Friday, August 19, 2011

The Beautiful Hag

Cathedrals have always been a sketchy point for me. From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, as someone who builds things, I think most are beautiful and amazing. As a christian constantly bothered by the Church's eagerness to squander and misuse funds, especially in times of poverty, famine, and disease, the massive expense to build and maintain cathedrals bothers me.

As cool as they are, there's never been a time when building, or maintaining, a massive or simply beautiful structure made more sense than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching the gospel, etc. I'm glad several existing cathedrals are put to use, benefit communities, or are re-purposed, but many more aren't. I'm not even going to start on the mega-church construction projects that make as much sense as gold-plating a whorehouse crapper. Not that I have strong opinions on the topic.

All that brings me to earlier this week when I spent 3 days in Istanbul staring at, and being amazed by, the Hagia Sophia and another half dozen mosques/buildings. The Hagia was built over a thousand years ago and was the cherry of the Orthodox Church. 450 years later the Muslims inherited it and turned it into one of the most amazing Mosques ever entered. 450 year later it was again transformed, this time into a museum. I'm thrilled it exists, love the history of it, and grateful I got to see and walk through it. A friend who knew I would be there and asked me to say a prayer for him while there. Filled with awe, and meditating on the history and lives that passed through those walls, I was a bit choked up and felt super spiritual reflective-ish... right up until I started to pray.

For my money the Hagia Sophia is the most interesting, beautiful, awe inspiring cathedral I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. It represents the pinnacle of ancient human construction and was meant to glorify God, or at least the Church. Walking into it causes an emotional response similar to staring at the Grand Canyon or absorbing Yosemite Valley. Unexpectedly, this response dissipated as soon as I started to pray. God wasn't in the building, as amazing as it was. The building, historically and visually overwhelming, was insignificant next to a simple, almost passive, interaction with God. It wasn't even a "spiritually emotive" or "power" prayer, it was a simple moment tentatively focused on God, and the best temple we had to offer stood pale and tragic beside it.

I get why icons and church buildings matter, I even understand how they can be useful sometimes, but if we think they add to God, or our experience with Him, in any significant way, I'm left wondering if we've even seen God.