It was in late December of last year that I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for the first time. It was a cold, wet evening, alternating between rain and flurries of snow, and a friend and I had gone downtown to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. But the cathedral was on the way, and we could not pass up the chance to see another Manhattan landmark.
The change in the atmosphere was noticeable as soon as we passed through the massive bronze doors. Outside on Fifth Avenue was a typical Manhattan winter night: snowflakes swirling through the air, hundreds of pedestrians heading in both directions beneath the eaves of buildings, long lines of cars whose headlights and brake lights blended with the traffic lights into a sea of blurred red and white glow, the background noise of the city.
Inside the cathedral, however, the air was solemn, still. A central aisle ran the entire length of the cathedral to the altar, where an intricate arch rose like an eruption of gold. Dozens of rows of wooden pews lined either side of the aisle; despite the late hour, many of them were filled with people, and many more crowded around the perimeter of the nave.
But by far the most striking feature, as with most cathedrals I have visited, was the sense of space. Two rows of carved stone pillars rose in graceful arches to support an enormous vaulted ceiling high overhead. In that soaring space, every footstep, every whisper seemed to become multiplied, blending together into a soft white noise that reverberated in the air. The vast scale, the towering space overhead, very effectively conveyed the message of being in the presence of something larger than any individual.
Along with many other visitors and sightseers, I indulged my curiosity and circulated around the perimeter of the cathedral. Set into the walls of the nave, beneath giant stained-glass windows, were niches containing statues of saints. The saints’ alcoves were enclosed by racks of small votive candles; at one of them, I saw an elderly man drop some coins into the heavy donation box, then take a slender wooden stick from a jar of sand, hold it in the flame of one of the lit candles, and use it to kindle one of his own.
At the far end of the cathedral, to one side of the altar, was a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a small florist’s shop worth of bouquets. Some were fresh and bright, others drooping and faded. Most of the people in the first few rows of pews by this statue seemed to be deep in prayer. Several rows back, a man with straggly gray hair and a battered coat sat slumped over, apparently asleep rather than praying. There was a foul odor in the air around him, the stink of long-unwashed skin; I guessed he was homeless. No one seemed to be bothering him, though no one sat near him either.
Despite everything else I saw, my mind kept returning to the hugeness of it all. The effort that went into building this place must have been staggering, especially considering that St. Patrick’s was built in the late 1800s, before modern technology. To plan every intricate detail, to quarry and carve and transport the stone, to erect the structure, to create the magnificent stained-glass windows, all must have taken unimaginable labor and dedication. Only a truly genuine devotion could have compelled the architects and the builders.
But then again, St. Patrick’s, beautiful as it is, is hardly unique in that respect. Every human culture has been inspired, often by religion, to create works of enormous scale and majesty. The Pyramids of Egypt, built to entomb deceased god-kings, the massive and enigmatic stone heads of Easter Island, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the giant stone Buddhas of Afghanistan tragically destroyed by the religious fanatics of the Taliban all serve as examples. There is no disputing that religion can be a powerfully uniting force, encouraging people to join together to accomplish mighty things. But we must never forget this impulse toward unity can work terrible evil as well as good, depending on how it is directed.
I do not think it at all strange that I, an atheist, can admire the architecture of a great cathedral, or listen with pleasure to a religious symphony, even though I think the beliefs that inspired them are false. In each case, what I respond to and admire is the human skill and craftsmanship that went into creating these things. Places like St. Patrick’s are part of the human cultural heritage, an enduring witness to long periods of history, and though I think the money and resources that went into building them could have been better spent, now that they exist they should be preserved.
It is unfortunate that we do not make buildings like this anymore. Of course, we still build large structures, but almost invariably we build them because they have to be large, not because they can be. Great size and space can be a matter of aesthetics, not merely of function. The human sense of spirituality, of awe and wonder, is something that goes sadly neglected today, when I believe that it should instead be inspired. That said, it is unfortunate that so many of the achievements that speak to this sense arise from religion. Religious belief inherently divides people from each other, when instead our creations should serve to bring us together and help us remember that we are all related. As beautiful and majestic as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other expressions of the human spirit are, if we were to unite not as Christians or Muslims or atheists but simply as human beings, I believe we could create things far more wonderful.