Friday, March 20, 2009

A visit to the Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Quite a long time ago, when I was still in seminary, I was invited out to Philadelphia for the wedding of a good friends from college. The marriage took place at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, in the town of the same name, just outside of the city. I don't remember much from the wedding day other than the beauty of the space, the wonderful celebration of the wedding and the graciousness of his wife-to-be's family in welcoming an obtuse Episcopal seminarian to the ceremony. As Laura and I prepare to leave the area, we are trying to take the opportunity to see some of the things we never had time to partake of during my tenure in Solebury. One of those was a visit to the Cathedral. I wanted to go back for another look as a priest...and I wanted her to have the opportunity to see such a beautiful sight and monument to God.

The Cathedral is the center of the New Church, believers who follow the teachings of the Swedish philosopher Emmanuel Swendenborg, sort of a "third revelation" that takes his writings and meditations as an expository coda to the Hebrew Scriptures and the Books of the New Testament. Their position is that the world is operative on two planes (my interpretation), and that the first, the Natural, is where humanity dwells for the most part. God desires us to move to the Spiritual. This requires a willingness to look beyond the natural and into what God intends and reveals to us in the spiritual realms.

What makes this significant is the way the denomination (they are adamant that they are not a sect or a separate religion), approaches life from both a practical and aesthetic perspective. Practically, they spend a great deal of time in study, reflection and prayer. Understanding the spiritual world via the teachings of Swedenborg and applying those learnings to life is paramount. You can truly see this reflected in the design of the Cathedral. Every element of the space is created by the hand of donor, architect and craftsman with intention and in line with Swedenborg's perspective on life, religion and God.

For instance, there are no right angles or truly plumb lines in the Cathedral. There aren't in nature, so why impose that restriction on a human construction? There are no two elements in the Cathedral that are the same. Every fixture, every doorknob, is unique. Again, just as no two snowflakes are the same, why should humans impose symmetry on a system God has already intended?

What this creates for the visitor is an experience of entering a place of worship that is utterly conformed to providing the perspective of the spiritual witness of the community. Continuity with the past, commitment to understanding God's creation and intent and a deep love of simply being together in a sacred space determine this building's shape and use.

The best part was receiving a tour, and the hospitality, of the guide, Peter, on our visit. It truly felt like he stepped up and out of his way to make us feel welcomed...and he expressed real enthusiasm for sharing his community's experience of God.

A great interlude in a busy life.

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