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The Cathedral Beyond the Forest (A Dream)

The Cathedral Beyond the Forest (A Dream) September 20, 2021

Last night I had this dream:

Fran and I were visiting friends who had a beautiful house out in the woods. The house was covered with natural wood paneling that hadn’t been painted, maybe only varnished, so the beauty of the wood was apparent. The house was surrounded on all sides by woods, like my old house north of Monteagle where I lived from 1990 to 1993. I don’t know who lived there, but they were friends. Fran and I were staying in a guest room that had windows that looked out into the beautiful forest. The dream didn’t really follow a narrative, just had some vivid images: the exterior of this rustic house; the interior of the bedroom, the dinner table prior to people being seated (a large table set for a number of people, but with two beautiful black cats, like Pete and Mama, lounging around on the table), and being outside and listening to the carillon of the cathedral — presumably Washington National Cathedral. You could clearly hear the bells of the cathedral through the woods. I was talking to somebody, not sure if it was the host or another guest, and saying how much I loved this place because it was immersed in the woods, and in yet the direction to which our bedroom window looked (I think it was north), beyond the woods, was the cathedral. At one point I was standing with the host and a few other people by a truck or jeep along the road — it wasn’t paved, just a small road through the woods — as we listened to the bells of the cathedral; then we were standing just outside the house by the edge of the forest. Another one of the guests was telling us that deep in the forest was a village; I’m not sure if it were abandoned or not; but perhaps not because the person discouraged us from trying to visit it. He made it sound like the inhabitants of the village were suspicious of strangers, “Not quite civilized” I suggested, and he nodded. So it wasn’t safe to go gawk at them like tourists, even though many people had done that over the years.

It wasn’t the most vivid dream I’ve ever had, or even the most “spiritual” — I’ve had dreams about waterfalls, or paragliders (see page 187 of Eternal Heart), or the end of the world, or even hotel lobbies, that had a more visceral feeling of Divine presence than this dream. But even so, I woke up after this dream and felt a desire not only to log it in my dream journal, but now to blog about it.

On one level it is a simple dream about hospitality: visiting friends, enjoying their company, savoring their beautiful home in the woods, preparing to break bread together (cats and all). Even a warning to stay away from a hidden place where hospitality is missing. Hospitality is such a core spiritual value, not only for Christians but for all the great spiritual and wisdom traditions — think of Abraham bending over backwards to offer hospitality to the three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-8) or the importance of hospitality in the Celtic tradition.

National Cathedral, Washington DC (image credit: shutter stock)

I think what moved me about this dream was this idea of the cathedral and the forest.

You see, in this dream, the “where” of the hospitality is just as important. The house is nestled in a forest, and of course it looked like the kind of forest you would find in Virginia or Georgia, where I have lived most of my life: a combination of pine and hardwoods, shady and inviting. The woodlands itself seemed so peaceful and inviting, although a person who knew the forest better than I did warned us that there were places considered dangerous within them (the forbidden forest: such an archetype). Yet just beyond the first — not within it, but beyond it — a place of great cultural beauty and worship: a cathedral. And while I love both the Catholic and Episcopal Cathedrals here in Atlanta, my “dream cathedral” is one of the largest and most architecturally splendid churches in North America: the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington DC, known as the National Cathedral (clearly playing fast and loose with “separation of church and state” there). When I became an Episcopalian in 1986, I was confirmed in the National Cathedral — a slap on my cheek and all. So it is a church with a place in my heart, even after I swam across the Tiber in 2005.

The dream doesn’t say if the cathedral is in the middle of a large city, like it is in actuality; I don’t know if the forest of my dreams is surrounded by the city, or the city by the forest, or if there is some sort of equilibrium between the two. As I speculate on this here in waking consciousness, I rather prefer the equilibrium idea. In chapter one of Eternal Heart, I quote a number of mystics (from Benedict to Julian of Norwich to Ignatius of Loyola, and beyond) who all teach that God is everywhere, so the contemplative life is about learning to find, or “behold” God in all things. This is an important principle for my own spiritual life. I grew up in a household that, so like many culturally Christian families, operated under the assumption that you had to go to church to find God. But even then, my father taught me a deep love of the woods, the forest, conservation. He knew, on an intuitive level I believe, that God comes to us in the woods as surely as in church — just as you could say God comes to us just as surely in the cathedral as in the forest.

It’s all good, it’s all an icon of the Divine. We need to learn to see, to notice, to be aware. Perhaps it is easiest to find God in the church and the forest — not “or” but “and” — when we do the essential contemplative work of learning to recognize the Divine Presence in our hearts. Meet God in your heart, and you will recognize God’s presence, whether among the trees, or the stained glass, or even the hidden places in your life where people don’t practice hospitality. You can bring the hospitality in to them.


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