The National Cathedral in Reykjavík is a modest edifice, as far as cathedrals go, and despite the fact that I’ve passed by it at least a hundred times on my visits to Iceland, I had never stepped inside—until last month.
I’m not entirely sure why. I have ventured inside dozens of other churches in the country, although most of those either had some connection to my own family or some connection to other emigrants to North America. And like many visitors to Iceland, I’ve ascended the tower of Hallgrímskirkja (which many mistakenly assume to be the cathedral) to experience its breathtaking views of the city and surrounding countryside. Still, I would have thought that historical curiosity might have led me through the cathedral doors before last month, if nothing else.
As I think about it, I suppose I had never entered the National Cathedral because the heavy wooden front doors don’t exactly say, “Come in!” I’ve never stepped inside the Parliament House next door, either—for much the same reason—notwithstanding the fact that I’m almost as passionate about politics as I am about religion. Unlike the inviting, glassed-in entryways to retail stores and restaurants, the solemn doorways to the cathedral and parliament house seem to say, “Enter cautiously but only if you have business here.” This isn’t a criticism; it’s just an observation.
On my last day in Reykjavík this year, I was walking toward the old city cemetery for my ritual visit with the ancestors, both familial and spiritual. As I turned the corner by the cathedral, I noticed the door ajar and I could hear the faint strains of organ music escaping to the street. It was Friday afternoon and, as far as I could tell, nothing formal was happening in the cathedral. So I poked my nose through the door.
Upon seeing me, the custodian rested her mop and beckoned me to come in. As I entered the nave, the music became clearer. The organist was practicing and the building was filled with The Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love.” There were a handful of other people inside and, as time went on, I noticed we were all softly singing along with the organ. Our hearts and voices were one.
Open doors and the gospel of love: that’s most of what a spiritual community really needs to thrive. It’s mostly what individuals really need to feel welcome and valued. Nestled in a beautiful place—a shrine, whether indoors or out; surrounded by companionable souls, even though strangers; inspired by a message of love, however simple and whatever the source; moved to sing familiar songs, both sacred and secular—in such circumstances the human spirit soars, our shyness dissolves, everyday cares are transcended, and we experience ourselves as one with the interconnected web of life.