the message that the bishop-elect wanted to communicate), but the music conveyed a different message, and so strongly that the headline in the newspaper the next day read “Drums Roll as Prince of Church Crowned”.

Emma’s simple comment led me down all these historical, theological and ecclesiological paths. But those paths led me away from what was my first concern – Emma.

Emma has never seen a castle in her life, and even though she goes to a cathedral (the other cathedral in Regina) she would have little idea what the word means.

So when she says “Le chateau, Opa!” what is on her mind?

In fact, she knows more about castles and princes and princesses than I do; she knows it from fairy tales. Not the Grimm versions that were read to me, but the fairy tales of this age: videos.

How do you recognize a castle in “Snow White” or “La Sirane?” Because it has towers! All the castles on the videos have towers.

So when Emma sees Holy Rosary she knows from the towers that it’s not a house, it’s a castle, a place of magic and fascination.

So, however lofty and erudite my theological reflection about castles and cathedrals, my prayer is that Emma’s cathedral (and every church) will be where children, and all people of childlike faith, can find magic. Not the magic of flimflam or manipulation or deceit, but of expectation, enchantment, engagement and transformation. Transfiguration, even!

“Le chateau, Opa!”

“Oui, Emma, le chateau!”

Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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