The Cathedral and the Compass Rose

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Richard Helmer

Several weeks ago, with a group of youth pilgrims from my parish, I visited The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City for their Nightwatch program. The time there became for me a spiritual journey through the heart of what it means to be a musician, a priest, an Anglican, and a Christian — all writ large in the great hand-hewn stones of the partially completed Cathedral.

The nave was still blocked off, the organ pipe framework still empty as the clean-up continued from the fire that devastated the Cathedral in 2001 shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center. The state of things seemed to me a metaphor for the great fires in the world and the Communion since that time: the blow-ups between bishops and archbishops, the painful breaks and terrible rhetoric. And all the while the globe saw another war, genocide in new places, and fear rose again to prominence in the hearts and rhetoric of many. But somehow, life at St. John the Divine had continued like it had for so many of us in the Church, despite the mess around them, they reached out locally with the Gospel and plumbed the depths of the Spirit in an age of almost frenetic uncertainty.

The unfinished nature of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine to me was breathtaking. The great central tower is missing, never undertaken. The pseudo-Byzantine dome is unadorned, linking a recovering transept to its invisible counterpart; connecting one of the longest Gothic naves in the world to a great choir with empty alcoves for un-hewn saints. The limestone finishing stones stop abruptly in the crossing like the edges of an abandoned jigsaw. The bell tower is unfinished; its twin hasn’t even been started. Meanwhile, the water flows in occasionally through leaky rooflines, staining chapel walls and reminding all who look that the elements work tirelessly to drive the whole edifice back to earth.

At a number of points during the evening of Nightwatch, I was nearly overcome with the irrepressible urge to quit my “day job,” and set off on the quest of high finance to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to complete the grand scheme of the Cathedral. As if I could. But the irrational desire was akin to the desire to finish all unfinished projects, to attain perfection, to complete the incomplete.

I also found in myself a strange sense of loss to history. Time was continuing forward inexorably. It was uncanny during the vertical tour to climb up the winding stone staircase into the triforium where artists like Madeline L’Engle had escaped for the solitude necessary to forge their craft. We gazed down a tunnel of carved rosettes to the stained glass at the far end of the nave. The rosettes are virtually invisible from the floor below, but offered to the glory of God, just the same. Stone masons, many now long gone, had left their unique impressions on each ornamental flower adorning a column in the triforium, knowing that few people would ever see the work up close or gaze for long at the details of a carving unique in all of cosmic history. And to know that even the stones themselves would not last forever, but would ultimately crumble into something other. Madeline L’Engle, a favorite childhood author of mine, had now passed away. All remains in motion. Anglicanism, and even The Episcopal Church as I once knew it was no more but was becoming something else again.

As we explored the Great Choir, we were asked what the Greek said in the Anglican Compass rose in the tile work on the floor. I was taken aback by the realization that I had never looked at the Greek in the Anglican Compass Rose before, lifelong Anglican that I am. “The Truth will set you free,” it reads in that inviting quote from John’s Gospel. The Compass Rose seems to suggest that the Truth sends us off in all directions, and not just for mission, but for discovering God in Christ already at work in our midst, in our world, in our torn hearts. For the rest of the night, the Compass Rose kept appearing in my meditations and prayers.

GAFCON was concluding their statement from Jerusalem as we were in the Cathedral that Saturday evening – a new condemnation for The Episcopal Church and other parts of the Communion was in circulation. Lambeth was shortly set to meet, the media were gathering a storm already, and the boycotts were being announced. There was something significant in the Compass Rose in St. John the Divine needing to be taped down in one spot, where it had sprung up from the floor. The Communion was in need of some repair, the tensions had finally reached a breaking point.

It began to dawn on me that my overwhelming desire to finish or at least “fix” the Cathedral was akin to the quest of some to fix the present crisis in the Anglican Communion through any number of means, as though the Anglican Communion can be fixed or cleansed by sand-blasting, the empty porticoes filled in with saints hewn from stone who will guard us from all that is heretical and undesirable.

Around Midnight, an old college friend of mine, David, called us with his mandolin to the high altar, beyond the Compass Rose, for Eucharist. A deeper truth began to emerge before my eyes as our youth gathered, and my associate led us and another youth group from Florida in the hallowed words of sursum corda under the watchful gaze of the Christus Rex. We were dwarfed by the great polished pillars of the apse, reminded of our insignificance by the sheer scale of tireless human labor. And yet we were offering glory to God, whose work in the ordinary bread and wine that we shared was infinitely greater.

There’s a name for the old heresy of the Church and Christians in our collective quest to be perfect before God, to be “fixed,” to be complete: Pelagianism. But there were greater reasons than that for my feeling ashamed for being overcome with such desires to complete the great Cathedral, to fix it for all eternity. To think of raising millions for a great Gothic tower when tens of thousands struggle for basics like food and shelter and medical attention in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. . . To conclude the never-concluded architecture of a Cathedral and to try to erase the awesome question mark that is at the heart of the Revelation to John while countless multitudes around the world who suffer from skyrocketing food prices: now these were heretical thoughts.

The heart of Anglicanism, and indeed the heart of Christianity, along with the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-reformation, and the Settlements and Creeds and theological arts. . .these are all manifestations, like The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, of the unfinished business that Christ began. They are manifestations of the unfinished work of God’s Reign, the in-breaking Kingdom that lives on like the uncut diamonds of hope planted in our hearts, the fragile seedlings nurtured by a Maker who is not finished creating us yet.

The Anglican Compass Rose, I realized, is not the destination in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. It is only a waypoint, a mark of where we are in the journey towards the great altar of God. It is at the great altar where all that is holy and all that is mixed up like the world comes together to worship the Lamb in simple gifts and the love of Christ working in the human community there gathered. There we are clothed not by our own achievements or monuments, but by the glowing white garments of grace given us beyond time.

My visit to St. John the Divine and the meditation I found there in the Anglican Compass Rose have now become a parable to carry with me at this time, when the future direction of the Communion, The Episcopal Church, and the world still remains messy and uncertain. Questions remain unresolved. The tensions are left in place for another season.

Perhaps that is precisely as it ought to be. After all, God is still at work, and we are not in charge.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

Past Posts