In Rouen Cathedral

Historian David McCullough’s newest offering, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, includes a roadside stop between harbor and metropolis, in Rouen, to see its cathedral. He writes:

The Americans had never beheld anything remotely comparable. It was their first encounter with a Gothic masterpiece, indeed with one of the glories of France, a structure built of limestone and far more monumental, not to say centuries older, than any they had ever seen.


The largest building in the United States at the time was the Capitol in Washington. Even the most venerable houses and churches at home, north or south, dated only back to the mid-seventeenth century. So historic a landmark as Philadelphia’s Independence Hall was not yet a hundred years old.

An iron spire added to the cathedral at Rouen in 1822 reached upward 440 feet, fully 300 feet higher than the Capitol in Washington, and the cathedral had its origins in the early thirteenth century — or more than two hundred years before Columbus set sail for America — and work on it had continued for three centuries.

The decorative carving and innumerable statues framing the outside of the main doorways were, in themselves, an unprecedented experience. In all America at the time there were no stone sculptures adorning the exteriors of buildings old or new. Then within, the long nave soared more than 90 feet above the stone floor.

It was the first encounter with a great Catholic shrine, with its immense scale and elaborate evocations of sainthood and ancient sanctions, and for the Americans, virtually all of whom were Protestants, it was a surprisingly emotional experience (22-23).

One blessing of contemporary middle class prosperity is the semester abroad—or at the least an extended summer tour—in Europe, broadening a relatively rare 19th century American experience. One would have to be rather small-souled not to marvel at the depth of our own humanity displayed in Europe’s castles, cathedrals, and monasteries and the Prophet Isaiah insists that God does not fail to nourish that humanity. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” (55.1). It’s a strong reminder to a world searching for meaning, for depth, for purpose in life, that God is the boundless mystery upon which our humanity feeds.

Yale theologian Kathryn Tanner suggests that it is our insatiable desire to be fed that most deeply mirrors God’s own nature. In her book God of Salvation, she notes that theologians typically select some aspect of human nature—say reason or free will—and declare that this is what makes us created in the image of God. But she suggests that “humans must be created in the image of God by having an incomprehensible nature. That incomprehensible nature is the created underpinning of their salvation; it is what allows them to be formed into the image of the incomprehensible God in the strongest possible way when saved in Christ.”

In other words, our humanity was created without boundaries. We need never stop exploring its own fathomless depths, and this, ultimately, is our growth into the mystery that we call God.

I sometimes remind college students, even comparing my weathered visage to their vestibule beauty, that I am happier now then I was when their age, that I would never trade my place in life for theirs, as much as I might envy their possibilities. Regarding maturation, one of my former teachers, a very wise Monsignor from Maine once observed, “Yes, I would happily take back the body that I had at seventeen, but would I want to go back and be seventeen again? No! What would that say of the learning, the relationships, and the world of experiences that have come my way since then? That I would wish they never were?”

Saint Matthew’s Jesus presents himself as the one who will not fail to feed us. He tells his disciples “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves” (14:16). He can do this, because he himself is boundless mystery. Tanner insists that “Jesus is not the comprehensible stand-in or substitute for an incomprehensible divinity, but the very exhibition of the incomprehensible divinity of the Word in human form or medium. Jesus displays in his life what it means to be an incomprehensible image in the flesh of the incomprehensible God.”

One American who encountered Rouen Cathedral, Emma Willard couldn’t stop writing of its “inexpressible magic,” and the “sublimity” that she felt there. From McCullough's book:

When I entered the interior, and saw by the yet dim and shadowy light, the long, long, aisles — the high raised vaults — the immense pillars which supported mind was smitten with a feeling of sublimity almost too intense for mortality. I stood and gazed, and as the light increased, and my observation become more minute, a new creation seemed rising to my view — of saints and martyrs mimicked by the painter or sculptor — often clad in the solemn stole of the monk or nun, and sometimes in the habiliments of the grave. The infant Savior with his virgin mother — the crucified Redeemer — adoring angels, and martyred saints were all around — and unearthly lights gleaming from the many colored rainbow-colored windows and brightening as the day advanced, gave a solemn inexpressible magic to the scene.

Awe-inspiring, and yet the scriptures want us to understand that a spot like Rouen Cathedral is nothing but a pale reflection of the depth a graced soul reaches in embracing its own, God-given, humanity.

Terrance W. Klein


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
7 years 5 months ago
Thanks for this very interesting blog post. I saw David McCullough recently on PBS talking about his new book, and I made a mental note to add it to my reading list. I don't recall that he spoke about the Rouen Cathedral during the show (though I did miss a small portion of it), but after reading your post I've taken the more decisive step of physically adding the book to my reading list so that I don't forget to read it. :)   


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