If these walls could speak

July 28, 2008

Autobiography of a Cathedral
Louis Howland (The Century Co., 1927)
184 p. First reading.

There are so many good books in the world; it is a pity to spend time reading poor ones. On the other hand, when once I have begun a book I find it difficult to set it aside until I have seen it through to its conclusion. Thankfully, this book was not very long.

In my defence, I think you will agree that the book’s title has promise. I had mentally paired it with Fernand Pouillon’s novel The Stones of the Abbey, which is about the construction of a medieval Cistercian abbey as told through the eyes of its architect. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to tell the same story from the point of view of the building? Cathedrals are marvellous places, and the old ones (the ones most inclined, one assumes, to write autobiographies) have stood as silent witnesses to the whole breadth of the human drama through the generations, and bear within their own structure many marks of that history. In the right hands, such a story could yield good fruit.

As is so often the case, my expectations were wide of the mark. This book should with greater justice have been called Meditations of a Cathedral, or even Meditations of a Fairly Faithful Anglican Layman, Related to the Reader by Means of a Quaint Conceit. There is no narrative — the unnamed cathedral who speaks is less than 50 years old, and hasn’t much to tell in that regard — so instead we are treated to a series of ruminations on religious subjects such as Sin and Crime, Heresy and Orthodoxy, Modernism and Medievalism, Laughter and Tears, Peace and Forgiveness, Humour, and so on. Even this could have turned out alright, but I’m afraid our author is of a somewhat pedestrian cast of mind, and there is little here to lay a serious claim on one’s attention. At its best — in a late chapter when the cathedral dreams itself several centuries into the future — it rises to a worthwhile meditation on the endurance of Christian faith and culture, and of the cathedral’s role in embodying and proclaiming that faith. But mostly this is inoffensive, mildly charming, and largely forgettable.

The most interesting reading is between the lines. The cathedral is genial and mild-mannered almost to a fault, but does manage to scrape together some high-dudgeon for “the Fundamentalists”. These are the people who are devoted to Scripture and tend to read it literally. Fair enough, such readings are often wrong-headed, but one should choose one’s enemies as carefully as one chooses one’s friends, and there may be fouler things than Fundamentalists stalking the English countryside. Our cathedral is high on the “nobility” and “beauty” of the Anglican tradition, but reserves a certain disdain for those who treat doctrine seriously. Without wishing to oversimplify, I suspect that in this elevation of the aesthetic over the doctrinal,  which in my experience is not uncommon among Anglicans, one perceives the seeds of the troubles presently brewing at Lambeth.

Louis Howland apparently wrote several other books, yet I note that, of the nearly half-million members of LibraryThing, I am the only one who has even one of them on his shelf. This inspires in me thoughts on the vanity of this life in which we are like grass that the wind blows away. I will keep the book.

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2 Responses to “If these walls could speak”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    How disapointing! May I reccomend as healing salve Abbot Suger’s account of the building of St. Denis, arguably the first gothic church structure (1144-50 ish)?

    You can find it in english translation on Paul Halsall’s excellent Medieval Sourcebook site: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sugar.html

  2. cburrell Says:

    I finally got around to reading Abbot Suger’s account, Christina, and I really enjoyed it. He seems not to have been aware of how innovative his ideas were. Thank you for the link.


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