If we stop even for a minute and think about what ruined castles and cathedrals might represent to us today, we could easily come up with an metaphorical message that could be spiritualised to mean something that is gospel-centred and Christ-exalting. For example, castles could be portrayed to represent the distant kingdoms of Earth, the limited strength of mankind and the blunt pinnacles of hierarchical societies. Conversely, cathedrals could be portrayed as prophetic structures; as places of sanctuary amidst persecution and timeless houses of worship.
But as we respond to the injection of nostalgia and history that castles and cathedrals give us as we visit them today, what more could we learn about loving God? We were thinking about this when we visited Dunnottar Castle in Scotland recently and were struck by the rich history surrounding this particular ruin standing distinctly on its own naturally-hewn pedestal.
I think Coldplay in their tune Every Teardrop is a Waterfall are pretty close to giving us a decent answer in their verse lyrics,
“Don’t want to see another generation drop I’d rather be a comma than a full stop…But my heart is beating and my pulses start, cathedrals in my heart…”
It would have been an odd lyric if it said ‘castles’ in my heart. That’s because castles represent something entirely different. Dunnottar castle wasn’t built for worship of Jesus; it was built for the Keith family who resided there, occasionally hosting famous skirmishes regarding the Scottish crown jewels and Thomas Cromwell.
Unlike castle ruins, cathedral ruins are more tragic because they were built to facilitate spiritual community and worship of God. The word cathedral refers to the Bishop’s seat of the diocese who acted as the spiritual priest/pastor for the people of the parish in which the cathedral was built. So to see a cathedral in ruins is different from seeing a ruined castle. For example, Elgin cathedral is in ruins and to stroll around the grounds there imagining the vibrant worshipping communities of centuries gone by is a little sad – not at all like seeing the ruins of Dunnottar Castle. Having a cathedral in our heart is very different from having a castle in our heart.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, both for grandeur and for on-going construction, is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Gaudi started work on this little puppy in 1883 and, although a much more modern cathedral, is a classic example of the way cathedrals were meant to last and develop.
Cathedrals were conceived in the mind and heart of the architect who then joined forces with builders to bring the long process of construction into reality. Gaudi knew that he would never see the completion of what was in his heart for the Sagrada Familia and yet he started anyway, continuing until 1926, when he died, with less than a 1/4 of the project complete.
So seeing a castle in ruins is very different to me cf. seeing a cathedral in ruins, and seeing a cathedral in its glory today is very different from a castle in functioning form.
Having a cathedral in our hearts for Jesus means having a vision in our hearts for not only our life-time of worship but for the lineage of our legacy of worship of which we are graced to be apart – that we might conceive of our family members and friends 100 years from now who will be blessed and inspired by the foundations of extravagant prayer and worship for God that are being set into place now by the choices, rhythms and emphases of our lives.
I was at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire not so long ago where I was humbled by a notice in the foyer of the Priory Church which reads,
Ordinary men and women have prayed here for over 800 years, despite the catastrophes of history and the instability of human life. (read the full welcome here)
The fact that the place in which I was standing had been a place of prayer for over 800 years made me want to pray right there, right then. And I think that is the ultimate answer to the question around the differences between ruined castles and cathedrals today and what they can teach us about loving God:- castle ruins, while interesting and historical, weren’t built to be places of sacred worship. When I see a cathedral in glory today, or an ancient church, it reminds me of what was in the heart of the builders all those years ago and it encourages me that I am part of a much bigger lineage of grace and worship today. Cathedrals aren’t ever meant to become a tourist attraction for people to take photographs of ruins and churches today aren’t meant to be turned into chic restaurants.
Let’s have cathedrals of worship and extravagant love for Jesus in our hearts – let’s think big and long-term and live for those we’ll never meet. Jesus did,
“For the joy set before Him He endured the cross.” – Hebrews 12:2