The esteemed Cistercian monk and patron of the Knights Templar, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, once wrote, “What is God? Length and Breadth and Height and Depth” (“De Consideratione,” XIII). St. Bernard (1090-1153) was uniquely positioned to witness a phenomenal era in the Church, namely, the rise of the Gothic cathedrals.
These holy structures, with their soaring vaults, flying buttresses, and yawning bell towers, boggled the medieval mind. They continue to do so, lifting our all-too-jaded eyes to gaze up in wonder. Witness the collective heartbreak over the burning of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris this past April to see that things of God still move the modern person to tears.
Christ Cathedral now shimmers as the Body of Christ’s newest bishop’s church, joining the ranks of the many before it, from Notre-Dame to St. Patrick’s in New York, Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, and the church of the Bishop of Rome, St. John Lateran. For as majestic as Christ Cathedral is, however, it is built not for the glory of mankind, but, as the Jesuit motto tells us, ad maiorem Dei gloriam…“For the greater glory of God.” The anonymous builders of the great churches and shrines throughout history knew this. It is worth remembering today. As our faith teaches, there is and always has been a perpetual presence in every church around the world at all times: the Divine Presence, the consecrated host.
Over the course of writing “A Place for Christ Forever: Becoming Christ Cathedral,” I learned so much about the faith’s relationship with the world at large; I dwelt amid the mountains and gorges of the Catholic imagination, a place where everything has meaning and purpose. I came to believe that many who have walked away from practicing Catholicism for whatever reason may have roots in thinking what was learned in Catholic grade school or high school was the end of what the faith offered.
But really it is only the beginning of a lifetime pilgrimage. Remember St. Bernard: God is length, breadth, height, and depth. We will never know God completely, but we learn something about Him every day, if we are still open to his eternal knock, to the invitation to follow Him; we are explorers, plunging the depths of God’s mind, like astronomers seeking the farthest planets or divers intent on reaching the ocean floor, wanting to reach beyond our grasp for His being.
“Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church,” said St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108AD). Getting to know God, and in turn the Catholic faith, is not unlike getting to know a loved one, even after decades. This is why homilies always have new insights about the Gospels; Christ reveals His endless dimensions again and again. As the years mount, He still finds ways to introduce Himself, all while we mature, endure, and persevere.
As I researched cathedrals and the history of the Church, I was impressed by the way a person identified himself or herself as Catholic first and foremost. Michelangelo, for instance, was a daily communicant. Our ancestors in the faith yearned to meet Christ in the Eucharist above all else; they lived and breathed a Catholic mind. The Mass is not just “going to church.” What goes on is actually a clandestine gathering, right there in plain sight. One enters a church, or cathedral, and is transported into a cosmic dimension, back to the Upper Room, back to Calvary. Communion, far more than a communal meal, is the Passion of Christ in the here and now. The host is more than bread–it is derived from the Latin hostia, “spiritual victim.” Such was Christ on that Good Friday. Such is Christ on each altar two thousand years later, from the tiniest chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica.
That is why the Mass is unchanging, because of what it really is. It cannot change to be relevant to some people some of the time, and then change again when fashions change; it is we who must change, to know that when the priest holds up the host, we are witnessing time collapse–we are both among the Apostles at the Last Supper and with the women at the foot of the Cross. In this way, “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8) takes on new meaning. “The Catholic Church won’t change its theologies,” Dr. Robert Schuller professed at the time of transition from Crystal Cathedral to Christ Cathedral in 2011.
Only Jesus Christ, who is God (Jn. 1:1), could give His life as a ransom for many. It was God alone who had to teach and heal, suffer and endure the sins of mankind, in order to make it anew. Continually referencing the cathedral’s namesake, then–Jesus Christ–was the prime goal of the book.
Still, if Bernard is right, and God is length, breadth, height, and depth, how insignificant does that make each of us! Or, does it? We imagine God as all-knowing, all-powerful, but on the contrary the very Creator freely gives us everything He made, including Himself. In “The Power of Silence,” Cardinal Sarah observes, “God is poor, because God is love, and love is poor. God is absolute poverty. In Him there is no possessiveness.”
At last, St. Bernard reveals what he means when he asks, “What, therefore, is God? I answer: Length because of Its eternity, Breadth because of Its charity, Height because of Its majesty, Depth because of Its wisdom.” St. Bernard’s definition of God was inspired by an insight from St. Paul: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:14, 17-19).
St. Paul and St. Bernard here give us the dimensions of both God and a church building. Christ Cathedral presents to the people of today both an opportunity and a challenge: to rediscover the faith. I would say, to get lost in it. And keep getting to know it, every day, until at last we meet our Creator face-to-face.
Editor’s Note: James Day is the operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast studio. He is currently writing his third book, “St. Michael: Biography of an Archangel,” for Our Sunday Visitor.
“A Place for Christ Forever: Becoming Christ Cathedral” is now available at the Christ Cathedral Shop. With 16-pages of splendid photography, the book features a Foreword by His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and an Afterword by The Most Reverend Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange.